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UW-Extension puts the Wisconsin Idea to work by helping small businesses

UW-Extension helps the state's small businesses by matching them with new clients or employees, as well as advising on supply chain management and marketing.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

In February 2015, Gov. Scott Walker proposed a revision of the Wisconsin Idea, the 110-year-old guiding principle of the UW System, that would have emphasized career preparation over academic pursuits.

The proposal failed and the language of the Wisconsin Idea remains unchanged, but Walker’s action sparked a high-profile discussion over the connection between the state’s business community and its public universities.

Outside of the political spotlight, the UW-Extension Division for Business and Entrepreneurship has worked for more than 50 years to bridge that divide and use the resources of the UW System to help Wisconsin businesses grow and flourish.

The services it provides—which often include matching businesses with new clients or employees, as well as advising on supply chain management and marketing—are intended more to help business owners improve the performance of their businesses than to assist with expanding them, according to Lange.

“One of the most important things you can do for a community and an economy is to improve the performance of the businesses,” Mark Lange, executive director of the Division for Business and Entrepreneurship, said. “Our mission here is to enhance Wisconsin one business at a time.”

One of the division’s newest initiatives helps connect businesses in need of highly trained employees with graduates from four-year institutions who might otherwise find work outside of the state.

“Matching people to the right jobs and having access to people for those jobs is the elephant in the room for a lot of business owners,” Lange said. “When we talk to companies we should probably be helping them tap into the veins of talent that we have in this state.”

Those efforts could be compromised by changes to the Small Business Administration, a major funding source for the SBDC, as a result of proposed budget cuts from the Trump administration.

Whatever the fate of the budget, Lange said that the work of the division would continue to be guided by the ideas of former UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise.

“One of the reasons I took this job… is I really like the Wisconsin Idea,” he said. “Helping [businesses] at a university setting that had a way to interact in a meaningful way at the local community level was important.”

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