Sherri Powell wants to do more for rural business owners and entrepreneurs, who often have less access to resources, funding and connections than urban ones. So, she’s launching the Rural America Chamber of Commerce Thursday, which will elevate and advocate for rural business owners across the country.
Powell created the Callicoon, New York-based Rural Chamber as a community for rural entrepreneurs to exchange ideas. Each member will receive its own landing page on the chamber’s website to promote products and services. Members will also have access to exclusive events. Though, the chamber will be hosting numerous public events as well, Powell said.
The chamber, which is a registered 501(c)6 organization, has a board of 11 directors. Powell is the only full time staffer and two freelance employees that will start once the chamber launches. Powell said she’s covered all the costs herself so far, and plans to begin fundraising once the chamber builds up a member base.
Solo entrepreneurs, small to mid-sized businesses, trade associations and nonprofits located in areas with a population of 50,000 people or less can become a member of the Rural Chamber starting Thursday. It’s using the U.S. Census’ definition of a rural place, which is broader than some, Powell said.
This means the chamber could be a resource for over 25 million sole proprietors, a number Powell calculated by applying the same ratio of sole proprietorship in the country to rural areas. She said this is a crude ratio because it’s complicated to calculate the number of rural businesses since not every entity agrees on its definition.
Powell’s passion for rural America hits home. She grew up in Alamo, Georgia, which has a population of about 3,300 people, with the majority of its residents being Black and 33% in poverty, according to the U.S. Census
“Those are my roots, and that’s where my family is,” she said. “It’s just how I was raised, so it’s inevitable for me to care about these places and these demographics.”
The Chamber will be elevating businesses such as Ashley Ruprecht’s. She runs a farm that produces 100% grade A maple syrup and fire wood in small town Holmes, New York with her husband, which they founded in 2017. Last year, they bottled up about 250 gallons of syrup, and the number keeps climbing each year they’re in business, Ruprecht wrote in an emailed response.
She joined the chamber because she wants to be a part of a community of rural businesses that are “willing to support each other, share knowledge and resources,” she wrote.
Ruprecht is one of the 25 or so people that joined the Rural Chamber early because she partnered with Powell to sell her products through Yours Rurally, the business Powell started at the start of 2020 that compiles products from U.S. rural entrepreneurs into gift boxes. Yours Rurally was created to get more eyes, and dollars, on rural-made products — her way of putting actions behind her beliefs, she said. But she wanted to do more, which is how the chamber came to be.
Powell worked for Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) on Capitol Hill for years and she led government affairs in the private sector for over a decade, she said. In these positions, she said she’s been able to work on rural issues before, but through the Rural Chamber, she’ll be able to advocate whole-heartedly for entrepreneurs in these areas.
She lists the chamber’s three advocacy goals for 2021: closing the digital divide, funding rural hospitals and sparking conversations about the racial divide. The chamber will educate policymakers, pursue laws and provide impact analyses on these topics.
It’s important to Powell that every entrepreneur and business that signs up has full access to everything the chamber offers, so she opted not to tier pricing by access. Instead, yearly subscription prices vary for the sizes of businesses organizations. It starts at $168 for solo entrepreneurs, $390 for trade associations and nonprofits and then a cascade for the price for businesses depending on the number of employees– it’s $390 businesses with five-10 employees and $680 for businesses with 10-15 employees, Powell said. There’s also a membership plan for individuals without businesses, such as students or retirees.
“We really believe that anyone who believes in this mission and is trying to change the statistics across rural America should have a place at our table and a way to use our voice in all of this work,” she said. “So we’ve really been intentional about making it accessible to as many people as possible.”
Her goal is to shine light on rural entrepreneurs, doing what she and the chamber can to invoke change. A campaign Powell said she plans to launch in April is “Shop Rural,” which will encourage consumers to purchase from rural makers and entrepreneurs, much like the similar “Shop Local” campaign.
“We’re going to put it (the chamber) in the world and try to be of value and really try to help the people that we say we care about,” she said.