By Christie Wisniewski , Bennington Banner
BENNINGTON — Bennington’s own business incubator and collaborative coworking space, the Lightning Jar, has hired its first full-time director.
Michelle Marrocco, a northeast Massachusetts native, started July 2 and already has ambitious plans for the future of Lightning Jar, which seeks to empower and support entrepreneurs throughout their business journey.
The Lightning Jar was born three years ago in October 2015 as a collaboration between business, nonprofit, community and government leaders locally and around the region. Not only does it serve as a support system for entrepreneurs, it acts as a coworking space where businesspeople can purchase a membership to work in 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Nonprofit banking alternative VSECU is a major sponsor of The Lightning Jar; the two collaborate to host the coworking space within the Bennington branch of VSECU located on North Street.
Its North Street address was originally home of Henry W. Putnam, who is considered one of Vermont’s greatest entrepreneurs. Putnam’s success largely came from manufacturing and patenting a small Mason jar with an easy-close clasp lid. He called this product a Lightning Jar.
Before Marrocco came on board, the company was led by a small committee that met on a biweekly basis. When it began three years ago, it had no staff — just volunteers.
Over the course of the past few years, the company has hosted signature speaker series featuring local entrepreneurs and other helpful events for aspiring entrepreneurs. Late this month, it will host the fifth annual FreshTracks Capital Road Pitch, a statewide business pitch competition hosted by successful entrepreneurs on motorcycles. Five regional businesses will compete for $500 and the winner will be invited to pitch at the statewide competition in October with a chance to win $5,000.
The Lightning Jar started with a $15,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation. The foundation saw potential in the company and its offerings and gave approximately $5,000 more in grants at the end of the first grant cycle.
At the beginning of this fiscal year July 1, the community foundation awarded The Lightning Jar a $25,000 grant to go toward hiring staff.
“Everything we’ve done at this point is because of really incredible partnerships,” Marrocco said.
Currently, the Lightning Jar has between 50 and 60 members that take advantage of the coworking space and other perks. Marrocco says that most of the company’s premium members work in nonprofits. A series of AmeriCorps Vistas spend time there, too.
Many of the entrepreneurs at Lightning Jar are remote workers who live in the area, but commute to Albany, Boston or New York City once a month. The coworking space can be their full-time local office or an occasional escape from their home office.
“(The office) is a lot more affordable than getting your own office on Main Street,” she said.
A good fit
This job may be perfect for Marrocco, who says she enjoys a good challenge and is always willing to try new things.
“Once I get the hang of something I want to try something new,” she said. “I love working with people and my interests are varied.”
She also loves being able to help others launch their businesses and accomplish their missions.”It’s satisfying,” she said.
Previously, Marrocco worked with the Bennington County Regional Commission, beginning in 2015 as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She was hired on as full-time staff a year later. Earlier this year, she began working with the Lightning Jar doing community and economic development projects. Marrocco is currently the business’s only paid worker.
For the company going forward, Marrocco says that the main goal is to focus on its sustainability. Lightning Jar has grant funding through the end of the year and seed funding to power it through the next three years, but Marrocco says it’s important to keep thinking of what needs to be done to stay open and be successful.
Also, she plans to help the company build up its programming directed toward helping entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses.
“There will be a lot of great classes, workshops and speaker series,” she said.
Another part of her job will be to determine where new entrepreneurs are — whether they are already in Bennington or have to be “imported.”
“I see potential everywhere,” she said, explaining that many people have a product to sell but aren’t sure how to go about it.
She sees The Lightning Jar as a guide through the “entrepreneurial pipeline,” helping people navigate the business process and figure out who to turn to for success.
“From my time in this area Bennington is really good at innovating and collaborating,” she said. “There are interesting things done here you don’t see elsewhere, like the [redevelopment of the] Putnam Block, the Chamber of Shires; there are a lot of community oriented folks. There are people working together in ways you don’t see other places.”
Christie Wisniewski can be reached at email@example.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.
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