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A Q+A with Lever on its 2021 Bennington County Intrapreneur Challenge

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Image of Authentic Designs' work room, West Rupert, VT.

Innovation is hard—especially for companies that have existed for decades, where standard operating procedures and best practices are old hat. But disruption brought on by the pandemic has created opportunities and urgency for mature companies to bring new products and services to market to maintain customers. Innovating is still challenging—now it’s just necessary.

Enter Lever and its Intrapreneur Challenge. “It’s a course over twelve weeks,” explains Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of Lever, based in North Adams, Massachusetts. “We help mature companies de-risk bringing an innovative product or service to market by being economically efficient and helping them look before they leap. This means understanding what the market opportunity is, who key customer segments will be, and what is the right go-to-market strategy. This is stuff that’s hard to figure out without help.”

To learn more about Lever’s Intrapreneur Challenge in Bennington County, which is funded in part through a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation, we chatted with Jeffrey Thomas and his colleague, Communications Manager Avril Levesque, about how the challenge works.

Who is involved and what is the stated goal?

The goal of the Intrapreneur Challenge is revenue growth at mature companies. Specifically, it’s about attracting new revenues from outside of Bennington County. That is how jobs are created in Bennington County.

The five companies in this challenge, listed from north to south within Bennington County, are (photos in list order):

  • Authentic Designs, West Rupert
    • Product: Lighting fixtures
    • Innovation: New line of exterior lighting powered by alternative energy sources
  • Star Wind Turbines, East Dorset
    • Product: Wind turbines
    • Innovation: Small-scale turbines that are efficient in low-wind speeds
  • Grateful Dog, Manchester
    • Product: Dog training classes
    • Innovation: Virtual dog training classes
  • Old Mill Road Media, Arlington
    • Product: Published magazines
    • Innovation: Affinity publication for LGBTQIA individuals to raise awareness of Vermont as a place to visit and live
  • MSK Engineers, Bennington
    • Product: Remediation of lead in municipal water systems
    • Innovation: Expand use of proprietary technology outside of Vermont

How does the Challenge work?

There are three components of support:

1. An innovation-focused curriculum developed by Lever staff gives the project management tools to set up intrapreneurs for success.

2. A consulting team made up of two Bennington College seniors under the supervision of Mike Marchinetti, a professional strategy management consultant, performed competitive analysis and market research.

3. A team of expert mentors provide 1:1 support to each company. In this challenge, the mentors are Shari Siegel, who focuses on growth; John Antonucci, an expert in raising capital; and Michael Cushman, an operations executive.

Where does the Community Foundation funding come in?

Because of the Community Foundation’s support, Lever can offer the Challenge winner—determined by our panel of expert judges at our March 18th pitch event—with a $25,000 innovation grant to help bring the new product or service to market.

What does success look like for the Intrapreneur Challenge? How will it make Vermont better for all Vermonters?

In the most immediate term, success would be having Vermonters and surrounding residents who are excited about entrepreneurship and innovation attend our pitch event on March 18th in Arlington (VT). These events are amazing, particularly when they include mature companies. These are the companies you may often drive by or hear about without knowing much about what they do. They’ll be pitching new and exciting ideas that build on their core competencies, giving the audience a past + present + future perspective.

Following the pitch event, Lever staff continue to work with all five companies to bring their innovations to market. They will follow up on revenue growth, new jobs created, and other measures to understand the impact of the innovations advanced by the Intrapreneur Challenge.

Most importantly, participation in a Lever Challenge helps companies integrate a culture of innovation that persists for decades to come. We give them the tools to empower the intrapreneur or innovator from within—and that is an evergreen gift. It builds a virtuous cycle of innovation.

That work is going to create a Vermont that is better for all Vermonters.

Are there any hurdles related to business innovation that this type of Challenge is intended to overcome?

Markets have never been more dynamic than they are right now. It’s a combination of technology infrastructure building up, including tech giants like Amazon, combined with massive pandemic disruption. Everything is changing so quickly. Companies have to innovate to stay competitive—it’s not really a choice.

The biggest hurdle to innovation is actually the day-to-day problems such as supply chain disruptions, staffing issues, COVID-19 illness, and whatever else pops up. In the grand scheme, these problems are less important than forward-looking innovation, but they take precedent.

Lever’s Intrapreneur Challenge helps companies balance the urgent with the important. It gives companies a structure—complete with tools and support, deadlines, and an end date—to innovate more efficiently with fewer resources. You can feel the progress.

Can our partners support the Intrapreneur Challenge?

For sure—I would say there are several ways:

Come to the pitch event on March 18th in Arlington. Event details, including how to register, are available here.

Buy local! Each of these five companies offer products and/or services in Vermont. One of the outcomes of our program is raising awareness and visibility for companies. They’re wonderful, and they deserve you as a customer.

Become a mentor in a future Lever Intrapreneur Challenge. Get in touch with us to learn more by clicking here.

Support future Lever Intrapreneur Challenges in Vermont. We’re committed to this, and to our knowledge, it’s a unique opportunity for mature Vermont-based companies. There is a great ecosystem for startups in Vermont—and we admire it. We feel our program complements it by supporting those companies who have the keys to the kingdom when it comes to job creation. Most of the jobs in Vermont are funded by these types of companies.

To learn more about Lever, including how to support future challenges, visit the company’s website or reach out at 413-346-4840.