Fab Lab ICC Makes a Big Impact in a Small Community
Location: Independence, Kansas
Fab Lab ICC launch: March 2014
Total visitors: 35,000
Size: 15,000 square feet
Entrepreneurial Mindset course: Offered once per year
In rural southeastern Kansas, agriculture and manufacturing dominate the local economy. However, there are still vestiges of the hard adjustments that residents had to make as coal mining and oil industry jobs disappeared several decades ago. The poverty rate among Montgomery County’s 31,000 residents is 17%, which is about 35% greater than the statewide level.
Independence Community College (ICC) was founded in 1925 for grades 13 and 14 of the public school system. Now a separate two-year institution, ICC offers 28 programs of study for students seeking certifications and associate degrees in fields from engineering technology to cosmetology to veterinary nursing. Its Fab Lab ICC, which opened in 2014 and expanded in 2018, is one of the largest creative maker spaces in a community of its size in the world.
When ICC created the Successful Entrepreneur Program in 2006, its goal was to provide practical support to existing small businesses and local residents with entrepreneurial ideas. It hired Jim Correll, whose resume included manufacturing experience and small business startup credentials—but no teaching—to start the program. “They didn’t want it to be an academic program,” Correll explained. “They wanted it to be nuts and bolts.”
For five years, Correll followed a traditional approach, “coaching people to do big business plans. The bigger and more complicated, the better, with 5 to 10 years of projections even though you weren’t sure what would happen in 6 months.” But as someone who had grown up in the Independence area and had a farming background, he was skeptical that this was the best approach for the people ICC served.
In 2011, Correll attended a National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship conference and heard Gary Schoeniger and Clifton Taulbert speak about their new Ice House model. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for for five years,” Correll recalled. Correll attended facilitation training in 2012, and ICC became the 10th community college to offer the Ice House curriculum.
INTEGRATION INTO THE MAKERSPACE:
Around the same time, a group of local entrepreneurs started to plan for a makerspace. It would offer advanced manufacturing and digital fabrication tools to community members and students. They met weekly for what they called “Entrepreneurs Brown Bag Lunches”. It was created to learn about Fab Labs and technology such as 3D printing. “It took a few months of convincing,” Correll said, “but finally then-President Dan Barwick said, ‘If you can come up with the money for equipment, you can have the shop area in the Cessna Learning Center [now the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship] to start the Fab Lab.’”
The relationships Correll had established with the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he had attended Ice House facilitation training, helped secure funding for the Fab Lab ICC. It opened in 2014 as part of the International Fab Lab network chartered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From the start, the Fab Lab ICC set itself apart from other campus makerspaces. It infused an entrepreneurial mindset into its activities and seminars, whether the participants were community members, business owners, or students. And while it offers all the state-of-the-art equipment one would expect, it also provides “practical services you can’t always find in a small town—things like printing and other tools for business promotion,” said Correll. Correll directs the Fab Lab ICC and is also a facilitator and business coach in the Growth Accelerator Program at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where the Fab Lab ICC resides.
Correll said many of the Fab Lab ICC’s steady users are retail businesses, but anyone who wants to make something can access the Fab Lab ICC by:
- Enrolling in a course through ICC or via a community education program.
- Purchasing a low-cost community membership.
- Touring with a local educational institution.
- Participating in a youth camp.
Once per year, the Fab Lab ICC offers an Entrepreneurial Mindset course featuring the Ice House program. It is offered as a way to engage aspiring business people who are in the product validation stage (or earlier). It also offers a 10-session business management class covering human resources, legal, and marketing topics.
During the pandemic, Fab Lab ICC added a robust classroom setup for hybrid courses. It included multiple cameras and a switcher controlled by the instructor. Correll said the hybrid setup has been working well for Entrepreneurial Mindset courses, and they plan to continue offering them this way, so they’re more convenient for out-of-town students.
“Every semester, people tell me the Entrepreneurial Mindset courses changed the way they think,” Correll said. “And there are always a couple who say it changed their lives.” Here are two of their stories.
Librarian, Genealogy and Senior Services, Independence Public Library
“When I was a junior in high school, we all took career aptitude tests,” Nancy Kishpaugh recalled. “Mine said I should be a librarian or an English teacher. Instead, I went to college for a year, got married, had three kids, went to night school for 17 years, got a bachelor’s degree in management and computer information systems, and eventually ended up here at the Independence Public Library. I’m 72, so I’m not your typical entrepreneur—but the Entrepreneurial Mindset class at ICC most definitely caused me to think differently and changed my life.”
Working at the library is Kishpaugh’s second career. In 2005, she took early retirement from the IT department at a public utility in Kansas City when her husband retired. “We moved to Independence—and three months later, we got two grandchildren to raise,” she said. “Raising kids is expensive, so I went back to work eventually. I spent a year as Laura Ingalls Wilder, working at the Little House on the Prairie. Then I applied for a job at the Independence Public Library and began working there in 2011.”
