"Omaha probably is not as well-known as a lot of the other large-to-mid-sized cities out there," says David Brown, executive director of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. "We have this really interesting mix of businesses that work together that have a common vision to make this a great place for businesses."
For instance, it is unusual to have a Fortune 500 CEO commiserate with a small print shop, but that's exactly what goes on in the Omaha business community, Brown says.
"We realize we can be really successful creating big business as long as we pay attention now to the environment for creating small business. Our big businesses are some of our biggest supporters of the small business community," he says.
Another strong benefit to Omaha is its strong economy -- one that surely helped it withstand the recession. "Our economy continued to grow during the recession. Unemployment never got above 5%. Right now we're sitting at 4%. We've seen continued growth during this down cycle," Brown says.
Brown emphasizes that part of the reason the area was shielded from the recession was its diverse economic base -- insurance and financial services, engineering, construction, health care, military, food services and transportation, to name a few -- industries that were able to offset each other. He specifically highlighted engineering, telecommunications and medical specialties as industries that particularly thrived in the area.
Three years ago, the chamber began an aggressive effort to increase the number of successful startups in Omaha. The chamber had a goal of creating 60 successful companies over a period of five years. With two years left, it has already met three-quarters of that goal.
"What we're trying to find here are companies that have a fit for the kinds of suppliers that we need here to grow our existing businesses and tap into the existing labor market," Brown says.
Brown cites Mutual of Omaha as one company's supporting small businesses through its effort to purchase technology solutions from local companies. (Mutual of Omaha did not return a request for comment before publication.)
Omaha's efforts are working.
Paul Lee, a partner at Lightbank, a Chicago-based venture capital firm (its claim to fame is its founders were also the brains behind Groupon (GRPN), was an attendee at this year's Big Omaha conference.
The company, which looks for early-stage tech companies, typically invests in California, New York and Illinois, but has been increasing its efforts combing the Midwest for companies.
"We spent a lot of time combing the Midwest for companies but we have an underlying thesis that great companies are being formed everywhere (due to lowered costs of technology and distributed learning)," Lightbank partner Paul Lee writes in an email.
"From my interactions with Omaha startup folks, they're smart, authentic, hustling entrepreneurs who would rather lose their house than their investors' money. We love that ethos and are bullish on the region," he says.
-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.
To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.
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