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Small Business Development Center Offers Statewide Virtual Access

By Erin Garrett

University of Mississippi

The virtual centers, which include 55-inch touch screens, provide a private space with a secure internet connection for business-related discussions and counseling. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The Mississippi Small Business Development Center at the University of Mississippi is supporting small-business owners and budding entrepreneurs across the state through a system of Virtual Access Centers.

The Mississippi SBDC has partnered with Regions Bank and with Mississippi community colleges through its Rural Development Initiative to establish 27 VACs. Each location was strategically selected to reach all corners of the state.

“These centers will bring opportunity through state-of-the-art technology and function as access points for clients who have barriers to service, such as reliable internet access or transportation issues,” said Sharon Nichols, Mississippi SBDC state director.

The centers will provide a private area with a secure internet connection for individuals to connect to the Mississippi SBDC network and receive one-on-one business counseling. 

“This one-on-one access enables clients to ask questions and get immediate answers in a location that is secure and private, because often these discussions include financial matters and funding,” Nichols said. “They also enable clients to participate in online business workshops or meet with other business resources.”

The project is supported by a $409,112 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program helps rural communities use advanced telecommunications technology to overcome the isolating effects of remoteness and low population density. 

Additional support for the project came from the Regions Foundation, an Alabama-based nonprofit primarily funded by Regions Bank that supports community investments. The foundation provided a $75,000 funding match.

To date, 10 virtual centers have been installed. The spaces contain 55-inch touch-screen Microsoft Surface Hubs, many of which are moveable for convenience. The Mississippi SBDC aims to have all the centers operational by March.

“We are really excited to be able to work with the Surface Hubs,” said Matt Smith, Mississippi SBDC information technology specialist. “These allow us to interact with our clients efficiently and securely at a location that is closest to them. 

“This partnership with the community colleges across the state is key due to their fast and reliable internet connections and their presence in many rural areas.”

Ben Shappley, vice president of satellite campuses for Northeast Mississippi Community College and director of its Ripley campus, said that the virtual centers will allow the campuses to better serve their local communities and “assist anyone who has a dream of starting their own business.” 

NEMCC has placed centers at its main campus in Booneville, as well as the Ripley and Corinth campuses. 

“We are Northeast Mississippi Community College – emphasis on community,” said Shappley, who has a history of working with the Mississippi SBDC in his role as workforce training director at NEMCC. “Our mission is to partner and collaborate with the local communities that we serve in all areas of workforce training and economic development.

“The fact that we’re able to offer this type of service with the SBDC is wonderful for us. So we are, without question, very excited about this partnership.”

To inquire about using the Virtual Access Centers, visit the Mississippi SBDC website and click the red “Scheduling Counseling” button at the top of the page.

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Adam Brown
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