Windham Grows expands business accelerator program

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BRATTLEBORO — Windham Grows, a farm and agriculture business accelerator that connects entrepreneurs with mentoring, industry connections and support, is expanding its eligibility throughout New England and accepting applications for its summer/fall 2018 program.

"Having a good product is only one piece of the puzzle to making success happen," said Jim Verzino, the program's director and entrepreneur-in-residence. "Windham Grows exists to build employment opportunities by helping businesses expand."

Because it was originally funded by grants, Windham Grows was limited to working with businesses in Windham County. That limit no longer exists.

"We've had such great success with the program that we're opening it up to food and agriculture businesses all across New England," Verzino said. "Eventually, we want to become known as the premier food and agriculture business accelerator in the country."

Since fall 2016, Windham Grows has graduated two cohorts, totalling 13 businesses and non-profits. The program's goal in the beginning was to create two new jobs per company per year. In 2017 graduates of the Windham Grows program created 27 new jobs, Verzino said.     

As Verzino explained, Windham Grows is part of Strolling of the Heifers, which helps local farmers grow and maintain their farms and their rural lifestyle.

"Windham Grows fits into that mission by helping existing agriculture-related businesses develop in ways that strengthen the economy, the community, and the environment," he said. "Our goal is to create employment in a rural area."

The training program has four components, what Verzino calls the four legs of the chair. First is the curriculum, through which business owners learn information essential to running a business. The group meets in person for three weekend residencies (Friday afternoon to Sunday noon), with most travel and food expenses covered.

Next is connections, both to capital and to individuals in a particular industry who can mentor the entrepreneur.

"Given our years of experience," Verzino said, "we know a lot of individuals, so we can connect the entrepreneur with someone in the right industry."

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The third leg is consulting. Windham Grows will pay for consultants in the specific area, such as marketing, that an entrepreneur needs.

The fourth leg, and perhaps the most important, Verzino said, is community.

"We bring the members of the cohort together, and magic happens," Verzino said. "It wouldn't happen otherwise. There is something about getting together that fosters community, and we all work better in community."

At the weekend meetings, Verzino said, "We bring everyone together. We go around the table, and each cohort member talks about what is going on for that individual. When you're developing a business, you put your whole life into it.

Your family life and your business life are intertwined. It can get very emotional. In the group, others support you. They're going through it with you. Community makes all the rest of it work. It's a critical component."

Verzino said in one instance, a cohort member couldn't find a new supplier for an essential spice and had to stop production. Another cohort member said, "I know a guy in New York who has that," solving the problem through community.

Businesses in the first Windham Grows cohort were Frabjous Fibers and Wonderland Yarns (Stephanie Shiman); Good Body Products (Chris Thomas); Restless Rooster Caf (Linda Alvarez); Sweet Basil (Connie Fassuliotis); Tavernier Chocolates (Dar Tavernier-Singer and John Singer); True North Granola (Ingrid and Franklin Chrisco); and Whetsone Station Brewery (David Hiler).

Members of the second cohort were Greenup Kids (CS Wurzberger); Hardy Foard Catering (Gretchen Hardy); Food Connects, the only non-profit organization, (Richard Berkfield, executive director); New Ground Creative (Carrie Simons); Sugar Bob's Finest Kind (Bob Hausslein), making smoked maple syrup and maple sriracha; and Super Fresh Caf (Jessica Weston), offering classes in nutrition.

Those interested in applying for admission to the summer/fall 2018 cohort of Windham Grows will find further information at Application deadline is June 5.