Q&A with Heather Fisher of Ozarks Small Business Incubator

Ozarks Small Business Incubator supports a wide variety of entrepreneurs across different industries. It's rural location differentiates it from other local incubators, as well as the fact that it is not state or university funded.

By Jenna Dejong

Mar 2019

Ozarks Small Business Incubator in West Plains, MO
Photo by Gayle Babcock-Architectural Imageworks LLCOzarks Small Business Incubator is located in West Plains, MO.

Servicing a West Plains population of 12,248, and seven surrounding counties, Ozarks Small Business Incubator is opening up job opportunities and putting rural Missouri on the map. We talked to executive director Heather Fisher to find out the method to their madness.

Biz 417: How is the Ozarks Small Business Incubator different than other incubators in 417-land?
Heather Fisher:
Our rural location. We have to support a variety of entrepreneurs and can’t focus on one niche. In incubator lingo, we are considered a mixed-use rural incubator, meaning we work with many different industry sectors, from manufacturers to microbreweries. Members are organizations and businesses that support the mission of the incubator. In fact, a large majority of the entrepreneurs we work with run service businesses with a focus on the social service sector. We are unique from other incubators in that we are not tied to a university [nor do we] receive funding from the state. We generate our own income and manage our expenses, just like the entrepreneurs we serve. We are a standalone nonprofit.

Ozarks Small Business Incubator in West Plains, MO
Photo by Gayle Babcock-Architectural Imageworks LLC

Biz 417: How did the Ozarks Small Business Incubator get its start in West Plains? 
HF: At 35,000 square feet, this is the largest building in the downtown district of West Plains. It sat vacant for many years and was just too big of a project for any one person to tackle alone. Fortunately, we had an advocate for downtown in Toney Aid, someone who was already engaged in renovation of historic properties. Toney convinced Downtown West Plains Inc. and the Industrial Development Corporation to cooperate in purchasing the building for restoration. 

Biz 417: How did the project turn from one of restoration to a space for a business incubator? 
H.F.: An article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in April of 2005, which quoted a [U.S. Small Business Administration] study showing West Plains as ranking number one in Missouri and 44th nationwide in the creation of new jobs by entrepreneurs, gave the restoration a purpose: to create a business incubator to help entrepreneurs succeed. For the first five years this was a blight eradication project, and then it turned into a renovation project and the development of a business incubator. We officially opened in 2012. Even after opening our doors, we went through five more renovation to completely rehab the building. It is now the business center of the community. 

Biz 417: How is your business incubator a model to other rural communities? 
H.F.: Most incubators are connected to a university, so they receive some funding from the university, or they are an innovation center designated from the state and receive some support through the state. We are unique in that we are a standalone nonprofit and must generate our own funds. We have given a dozen tours to other rural communities that would like to create something like this. They are all looking for ways to support their local entrepreneurs. We like to mentor other communities to help them create something that can support their entrepreneurial community and generate business growth like we have done in our region.