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SSBCI Western Regional Conference: State-Driven. State-Led. Turning Conferences on Their Head.

By: Imagene Harris | November 21, 2014
Imagene Harris at SSBCI Conference
(L-R) Susan Kolthoff, Utah SSBCI program manager and Imagene Harris, NetWork Kansas, participate in a team-building scavenger hunt during the conference.

In October I attended the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) Western Regional Conference in Seattle, Washington. The U.S. Treasury SSBCI program led to the creation of the Kansas Capital Multiplier Loan and Venture Funds (details on these funding programs can be found here). This will not be a breakdown of the conference because, as great as the conference was, the most innovative story I can tell is not about what happened during the conference, but about how the conference happened.

Following the National SSBCI Conference in the spring, a few states (including Kansas) started discussing how they could improve discussions about the issues each state is managing and create a space for productive conversations. While previous conferences provided valuable information on compliance updates, reporting, and other technical aspects of the program, the conferences lacked sufficient time for states to discuss their troubles and their successes with each other.

Building a participant-led conference.
After drafting an idea of what this event might look like, this group of states went to U.S. Treasury Department (Treasury) and shared that they felt there was a demand for a smaller conference where the participating states formed the agenda. 

A conference about state-led programs that was designed by and driven by the states? What might sound logical, seemed revolutionary!

Anyone involved in government programs can understand the challenge in creating change within an organization. Fortunately for the states, Treasury supported the idea of a state-led conference, and even stepped in to help make it a reality. 

After managing the program for three years it seemed Treasury was actually excited to take a turn just listening.

With the green light from Treasury, the states began collaborating on finalizing discussion topics. Washington graciously offered to host the conference, and based on different strengths and experiences, the states’ program managers volunteered to lead or mediate the various discussions.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise the topics were not technical, or ones with simple answers. The agenda included such subjects such as, “how to build a sustainable program”; “outreach to rural and distressed populations”; “how to share and market success stories”; and even small group discussions with of-the-moment topics that were chosen the very same day as the conference.

All of these subjects have complex answers, and their complexities are compounded by the fact that no two states’ programs are exactly the same. One state's problem is another state's strength. However, with a total of 16 states and 3 territories participating in this event, there were a small enough number of participants to create meaningful conversations among the states. 

Collaborations and connections.
The discussions, the collaboration, the ideas shared over the two days were incredible to hear. The face-to-face communication was more beneficial than what any power point presentation could provide. I was so excited that Kansas was able to participate and help coordinate this event. What was even better though, were the comments I heard from the Treasury folks.

It was beneficial for them to listen to the states’ needs, issues, and best practices. To say I was ecstatic when hearing rumblings of Treasury discussing how they could potentially incorporate small group discussions at the next National Conference is an understatement.

Perhaps even more important than the collaboration that occurred, are the connections. It deepened relationships, making states accessibility to one another moving forward much greater; reconnecting does not have to wait until the next conference. 

I went to the conference giving handshakes to state and Treasury participants and left giving hugs (even with the two factions created by the World Series). Allowing the states to create an agenda that cut to a deeper level of the issues also permitted the states to create more meaningful connections with each other. This regional event demonstrated that conferences don’t have to be about power points and handouts, but instead can be opportunities for sharing, collaborating, and connecting. And honestly, that is way more fun.