BLOG: Spotlighting Two Heartland Forward Initiatives that Bridge Research and Practice

Angie Cooper and Katie Milligan


As a “think and do tank” focused on improving economic performance in the center of the United States, we believe it is essential to connect our research with our action. As illustrated by the findings in our recent report, American Entrepreneurial States: Supporting Entrepreneurs to Help Drive the Economy, there are many challenges, but also, opportunities right here in the heartland to invest in our communities and encourage local entrepreneurship. That is why Heartland Forward has led two exciting initiatives that promote the growth of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem in the heartland.

The Community Growth Program and Toolkit (CGPT): Creating a New Kind of Entrepreneur

The Community Growth Program and Toolkit (CGPT) leads and supports heartland communities with a transformative and modernized approach to problem solving. We foster opportunities for those who have an idea with an entrepreneurial mindset and increase access to capital and resources with the end goal of creating value not just for the entrepreneur, but also, for local communities.

After a successful launch in Tulsa and Oxford, Heartland Forward & our partners, Builders + Backers and Accenture, announced their commitment to raise $4 million to expand the program to 1,000 builders across the heartland by 2023.

About the program:

At the heart of the CGPT are the Builders + Backers four program pillars, designed to mobilize and equip Builders through

  • Idea Accelerator: This cohort-based program combines a 45-day Builder Bootcamp to teach participants how to put ideas into action, followed by 45 days of actively executing their ideas through a single experiment.
  • Pebble Fund: all of the Builders are supported by a $5,000 Pebble Grant to test their ideas. Participants are mentored by Master Builders throughout the program. 
  • Storytelling: A comprehensive media program that curates, captures and distributes stories of Buildership™, both from within the programs and in communities everywhere. Through video, written stories, social media and media partnerships, the program inspires people to become Builders. 
  • Buildership Workshops: Workshops and other events introduce people to the ideas of Buildership™ and demonstrate that anyone can generate creative solutions through entrepreneurial experimentation that contribute to the sustainability of communities.

The Digital Toolkit

In partnership with Accenture, the CGPT will release a highly engaging and interactive platform. The digital platform will allow users to discover data, investigate ideas and Builder experiments and connect Builders across the country to collaborate with one another.

Connecting the Heartland: Increasing Access to High-Speed Internet 

In the digital age, starting a new business or going to school without an internet connection is practically impossible. Knowing that building up Main Street starts with bridging the digital divide, Heartland Forward took action and launched Connecting the Heartland –– a robust, multipronged initiative to expand access to high-speed internet in the heartland. 

To yield the highest positive impact in both underserved urban and rural heartland communities, we lead several initiatives to tackle this issue on multiple fronts: 

    Emergency Broadband Benefit Awareness Campaign

    The cost of internet service is one of the biggest barriers to access. We run awareness campaigns, in partnership with community organizations and government leaders, to maximize participation in low-cost internet service programs. Our first campaign centered around the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program and utilized a media campaign to promote the discount. Across our four focus states, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee, we contributed to an increase of over 223,700 enrollments during the course of our campaign
    The Connecting the Heartland Workshop Series

    We started the Connecting the Heartland Workshops, a convening series that brings together decision-makers and influencers from the federal government level with the problem-solvers and doers at the state and local levels. The underlying goal is to improve coordination and maximize the impact of new federal funding programs to close the digital divide in the heartland.
    The American Connection Corps Fellowship

    We worked with Lead for America and Land O’Lakes to support the American Connection Corps Fellowship: the nation’s largest fellowship program focused on bridging the digital divide. Fifty young leaders will serve in two-year fellowships, embedded with local organizations, to help bring connectivity and digital equity to their communities.
    Policy & Advocacy Engagement

    We partner with stakeholders –– from the national to local levels –– to advocate for policies and practices that ensure high-speed, affordable internet is a reality throughout the heartland. We aim to foster community engagement, prioritize equity, modernize regulations, encourage coordination and maximize the impact of public investments.
    Boosting Capacity & Empowering Community-Driven Solutions

    As an unprecedented influx of funding comes online for high-speed internet projects, we are working to identify and address gaps in capacity or expertise that stand in the way of communities being able to access and equitably deploy new high-speed internet resources.

Whether it’s creating direct programming to give entrepreneurs the tools and network they need to succeed and improve their communities, or working to bridge the digital divide, we know there is hope in the heartland. We urge researchers, policymakers and advocates to use the research in this policy report to channel positive action on improving outcomes for heartland states.

To learn more about the Community Growth Program and Toolkit, visit: 

To learn more about Connecting the Heartland, visit: 

If you have any questions, please reach out to us anytime: