The second annual Mohawk Trail Entrepreneur Challenge is underway, and this year’s focus is on developing sustainable wood and forest product businesses.  

The challenge, launched by Lever, a local economic development non-profit, will feature 8 finalists that will complete a 4-month acceleration program. Ultimately, one company will receive a $25,000 grant to help launch or grow their business.  

The goal of this program is to create jobs in the Mohawk Trail region, and Zydalis Bauer spoke with Jade Schnauber, the Workforce Programs Manager at Lever to learn more.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The second annual Mohawk Trail Entrepreneur Challenge is underway, and this year’s focus is on developing sustainable wood and forest product businesses.

The challenge, launched by Lever, a local economic development nonprofit, will feature eight finalists that will complete an acceleration program, ultimately leading up to one company being chosen to receive a $25,0000 grant to help launch or grow their business.

The goal of this program is to create jobs in the Mohawk Trail region, and I spoke with Jade Schnauber, the workforce programs manager at Lever, to learn more.

Jade Schnauber, Lever: The goal of this program is to activate entrepreneurs in the area towards economic development in, specifically, the environmental and sustainability area of industry.

The goal is to create more jobs in the Mohawk Trail region, as well as bring more revenue, tourists, basically just more recognition to the area.

Zydalis Bauer: This year, the challenges focus is on environmental sustainability and conservation.

Why was this chosen as the theme for this round and who is eligible to apply?

Jade Schnauber: This was chosen as the theme for this round, particularly because that is the mission of the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership, where we get our funding. Their goal is really to enhance forest-based economy in the local region and give them more access to conservation, access strategies, and in general, new forest-related enterprises, which is where we come in

Anybody who is involved in this forest-related enterprises, whether that’s sustainability or wood-based products or the plethora of other ones that can exist, they’re eligible to apply and able to take part in our program.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership.

Can you talk to me a little bit more about that partnership and why is sustainability and conservation such an important thing, especially for the Mohawk Trail region?

Jade Schnauber: Yeah, it’s important for this area because it’s incredibly rural. The population is less than the majority of Massachusetts, and so it doesn’t get a ton of state funding.

So, when they do get state funding, they’re putting it towards things that really have to do with helping the forest and enterprises that will help us sustain the beautiful area around here, as well as bring more business in.

Zydalis Bauer: After the November 19 deadline, eight finalists will be selected to participate in an acceleration program through Lever, and one of these finalists will eventually be selected to win a $25,000 grant, which is a pretty significant amount of money.

What will the finalists be learning in the program? And tell me more about how the winner is ultimately chosen.

Jade Schnauber: During this program, Lever helps the businesses develop their business plans in a way that business students at college might similarly do.

As well as providing this help during workshops, we match them with mentors as well as help give them access to people in the local community who might be able to help them further their business, even after the program and if they don’t win. In order to win, they do a final pitch event in front of three judges that are chosen based on their expertise of economic development, sustainability companies, and the general Mohawk Trail region.

And the winner, out of the eight finalist, is the one with the best pitch that the judges have chosen that will have best impact on the local region. And then Lever continues supporting all of the companies, including those that won and those that don’t.

We consider everybody who takes part in our challenges as part of, like, the Lever family, and we continue helping them with their businesses and making contacts even after the challenge has ended.

Zydalis Bauer: So it’s like, hope is not lost for the other seven finalists who don’t win.

How did it go last year? How did the challenge go last year and how are the companies doing now?

Jade Schnauber: We had five companies last year. Four of them were in the eco-tourism space, and then we did have one in the sustainability stage, which is — he’s still working on getting funders and developing the actual science behind it, because compared to eco-tourism, there’s a lot more science behind creating sustainability in our environment.

But every company is going full-fledged and they’re doing well. Some of these companies included Adventure East, Berkshire Bike Tours, the Wigwam Western Summit, and then our winners Foolhardy Hill, which is a mix between camping and glamping in Charlmont. They have 10 sites, so you can do like normal camping, but they also have cabins, bathrooms, and then a communal area for people to eat, and hang out, and like a fire pit

Zydalis Bauer: With the call out to companies and entrepreneurs that are forestry-based and sustainable wood using companies.

What kind of applicants do you expect to see or even hope to see?

Jade Schnauber: We’re definitely hoping to see more applicants from the wood-based product sense of forest products and stuff. So, furniture makers, woodworkers, people creating souvenirs out of things that were made in the forest, would definitely be the sort of applicants we’re looking for and hope to see, this year.

Zydalis Bauer: What does the challenge timeline look like, because I know I mentioned the acceleration program, so when can we expect to hear about finalists and a winner?

Jade Schnauber: We’re going to close our applications in about mid-November, so definitely get your applications in. We already have two people who have applied.

And then we’ll be announcing the finalists, probably early January, right after the holiday season. And then our workshops will start up right at the end of January, all the way through April and then at the end of April will be our final pitch event on April 27th.

Zydalis Bauer: Lever executive director Jeffrey Thomas stated that these challenge programs that you all have “have so far supported more than 80 entrepreneurs and resulted in hundreds of jobs in the region,” which is amazing.

So Jade, as a native of this area, how does it personally feel for you to contribute in the job growth and creation happening locally?

Jade Schnauber: It feels awesome. It’s great to be helping not only people get jobs at startups and the companies that we help through our challenge program, but my particular job at Lever’s, our workforce programs development manager.

So, I’m constantly helping college students find jobs with local companies that aren’t quite startups but have been here for a while and it feels really good to give back to the community that I was raised in.