Entrepreneurial possibilities stir out-of-work executives

During two decades as a kindergarten teacher and educational administrator, Johanna Downey never thought of herself as a possible entrepreneur.

She does now.

Downey is one of more than a dozen members of ProNet in Reno who are fired up about the possibility of creating their own businesses and taking personal control of their careers.

The out-of-work executives created more than a dozen plausible concepts for new businesses after three days of brainstorming and studies, and they're now taking steps to bring some of them to reality.

Downey, for instance, is doing her homework to see if there's a market for the training skills that she developed as an educator.

"I was sure I was going to remain in academe," she says. "I see now that I have choices. I have options."

While ideas for new companies will keep the region's economy humming, the greatest value of the entrepreneurial workshops may have been the restoration of confidence to jobless white-collar workers.

"They've got their swagger back," says Matt Westfield, who joined with Rod Hosilyk to lead the workshops. "They are not the same people who started this process."

Downey agrees.

"ProNet has given my dignity back in the form of stronger self-esteem," she says.

Hosilyk and Westfield know just as much about the loss of swagger as they know about developing and growing companies.

After all, they met eight years ago when they were both between jobs and spending time with ProNet to get their careers back on track.

Hosilyk these days is building Universal CleanAir Technologies Inc., a Reno company that's commercializing technology to clean up diesel engines. Westfield is building LSA Inc., which manufactures paper clips in the form of corporate logos or other designs, along with a couple of other startups.

As they shared the joys and frustrations of entrepreneurship, Westfield and Hosilyk began talking about sharing their experiences with ProNet participants.

They designed a one-day workshop. Forty-two people showed up.

At the end of the day, participants asked for more. Thirty-two of them returned for a second all-day session.

And 18 returned for yet another session at which participants signed non-disclosure agreements and rolled out their ideas for new businesses.

"All of them potentially have traction," says Westfield. "We didn't shoot down anyone."

And because most of the ProNet participants have years of experience in northern Nevada, they were quick to provide names of potential suppliers and potential customers to one another as the proposals were rolled out.

Now ProNet participants undertake the hard part, researching potential markets and determining what it would take to bring good ideas to reality.

Hosilyk and Westfield didn't build any false hope in the two days that they taught ProNet participants about entrepreneurship.

"I've had some successes, and I've had some experiences," says Hosilyk.

Westfield, who began his life as an entrepreneur in the software industry, says he tries to communicate the passion that fires entrepreneurs while focusing on the hard work and resilient spirits that startups demand.

"We're not pontificating," he says.

Along with the white-collar workers between jobs, the workshops fired up two other entrepreneurs Hosilyk and Westfield.

They're now packaging the three-day workshop as a for-profit venture that they hope to take on the road, and they've started construction of a Web site at www.sgs101.com.

In the meantime, they plan to offer the workshop quarterly to ProNet participants. It's also planned as a free offering during Entrepreneur Week in Reno in September.


Active entrepreneurs

Nevada ranks higher than the national average in entrepreneurial activity, finds a study released last month by the Kauffman Foundation.

The state has 380 entrepreneurs per 100,000 people, compared with the U.S. average of 340 entrepreneurs per 100,000 people.

Montana and Oklahoma are tops in entrepreneurial activity, with 470 entrepreneurs per 100,000 population. California has 410, finds the study by Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


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