By Rick Sobey
LOWELL - Jean Bibeau has attended many entrepreneurial conferences where he's heard success story after success story.
But when Bibeau leaves those conferences, he feels intimidated because "those stories are out of reach," he said.
He's tired of it.
That's why Tuesday's conference at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center was so refreshing for the Montreal resident.
"When we come here 'naked' and lay out our failures on the table, then we can make progress," said Bibeau, a business professor and entrepreneur who has worked on about 12 businesses. "By coming in here with no ego, and talking about what was so difficult and about our hurdles, we can learn."
Bibeau, along with 140 entrepreneurs, experts and leaders from around the country and as far away as India, attended the first annual Merrimack Valley Sandbox Summit in Lowell. Last year, the Sandbox had a "development dialogue" day, but Tuesday was its first "summit."
Attendees from Greater Lowell, Vermont, Rhode Island, Missouri, California, Canada, England and India listened to expert panels about growing the next generation of entrepreneurs, engaging key stakeholders, raising money and designing space/programs for entrepreneurs.
David Parker, executive director of the Sandbox, said that entrepreneurship can be lonely, so it's important for "people to come together, share ideas, meet each other and look for resources in the community."
"That's where Lowell comes in with all its resources," Parker said. "The banks, universities and all these wonderful services already come together. So we're tapping into that, looking to see how to raise money and develop businesses."
Greater Lowell entrepreneurs met at last year's development dialogue, but on Tuesday the Sandbox also invited speakers from across the country to share their learning experiences.
"We're not alone," Parker said. "There are some very innovative ideas out there, and we might as well entertain them."
One of the speakers from far away was Derek Weber, of goBrandgo! in St. Louis. The business mentor told attendees to "make the first step and get out there." He said entrepreneurs can only take it one step at a time; they "can't build the Colosseum before building the foundation," he said.
Paola Santana, of Lawrence, said the panels and conference networking will go a long way. Santana, a program manager for a nonprofit that helps lowincome business owners, said she made several business contacts at the conference; she looks forward to meet up with them and work together down the road.
"It's beautiful to see all these people out there having the same goals. It's comforting," said Santana, Interise's Merrimack Valley program manager in Lawrence.
The all-day conference wrapped up at night with a keynote address from Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar. In addition, the conference had an entrepreneur showcase with more than 100 students and adults presenting their innovative ideas; the "Winners Showdown Pitch Contest" featured entrepreneurs competing for a $5,000 grand prize.
The Merrimack Valley Sandbox, which promotes social entrepreneurship and leadership in Lowell and Lawrence, was established in 2010 by the Deshpande Foundation through the Merrimack Valley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell. The Sandbox has funded more than 600 student and youth entrepreneurs, worked with more than 300 adult entrepreneurs, and has more than 30 community partners.