Aaron Kapellusch is a man of action.
That’s an important trait in someone at the helm of the Northwoods Entrepreneurs’ Network (NEN), an organization dedicated to promoting economic growth in this area.
His willingness to roll up his sleeves and get to work was already evident years ago. At the age of 19, while attending the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, he started a landscape design and maintenance business.
“I was going to college at the same time, so I didn’t have much of a social life then,” Kapellusch, who studied business administration, says with a laugh. His time as a business owner provided valuable insight.
“I think that running a business while attending school fulltime helped me get the most out of my time in the classroom,” he says, “because I needed to apply what I was learning; it wasn’t just theory.”
That experience laid the foundation for a career in strategic marketing and business planning. “Starting a business from scratch at 19 was a challenge,” he says. “I think I learned more in those seven years from the mistakes I made than what I did right.”
After selling his business, Kapellusch worked for a large commercial landscape management company. He found his way to northern Wisconsin in 2005 when he landed a job as marketing manager for a custom injection molding firm. He later became the business development director of an environmental laboratory in the area.
In January of this year, when Kapellusch attended a meeting of the NEN and learned that the organization needed a new president, he stepped up to the plate and volunteered to serve. It was, incidentally, the first NEN meeting he had ever attended.
Formed in 2007 as the Northwoods Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club, the organization serves as a support network for entrepreneurs and inventors in this area. Members have a chance to network, to bounce ideas off each other and to learn from other entrepreneurs. They also have opportunities to hear informative speakers at their meetings and to benefit from training events.
But promoting economic growth in a rural area is different from promoting it in metropolitan areas. As Kapellusch points out, not only do entrepreneurs here face challenges common to business owners everywhere-like access to capital, an aging work force and a struggling economy-but they also must contend with obstacles not found in more populated, urban regions, such as a lack of access to broadband service, for example, or a shortage of skilled workers for certain jobs.
Kapellusch is undaunted. “I think you can look at any of those challenges and turn it around into an opportunity,” he says. “People who live here do not sit around and wait for others to make things happen. I’ve often heard from people in our sparsely populated part of the state that the assistance we receive is disproportional to other metropolitan areas. So we often take it upon ourselves to solve our own problems. These are all issues that are being tackled by regional and county economic development corporations, area chambers, associations, etc. We have a wonderful team of educators at the local technical college system who work hand-in-hand with employers to develop training to meet current and future workforce skill needs. There is even a local angel investor group who is willing to make significant investments in our area’s entrepreneurs.”
An important part of creating opportunities is growing organizations like the Northwoods Entrepreneurs’ Network.
“Our biggest limitation is involvement,” Kapellusch says.
Currently, the NEN mailing list has about 155 names, and attendance at meetings varies. “We have a great group of talent, people with a lot of experience,” he adds. “We’re thankful to have so many great people working together to make things happen.”
In an effort to promote awareness of the NEN and increase membership, ambitious changes have been implemented for the organization.
The annual membership fee of $25 affords members access to monthly meetings, professional training and development events and other benefits. Among those benefits is eligibility for scholarships that the group is developing. NEN is working to secure donations from local lending institutions.
“Our goal is to offer partial scholarships to members who apply for business and entrepreneurship classes being offered at local technical colleges,” Kapellusch explains. “Nicolet College has been offering excellent learning opportunities for those interested in creating a business plan. Participating lenders would know that entrepreneurs walking in the door who have taken the class would be serious about their well thought-out plan.”
The NEN recently attained nonprofit status. “This will allow us to collect dues from members, receive donations and do things we haven’t been able to in the past. This is a volunteer organization and the more members we have involved, the more we can accomplish.”
Another goal, he adds, is to attract more inventors to the organization. And the NEN will be coordinating the annual Northwoods Business Expo, which will be held next winter.
The organization also has a new website, northwoodsen.com, designed to keep members apprised of important resources, events, training opportunities and meetings. Paying members, Kapellusch notes, will have a link on the website back to their businesses.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, Kapellusch is optimistic about the prospects for economic growth in this region.
“I think that there is something very special about people who live and work here,” he says. “A lot of people choose to work, live and play here because there is something special about the Northwoods. The sense of community here is phenomenal. It’s easier to get folks engaged and to make a difference when you live in a place where you know your neighbors. I’m a people person and I enjoy helping connect people to others who can assist them.”
The NEN’s next meeting will be Tuesday, Aug. 6, starting with a tour of the Vilas County Incubator in Eagle River from 5 to 6 p.m., followed by a meeting at Tribute Brewing adjacent to the east side of the Rhinelander airport on Hwy. 45. For more information, long on to northwoodsen.com.