When Kishpaugh and several of her colleagues attended the Entrepreneurial Mindset classes at ICC, she noticed a shift in her thinking after the second or third session. “My husband noticed it too,” she said. “A simple thing happened at home: My husband always piled his jackets and coats on a chair at the dining room table. It looked awful and was pretty unappetizing. Sometimes they would fall on the floor. I would tell him to hang up his coat, and he would get irritated, but the behavior never changed. Then, I went to Jim’s class, and the world changed for me. I started trying to figure out how to solve this problem, not just manage the results. I realized that we had a wall opposite the coat closet where we could put a row of coat hooks. Since it takes little effort to hang a coat on a hook, it works—90% of the time,” she joked. “Sometimes, I slip back into old habits, but when I’m in the entrepreneurial zone, watch out.”
She also started to recognize a similar approach to problems in other people. “Sometimes entrepreneurs are perceived as that person who always has a different way of doing things than anyone else, a troublemaker, going against the flow. However, if we recognize it as creativity and entrepreneurship, we have a great resource to draw on.”
She continued, “An entrepreneur is really just someone who thinks differently, who looks for possibilities instead of obstacles, consciously or unconsciously. Once you make that change in mindset, it becomes part of who you are.”
This brings Kishpaugh back to her job: “Librarians are inherently entrepreneurial, whether they realize it or not; some more than others. Every day, 200 to 300 people come through our doors, and each one brings us an opportunity, a problem to solve. Asking ‘How may I help you?’ is entrepreneurial thinking,” she pointed out. “We are problem-solvers, using creative, entrepreneurial thinking to help our community.”
In 2012, the Independence Public Library received the Best Small Library in America award from Library Journal and the Gates Foundation. In 2022, it was one of 15 finalists in the nation for the Institute for Library and Museum Services national medal. It recently received a grant of nearly $70,000 to develop a business center, and the self-paced Entrepreneurial Mindset Training Course by EBSCO is part of its offerings.
Owner, FAB Creative Services LLC
Joanne Smith was in a transitional period in early 2016 when she first learned of the Entrepreneurial Mindset course. “I had lost my job of nearly 22 years as the director of marketing and fundraising for my local hospital when the hospital’s parent company closed the facility in October 2015—after it had operated in the community for 88 years,” Smith said. “I stayed on until the end of 2015 to help tie up loose ends with regard to communications. While I had been promised a similar job by another healthcare organization that was assuming operations of several of our local services, I learned at the last minute that my position with the new organization had not been approved at the corporate level.”
Smith’s options for a lateral corporate move that would utilize her experience and skills were limited in a community of 8,500 people. She reached out to Correll because of his reputation as a business coach. “I didn’t understand at the time that Jim was, in fact, a champion for entrepreneurs. He encouraged me to consider working in a freelance capacity to provide marketing services, and he invited me to enroll in his Entrepreneurial Mindset class, which was already in progress at that time.”
The class, coupled with Jim’s encouragement, helped Smith find a sense of courage she didn’t know she possessed to step out on her own. “No security blankets. No guaranteed bi-weekly payroll deposit in my bank account. No health insurance benefits. No retirement plan. No down-the-hall co-workers to vent or gossip to and/or bounce ideas off of. Just me, my skills, my experience, and my reputation starting from ground zero really unsure of how to grow forward but willing to give it a try,” she said.
For Smith, the most beneficial aspects of the Ice House class were:
- Learning from (and quietly commiserating with) other entrepreneurs already on the journey. Both were local, in-person presenters and those featured in the Ice House curriculum. “It was important to hear their stories and understand how alike or different we were and how virtually everyone started from a place of humble insecurity,” Smith said.
- Networking with and receiving validation from classmates is also in the same boat. “There were so many interesting ideas and so much potential represented in one classroom,” she said.
“The class helped me understand that my idea did not have to be perfectly formulated, and I did not have to have every duck in a row in order to launch,” she recalled. “I just had to act. Ultimately, though initially motivated by desperation, becoming an entrepreneur was far and away the best decision of my life and one I wish I had made ten years earlier. I’ve learned to never say never, but returning to a corporate job is something that is hard for me to fathom at this juncture.”
Smith is part of a growing network of entrepreneurs in Southeast Kansas who have benefitted from the Entrepreneurial Mindset course. “It has built meaningful connections among entrepreneurs and opened many eyes and minds among class participants, community leaders, donors, and others as to the potential for entrepreneurship to be a sustainable driving force behind a small, rural economy,” Smith said. “Entrepreneurship is valued and nurtured in our community, I believe, now more than ever thanks to a heightened awareness generated through the Fab Lab and the Ice House course.”