Iowa speaker touts innovation at Economic Gardening Gathering

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— Who knew that little Fairfield, Iowa, was a national leader in a form of entrepreneurship known as economic gardening?

Call it Silicorn Valley, Burt Chojnowski told an audience here Friday afternoon.

Fairfield, population 9,509, defies Iowan stereotypes that have to do with traditional corn and pork chops. The town claims 40 art galleries clustered around a town square; is home to Maharishi University of Management, with affiliates in China and India; and can claim 130 active nonprofits with $200 million in assets. It even has a nascent short film industry called Follywood (a play on India's film industry known as Bollywood) that attracts twice-annual visits from famed indy director David Lynch.

Fairfield has more dining establishments than a certain city in Silicon Valley.

"We have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco!" Chojnowski pronounced. "It's a sign of sophistication. It means people can afford to eat out."

Chojnowski was speaking to the National Economic Gardening Gathering at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

The event attracted about 90 people from around the country and the world. They came to hear speakers discuss different aspects of a form of economic development that relies on nurturing local entrepreneurs rather than vain attempts to attract business and industry away from other communities. The conference continues today with a series of four speakers, beginning at 8:15 a.m. and ending at 11:30 a.m. There is limited seating, but members of the public are welcome.

Chojnowski, who is active in the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association, said before rural communities can begin to create a nurturing environment for entrepreneurship they must change prevailing attitudes about risk-taking, failure and success.

"It's really about what you do to change attitudes and change the conversation," he said. "Every community has an entrepreneurial history. You've got to seek these stories and celebrate them. That's what changes the conversation - that entrepreneurs are crazy."

The godfather of the entrepreneurial spirit in Fairfield, Chojnowski said, is William Louden, an intrepid inventor in the mid to late 19th century. He created a new kind of litter carrier and a manure spreader that brought technology to farms.

He went bankrupt pushing his inventions, but he persevered and eventually, his single-track monorail was adapted to ferry materials across factory floors all across the nation.

Determined to promote exercise among school children, Louden also invented the merry-go-round used in playgrounds across America.

Today, the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association nurtures fledgling businesses during networking sessions. Attendees are directed to sit in circles of 10 and each is given two minutes to introduce a product or service. When the cycle is complete, the larger group scrambles into new circles of 10 and the process is repeated.

"People learn entrepreneurship from their peers," Chojnowski said.

Overcoming fear of failure is part of the process, he said.

"I've owned 20 or 30 startups and made and lost millions," he said. "Failures are the compost for the next generation of businesses."

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