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Last week, the Little Rock Venture Center welcomed 10 entrepreneurs to the area, throwing a well-attended evening reception and a quieter dinner party to begin a 12-week accelerator program that connects the startup companies to community banks across the nation.

There's another underlying role for the Venture Center that extends beyond the three-month program: playing matchmaker by introducing the companies' executive teams to Central Arkansas and encouraging them to sit and stay awhile. For a long while. Like forever.

And, if first impressions really do count, Little Rock made a pretty good one by turning on the charm Wednesday evening.

Mayor Frank Scott Jr., Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston and Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Jay Chesshir were on hand with hundreds of other area bankers, investors and economic development leaders to greet the financial technology executives, who journeyed from Canada, India, Israel and from coast to coast in the U.S.

Judging by the past, the Venture Center and area officials are pretty good at convincing fintechs to locate in Little Rock. And Scott dispensed with the long-courtship approach -- giving the fintechs a warm embrace by asking them directly to operate in the city when the program ends.

The mayor cited the city's rich "entrepreneurial bloodline" of banking and technology expertise in inviting the fintechs to make their home in Little Rock. "Hopefully, you'll decide to live here," Scott told the group.

About 48 fintech startups have participated in accelerator programs at the Venture Center in its five-year history. Seven of those companies have located operations in the Little Rock area as a result.

"People here really want to be helpful and everyone has done a great job of featuring all that the city and the area has to offer," said Wayne Miller, executive director of the Venture Center. "Little Rock has a lot of assets these companies can leverage to be successful and the community has done a wonderful job of wrapping its arms around these companies while they're here."

Luring them to Little Rock is not about creating hundreds of jobs or millions of dollars in investments. It's about generating prestige and becoming known as a financial technology hub with a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The fintechs are not likely to expand and create headquarters that spread across city blocks. But they will continue to innovate and draw attention to Central Arkansas as they use the area as a base of operations.

Take Bond. AI, for example.

The company moved operations from New York to Little Rock in 2018 after participating in the financial technology accelerator program at the Venture Center. Bond is launching a new app that uses artificial intelligence to help manage financial wellness.

A company like Bond.AI and its development efforts support the Venture Center's budding reputation for nurturing startups in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and fintech through its accelerator programs.

Central Arkansas also benefits from its legacy of developing innovative technology companies: Systematics, Acxiom and Arkansas Systems, among others.

Keith Henkel spent much of his career at Systematics, Alltel Information Services and Acxiom -- and the Arkansas companies provided the foundation to help him gain acceptance into the ICBA ThinkTech accelerator program at the Venture Center for his fintech, FI Works.

That experience with Arkansas-based software and technology leaders was instrumental in the development of FI Works.

"FI Works is, in a way, the culmination of innovations and experience from my long career in financial services," Henkel said. "Each of those companies taught me valuable lessons and FI Works has given me the chance to put them in practice."

In the ThinkTech accelerator, the leaders involved in the 10 fintech participants will live and work in Little Rock for three months. The Venture Center connects them to mentors, coaches and potential investors in the Central Arkansas area, all part of an effort to encourage the owners to locate operations here.

"We work very closely with the state economic development commission to try to stimulate that interest," Miller said.

And the wooing has begun.

PROMISING OUTLOOK

Little Rock employers are more optimistic than the nation as a whole that hiring will improve in the first quarter of 2020.

Manpower Group conducted a national survey of 11,500 employers in the United States, asking about employment changes in their businesses in the quarter ending March 31.

In Little Rock, 28% of those surveyed said they expected to hire more workers. That's above the 22% nationally who indicated they would increase hiring.

Arkansas is part of the South region, which includes 16 states along with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The region also had a more positive outlook that the nation as a whole, with 24% of employers indicating they would add employees in the quarter. That is the strongest projected hiring reported in 13 years.

Leisure and hospitality led the way, projecting a 38% hiring increase while wholesale and retail trade businesses estimated their payrolls would increase 30%.

Manpower's survey includes a mix of industries and is structured after the North American Industry Classification System so that the results are reflective of the U.S. economy.

EMPOWERING WOMEN

The Women's Foundation of Arkansas distributed more than $100,000 in 2019 to about a dozen organizations working to strengthen economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in Arkansas.

Grants distributed by the foundation in 2019 align with its two signature initiatives: Women Empowered and Girls of Promise.

The foundation's goal is to promote and foster programs, activities and opportunities that expand the roles of women and girls across the state. It is the only statewide foundation that focuses solely on improving their academic, economic and social well-being.

ADDING TO THE PORTFOLIO

A California-based real estate investment trust has paid $4.2 million to purchase the commercial property occupied by BJ's Brewhouse, adding to its portfolio of restaurants in Little Rock.

Four Corners Property Trust also owns Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse in the city.

The 8,500-square-foot property is in the Shackleford Crossings shopping center at 2624 Shackleford Road. It has been under a ground-lease by BJ's since 2014. That lease is in place through 2034.

The seller, represented by Todd Rice of Colliers International of Arkansas, was Shackleford Crossings Investors.

REMINDER: IN THE TANK

Tune in tonight to catch Bentonville's teenage entrepreneur Sofia Overton on Shark Tank, pitching her business to the acerbic panel of investors.

The 14-year-old is founder of Wise Pocket Products, which offers a range of socks and leggings with pockets that secure important objects: a phone, epi pen or inhaler, for example. It's a company with a cause -- Wise Pocket donates a new pair of socks to kids in need for every pair sold.

Shark Tank is on ABC at 8 p.m.

SundayMonday Business on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: Venture Center program pitches LR to financial technology leaders

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