Why Small Businesses Start in Tulsa

When it comes to the hottest cities for small business, Tulsa probably doesn’t leap to mind. But a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem is taking hold there, and the Oklahoma city earned a spot among the best places in the nation to start a small business in a recent NerdWallet study. As the small-business scene grows in Tulsa, so do resources and funding opportunities. Here are a few key factors that make Tulsa a great place to start a small business.

Low cost of living

Both Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma have policies that create a low-cost operating environment, says Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber. Neal says the state’s low unemployment rate — 4.5% in June — and its affordable cost of living translate into competitive wages for workers.

Tulsa’s singular appeal

This low cost of living combined with the “pioneering spirit of Tulsans” and a growing support system for small businesses make it a desirable place to live for entrepreneurs, Neal says.

Although Tulsa’s population was nearly 400,000 as of 2013, the city feels more like an aggregation of great neighborhoods, says Scott Meacham, president and CEO of i2E, a state-sponsored organization providing commercialization services to Tulsa entrepreneurs through capital investment, advising and other resources.

Access to talent and other resources

Tulsa’s many colleges and universities, such as Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts University, provide a talent pipeline for local businesses.

The city provides strong access to engineering talent and plentiful manufacturing resources, says Matt Villarreal, founder and CEO of Infinite Composites Technologies, which makes high-pressure gas storage tanks. He received venture advisory services from i2E.

“Tulsa, and Oklahoma in general, is also a leader in the development of infrastructure for vehicles powered by alternative fuels, such as natural gas, which makes it a great test market for our products,” he says.

Major industries in growth mode

At its roots, Tulsa is an entrepreneurial oil and gas hub. The city then became an aerospace hub because of its central location paired with an uncrowded airspace, Meacham says. “Now it’s becoming a broader, entrepreneurial-based community with a lot of resources” and a growing software and IT industry, he says. Tulsa now has several major industries with the greatest growth and employment concentration, Neal says. They are energy; advanced manufacturing; aerospace; transportation, distribution and logistics; information technology; and regional headquarters and professional services.

Resources and incentives

Tulsa’s chamber of commerce, which also handles economic development initiatives, offers many small-business resources. The chamber works with several local banks on SBA lending programs for small businesses and runs a startup accelerator and entrepreneurial hub called The Forge. According to the Tulsa chamber, the state’s Small Employer Quality Jobs Program incentivizes entrepreneurs. Qualifying small businesses with 90 or fewer employees can receive up to a 5% cash-back incentive for up to seven years if they locate or expand in Oklahoma. (To be considered an expansion, there must be five to 15 new employees, and their average salary must be $47,431 without benefits or $53,899 including benefits.)

Benefits targeted at science and tech

Some of the small-business incentives available in Tulsa are geared toward certain industries — especially science and technology. Villarreal says he chose to start Infinite Composites Technologies in Tulsa primarily because of his relationship with the Helmerich Advanced Technology Research Center, a research, development, testing and education center at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. So far, his business has participated in over $1.6 million in research contracts with the center.

Villarreal also enjoyed research and development incentives through the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology. Additionally, his business participated in and won the Tulsa Community College Startup Cup competition, which is open to any industry but gifted him a $30,000 prize.

Startup counseling

Local entrepreneurs can also access free business startup counseling through Oklahoma Small Business Development Centers (there’s one in Broken Arrow, just outside Tulsa). Score also has a location in downtown Tulsa with a few branches outside the city, offering free mentoring and educational workshops and events.

Moves underway to aid entrepreneurs

Although Tulsa has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, resources for entrepreneurs didn’t really fall into place until recently, Meacham says. For a long time, he says, resources were disparate and unconnected.

“Now there’s an effort underway to coordinate those and create more integrated offerings for entrepreneurs to help both encourage and equip,” he says, “but also to connect entrepreneurs with companies and problems they can solve.”

I2E is partnering with organizations such as the Tulsa chamber, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, Cultivate 918 and a new venture called 36°N (coming in 2016) to deliver coordinated entrepreneurial resources in Tulsa, Meacham says.

More Tulsa entrepreneur resources

  • 1 Million Cups Tulsa: An organization offering workshops and mentoring to entrepreneurs, plus business planning classes, competitions and lending support.

  • Cultivate 918: A network that brings together Tulsa entrepreneurs and provides resources and networking opportunities.

  • TEDC Creative Capital: A community development institution facilitating small-business loans using public and private funds in Tulsa. Their direct lending program caters to many individuals who can’t qualify for conventional loans.

  • The Mine: A social entrepreneurship organization in Tulsa powered by the Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth at the University of Oklahoma, with a professional fellowship program for local entrepreneurs.

The Forge also has a list of resources for entrepreneurs in Tulsa.

To get more information about funding options and compare them for your small business, visit NerdWallet’s best business loans page. For free, personalized answers to questions about financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.

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