By Tom Still

MILWAUKEE – One of the enduring myths about Wisconsin is that you can’t find entrepreneurs here. It’s a Joe Lunchbucket state, or so the misperception goes, where most people would rather work for anyone else but themselves.

For a long time in Wisconsin, that perception was true. The average Joe and Jane were perfectly content to punch a clock at the local factory, especially when the pay and benefits were good and the job itself seemed quasi-permanent. But times changed. The local factory isn’t always there anymore. If it is, it has retooled and gotten a lot leaner and smarter to compete.

Necessity has been the mother of many entrepreneurial moments in Wisconsin, especially since manufacturing employment peaked in 1999-2000 and a state dependent on that sector began to diversify. Long near the bottom of the 50-state list for business start-ups, Wisconsin has laid a foundation for a new future – one that includes a healthier mix of early stage companies to augment its older and larger firms.

With the sixth annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference set for June 9-10 in Milwaukee, there are increasing signs the state is becoming a place where entrepreneurs can survive – and even flourish.

The annual Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, issued in April 2008 by the respected Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, noted two trends that speak to the resurgence of Wisconsin’s innovation economy. Not only is entrepreneurial activity on the rise in the Midwest as a whole – but it’s growing even faster in Wisconsin.

The Midwest showed one of the nation’s “largest increases in entrepreneurial activity” in 2006 and 2007, the report concluded. Wisconsin was among a dozen or so states demonstrating the most progress since the late 1990s. The Badger state showed 290 entrepreneurs per 100,000 people, which ranks squarely in the middle of the 50-state pack and ahead of Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio.

The 2007 New Economy Index by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation showed that Wisconsin had jumped seven places since 2002 in its 50-state report on multiple benchmarks. No state showed a larger jump in entrepreneurial activity.

Wisconsin entrepreneurs are creating tomorrow’s companies and jobs today. The Entrepreneurs’ Conference is a window on that renewed entrepreneurial spirit. It is a place where innovators, inventors and risk-takers can learn from themselves as well as the experiences of others – and where they can be inspired to map new pathways to success. Among the themes:

-    Speakers who will talk about Wisconsin’s challenges to raising start-up capital. They include Steve Burrill of Burrill & Co., a leading life sciences investment firm based in San Francisco; Susan Strommer, executive director of the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds; John May, chairman of the Angel Capital Association; and David Brophy, who has launched initiatives that have helped to attract capital to Michigan’s challenged but changing economy.

-    Seasoned entrepreneurs who will talk about the excitement of launching their businesses, from biotech firms to burger chains, jewelry and web sites built on joke-telling. Craig Culver, the co-founder of the national burger chain that bears his name, is among the speakers who will talk about the rush of building something from scratch. So will the winner of the fifth annual “Seize the Day” award, which goes to someone who gritted it out when others were casting doubts or worse.

-    Up-and-coming entrepreneurs who represent Wisconsin’s emerging economy. These include the finalists in the 2008 Governor’s Business Plan Contest, academic researchers with nascent commercial ideas, and young entrepreneurs who will share their start-up experiences – which often began while they were attending college.

The right combination of inspiration and information is needed to start and sustain a business, not only in Wisconsin, but just about anyplace that is wired into the 21st century economy. The latest Kauffman study confirms that more people in Wisconsin are doing so, and the Entrepreneurs’ Conference offers a chance to celebrate that entrepreneurial rebirth while offering hands-on advice.

Wisconsin has entrepreneurs – and good ones, too. But it needs thousands more to overcome the continued effects of a changing economy. Joe and Jane Lunchbucket are rock-solid folks who have carried the state for decades, but we need help from Ed and Emma Entrepreneur, too.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. To learn more about the Entrepreneurs’ Conference, visit