For post-industrial towns throughout Pennsylvania, the departure of major manufacturing companies brought with it a host of challenges. Yet, for many, it has also created a new opportunity—the growth of small businesses and startups.
The hope these businesses bring has been a driving force for Tom Sharbaugh, professor of practice with Penn State Law and director of the University’s Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic (EAC), which provides free legal resources to small business owners and entrepreneurs around Pennsylvania.
Tom Sharbaugh, professor of practice, Penn State Law, director of the University’s Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic
Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic
The Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic provides free legal resources and advice on most aspects of small business development in Pennsylvania.
“I have been invigorated by the immense challenge of rebuilding Pennsylvania’s many Rust Belt communities, one startup business at a time.
Having grown up in rural Cambria County, I am particularly interested in helping the many residents of small cities and towns who are determined to improve their communities and their own lives through entrepreneurship.”
Providing Affordable Expertise
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, in 2015, small businesses employed 2.5 million people and created 47,140 net new jobs in Pennsylvania. Since opening its doors in 2016, the EAC has helped over 350 clients across Pennsylvania by offering free legal advice on entity formation, founder agreements, equity agreements, and other services that are often too costly for early-stage startups and small businesses to obtain.
“We tend to represent small clients who wouldn’t be represented otherwise,” Sharbaugh said. “These people would either go without legal representation or they would go the do-it-yourself route based on what they could find on the internet.”
Sharbaugh says many small businesses underestimate the importance of expertise and advice that can only be gained from qualified legal representation, especially in the early stages of forming a company.
“When you have a team of people, it’s sort of like a marriage—it goes well until it doesn’t,” Sharbaugh said. “To account for this, we help many of our clients form a simple company, as well as work out agreements between team members as to who owns what, what happens when one of them goes a different direction, and what happens if they create any intellectual property.”
“There’s still a lot of talent in those small towns around Pennsylvania. This is a way to breathe new life into them.”
Covering the Entire Commonwealth
Although located in State College at Happy Valley LaunchBox Powered by PNC Bank, the EAC is open to small business owners across the Commonwealth, and the team of ten Penn State Law students and two supervising attorneys travels throughout Pennsylvania to give workshops and one-on-one consultations. Sharbaugh says because of its reach and network, the University is uniquely positioned to provide these legal resources on a large scale.
“Penn State is well situated for this approach because of our campuses and Invent Penn State’s twenty-one innovation hubs,” Sharbaugh said. “We also work closely with Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the eighteen Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) across Pennsylvania.”
Since the clinic has opened, it has served such Pennsylvania businesses as a family restaurant in Selinsgrove, a pet-boarding business in Jefferson County, and a husband and wife team of inventors from Kutztown. According to Aleshia Marshall, a business outreach consultant at Clarion University’s SBDC, the resources the clinic provides are vital to fueling small businesses in her local community.
“Not only has the program saved my clients money, but it has provided them with education and valuable tools to start their businesses.”
“As a business consultant in rural Pennsylvania, I have found that many of my clients start with no employees and little start-up cash. Without the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic, several of my clients would have had to delay opening or sacrificed other portions of their plans due to funding issues,” Marshall said. “Not only has the program saved my clients money, but it has provided them with education and valuable tools to start their businesses.”
The clinic started as a service for Penn State-affiliated entrepreneurs and State College-area small businesses, but Sharbaugh says that as he became aware of the many small businesses and startups cropping up around Pennsylvania, it was important for the EAC to expand its reach.
“In certain regions of Pennsylvania, people are no longer waiting for big industry to come back to where they live,” Sharbaugh said. “So they begin to think, ‘how can I start a business to do something myself?’”
“Penn State is well situated for this approach because of our campuses and Invent Penn State’s twenty-one innovation hubs.”
Fulfilling the Land-Grant Mission
In addition to helping these small businesses achieve their goals, the EAC also provides Penn State Law students with valuable experience while working under the supervision of Sharbaugh and Tyler Etter, the clinic’s second supervising attorney.
Sharbaugh added that Penn State Law soon recognized the need for intellectual property assistance and started the separate Intellectual Property Legal Clinic under the direction of Dr. Rachel Herder. Penn State Law and the Invent Penn State initiative have provided funding for both clinics, along with a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
“I am a huge believer in our land-grant mission, and I view the clinic as a piece of that. We’re operating under the same outreach mission as when the University was first founded and would advise Pennsylvania farmers on the best corn seed to plant.”
“Our students are gaining the same real-world experience they’d receive at a law firm,” Sharbaugh said. “The work the students do is the same work I would’ve given to entry-level lawyers at the firm where I used to work.”
By leveraging this expertise within Penn State Law as well as strategic initiatives like Invent Penn State, Sharbaugh sees the clinic as a re-envisioning of Penn State’s land-grant mission for the modern age.
“I am a huge believer in our land-grant mission, and I view the clinic as a piece of that,” Sharbaugh said. “We’re operating under the same outreach mission as when the University was first founded and would advise Pennsylvania farmers on the best corn seed to plant.”
Sharbaugh says the EAC hopes to fulfill this mission by building economic resilience in the areas of Pennsylvania that need it most—former industrial towns like the one where he grew up.
“There’s still a lot of talent in those small towns around Pennsylvania,” Sharbaugh said. “This is a way to breathe new life into them.”
The Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic allows students to represent entrepreneurs, startups and nonprofit organizations in a setting similar to a small law firm. Under the direction of Professor of Practice Tom Sharbaugh, students provide legal services to the clinic’s clients in much the same manner as practicing lawyers. Clinic students learn the basic skills necessary to attract and interview potential clients, organize a business plan, communicate orally and in writing with a client and third parties, conduct research, draft transactional documents, and prepare for, and manage, closings.
Invent Penn State is a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university-community collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.
Tom Sharbaugh authored an op-ed that was published on Penn Live (April 25, 2019) regarding the growth of entrepreneurship in rural Pennsylvania communities and the many organizations and resources, including those available through Invent Penn State, that come together to support this expanding sector of the economy.
The Penn State community is imagining, collaborating, and inventing our way to a better world.