By David Kraus
It all started in October, 2013 when Chorus, a New Zealand telecommunications company, launched a competition. Dubbed “Gigatown” as a nod to Chattanooga’s “Gig City” moniker, the competition challenged New Zealand cities to realize the potential of Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) technology for renewing the methods of New Zealand’s education and business sectors.
In September of 2014, representatives from finalist towns were flown to Chattanooga, where they met with CO.STARTERS. Deeply impressed, Chorus perceived great potential for the CO.STARTERS model in New Zealand, and decided to include a CO.STARTERS package in the Gigatown prize. Kim Stewart, who was employed by Chorus at the time, shared that Chorus saw “massive synergies between the values of the founders of CO.STARTERS and the values of Chorus.”
Because New Zealand is a mainly rural country, small businesses are essential for towns to economically thrive. But, Kim pointed out, while many startup aids and incubators exist in New Zealand, the community-enabling factor of CO.STARTERS was missing. The need was so strongly felt, in fact, that almost every finalist town in the Gigatown competition became a CO.STARTERS member, despite the fact that only one town – Dunedin – won the prize.
Following the adoption of CO.STARTERS by the Gigatown finalist communities, other communities have joined the burgeoning movement in New Zealand.
One of the many cities benefiting from the community-centric CO.STARTERS model is Westport. After watching Westport suffer under a massive job crisis, Pete Howard brought CO.STARTERS to the city in the hopes of encouraging newly unemployed miners to start their own businesses. He selected Natasha Barnes Dellaca, who runs an innovation hub, to be the CO.STARTERS facilitator for the town. Natasha shared that after CO.STARTERS helped start five new businesses on the main street, the way businesses and startups are talked about and celebrated has starkly shifted in Westport.
The dire need for a program like CO.STARTERS is partly due to New Zealand’s geography and rural society, but historically, the New Zealand government’s lack of attention to the small business sector also contributed to the problem. Besides simply being “behind in terms of startups,” as Kim shared, the government’s focus has often been on big tech companies, leaving entrepreneurs to fight for themselves. However, New Zealand community leaders are hopeful that under the new administration, the government will begin to give more attention to small business.
Though CO.STARTERS has been most successful in small, rural, isolated cities like Westport, the model has begun to build a presence in the city of Auckland at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Sabrina Nagel, who runs the CO.STATERS program through AUT’s entrepreneurship department, testified that CO.STARTERS’ impact on the student community has been tremendous. “Students have a massive increase in confidence due to CO.STARTERS,” she said, giving the example of one highly-introverted student who chose to enter an entrepreneurial competition after completing the program. Several students have gone on to work for others in the CO.STARTERS community, shedding limelight on the program at AUT. Sabrina shared that the university has been approached recently about attaching academic credit to the CO.STARTERS program.
When I asked various CO.STARTERS players in New Zealand about their visions for the program in the future, one theme resounded overall. Grassroots idealism, the kind that CO.STARTERS has been cultivating in America, is desperately needed in New Zealand. CO.STARTERS has the potential to become a permanent fixture in the ecosystem—and a beacon for that grassroots idealism—as it continues to breathe life into communities, challenging them to be future-oriented and relentlessly optimistic.
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