By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Small businesses are a critical part of the state’s economy.
There are more than 180,000 of them in Nebraska, representing 99% of the total businesses and employing roughly 418,000 people, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Sara Bennett has dedicated her career to small-business development, helping people across the state turn their ideas and passions into successful endeavors.
In her new role at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, she’s supporting students who share this entrepreneurial spirit.
Bennett took over as director of UNK’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development in October, allowing her to work directly with Lopers who want to operate their own businesses.
“As director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development, my focus is on creating entrepreneurial experiences for students beyond the classroom,” she said. “This position gives me an opportunity to work closely with students and help them pursue those entrepreneurship interests while also elevating the experiential learning that’s already happening on campus.”
Part of the College of Business and Technology, Bennett views the center as a conduit connecting classroom instruction to real-world applications.
“I want to be an extension of what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said, and there are several ways that she’s accomplishing that goal.
Bennett offers one-on-one coaching for students looking to develop their ideas, whether that’s purchasing an existing business or starting something new. Last semester, she worked with one student interested in opening a bakery back in her hometown and another who specializes in software development.
Using her professional network, she can connect students with valuable resources throughout the state, including business leaders and entrepreneurs who can serve as mentors.
“The emphasis is really on creating those personal experiences and relationships that UNK is known for,” Bennett said. “You’re not just a number here and you’re not just going to class. You matter here and we want to make sure that you get a very holistic experience.”
Bennett plans to launch a new program this fall that serves as another example of this approach. This program will allow a cohort of students to fully immerse themselves in the startup experience, giving them an opportunity to learn about every aspect of business development. They’ll also meet with business owners from around Nebraska.
“It’s kind of like a leadership program, but with a heavy entrepreneurship focus,” Bennett explained.
The program will be open to any UNK student interested in business ownership, regardless of their major.
In addition to those initiatives, Bennett serves as a co-adviser for Cultivate, a UNK student organization that promotes entrepreneurship and small-business development, and she’s part of the planning committee for the Big Idea Kearney business pitch competition. Organized by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development and Cultivate, the annual event gives UNK students and Kearney-area residents a chance to win up to $2,000 in seed money. This year’s competition is scheduled for March 5 at Legacy on the Bricks in downtown Kearney.
Bennett also teaches a small-business management course and she’s in the process of developing a series of five-week classes that dive deeper into topics such as the art of pitching, customer discovery and design thinking.
Entrepreneurship is an increasingly popular subject on campus – 52 students are currently pursuing the minor – and Bennett believes interest will continue to grow.
“Even if students don’t end up owning their own business one day, I think taking the courses and getting exposed to it is important because entrepreneurship could exist inside the company you’re working for,” she said. “How are you and your team members being innovative? How are you coming up with new ideas, new products and new services for customers? There are applications for numerous professions.”
Bennett’s career came full circle when she returned to UNK.
The Grand Island native first worked for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development in 2007, when she was a freshman on campus. She spent two years as a student worker in that office, known then as the Center for Rural Research and Development, before shifting to the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) at UNK.
She graduated from UNK in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and an emphasis in accounting and management, then transitioned into a full-time position with NBDC, which received funding to open a satellite location in Grand Island.
During her time with NBDC, Bennett worked with entrepreneurs and small-business owners from startup through succession, providing assistance in areas such as market research, business advising and analysis, operations and financial management, valuation and transition planning. She also helped high-growth startups seek funding through the Small Business Innovation Research program.
Among her awards and honors, she received the Small Business Development Center Excellence and Innovation Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the State Star Award for Nebraska from the Association of Small Business Development Centers and was named Friend of the Year by the Center for Rural Affairs.
Bennett earned her Master of Business Administration from UNK in 2015 and advanced to associate director with NBDC before leaving in February 2022 to become the Entrepreneurship Center director at Central Community College in Grand Island. She managed a coworking space, coached entrepreneurs and taught business and entrepreneurship courses as part of that role.
Although she enjoyed working at CCC, it “feels right” to be part of the UNK family again.
“UNK has always been home, and I suppose part of me never really left,” Bennett said. “My heart was always still here.”