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Success Stories

West KY nonprofit looks to level tech jobs, entrepreneurship playing field

Greg Thomas
Small Business
Sprocket Paducah

Spend time with anyone involved in economic development in rural Kentucky, and you’ll hear different ideas about what will bring meaningful prosperity to the region. Some hang their hat on recreation activities like motorsports and responsible use of natural resources (activities like hiking, biking, camping, hunting, and fishing). Others point to traditional manufacturing and industry as the solution. One idea that’s gaining more and more traction revolves around the so-called digital economy and tech-based jobs.

The digital jobs sector of our national economy continues to be strong, but rural communities are woefully underrepresented, according to Monica Bilak, executive director of Sprocket Paducah, a digital economic development non-profit organization that helps grow tech-enabled businesses in West Kentucky.

“In rural communities, we only make up a tiny portion of the total number of digital jobs,” said Bilak. “So, there's this great inequity in rural communities to be part of the digital economy, which is basically driving the whole economy.”

That’s where Sprocket comes in. Nestled in the warehouse area of an old Coca-Cola bottling plant, Sprocket plays the role of a guide in the daunting world of digital jobs and tech-based entrepreneurship.

“I know there are a lot of people that have an idea, but they think, ‘I don’t even know what all goes into it. I don’t know software. I don’t know what a SWOT analysis means. I don’t know any of it. The startup world is so unattainable.’,” said Kaylan Thompson, Sprocket’s marketing and communications manager. “But you don't have to know any of that stuff. You just have to have a great idea and the gumption and the grit to see it through. And that’s where our community comes in. We have resources, and we’ve got mentors, people who actually care about you bringing your idea to life.”

One of the newest resources is a coffee hour, which has grown from just a few people to over 30 in just a few weeks. Thompson recounted the story of a woman who left a recent coffee hour with an idea for an app tailored toward natural hair care all because she connected with someone who was talking about using artificial intelligence for application building. Something as simple as having coffee in an environment that encourages sharing ideas and working together can have a profound impact on those who participate.

Sprocket Paducah

Another way Sprocket helps entrepreneurs is through the West Kentucky Innovation Challenge, made possible in part through Rural Business Development Grants from USDA Rural Development. The West Kentucky Innovation Challenge is an interactive online program designed to help entrepreneurs wanting to create a new tech-enabled business or expand an existing business using technology. Those who successfully complete the program have the chance to pitch their idea to a team of experts for a chance at having software engineers build and prototype the product.

The first innovation challenge that Sprocket ran had one standout idea, while the second innovation challenge had two, all of which have received investor interest, according to Bilak.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” said Bilak. “I know [three companies] seems small, but tech companies, sometimes they sell for millions, billions of dollars. So, we don't need a lot. We just need good ones.”

Obligation Amount:
$99,000 & $99,000
Year(s) of Obligation:
Congressional District: