Building Rural Oklahoma

In the wake of a struggling national economy, an Oklahoma organization is making great strides in boosting small business growth. Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma, Inc. is quickly becoming known as small business’ best friend.

REI is a private non-profit organization with headquarters in Durant and offices around the entire state. A staff of 40 provides financial and technical assistance to businesses and communities in order to stimulate economic growth and job creation.

REI was begun by former Congressman Wes Watkins in the early 1980s as a tool to help create jobs in rural Oklahoma and to combat the state’s then high unemployment level. Now the organization is in its 28th year and covers businesses all over the state.

In a state where 75 percent of the businesses have 10 employees or fewer, an organization such as REI plays a pivotal role in girding the underbelly of the state economy.

“We are creators of wealth,” says Tom Smith, chairman and CEO of REI.

“Our focus is rural Oklahoma jobs, and I think organizations like ours, which are poised to assist both communities and individuals within the communities, are very much needed and are going to be needed strongly in the future.”

REI is funded through several sources: federal funding through grants and contracts, state funding through the Department of Commerce and through the Department of Agriculture along with revenue generated through REI’s loan programs. Among REI’s specific programs are those aimed at assisting women entrepreneurs, those benefitting minority-owned businesses and a variety of lending programs.

“Our focus is rural Oklahoma jobs, and I think
organizations like ours are going to be needed strongly in the future.”

Kathy Robinson, owner of Schoolware, Inc., has been involved in three of REI’s programs and cannot say enough about the organization. Robinson has been in business since 1999 and attributes her continued growth and success directly to REI.

“REI is one of the best business decisions that I ever made,” says Robinson. “They have access to so many resources in our state. As a business owner, I have no idea that I even need that resource, and that it is available. I am not familiar with so many of the things that many entrepreneurs need to know and so few of us do. REI has that expertise, and when they don’t offer something, they act as a liaison to bring those resources to us.”

According to Robinson, REI gives her a more professional polish and façade. They provided her with office space and resources such as training facilities and conference rooms. They also provided her with information such as networking opportunities.

“They help business owners assess whether or not they need to borrow,” she says. “We operated on borrowed money initially and now have paid back $400,000. So much of that has been because of the guidance that we got from REI.

“REI is like the small business’s best friend,” says Robinson. “I can’t tell you how many times I would have failed and fallen off the radar if it wasn’t for them.”

For more information on REI, visit www.ruralenterprises.com.