ChicoSTART’s ‘growTECH FEST’ powers optimism for Northern California tech sector

ChicoSTART GrowTECH Fest

California is justifiably proud of its reputation as a mecca for tech professionals and entrepreneurs, with roughly 1.5 million* jobs currently filled in the sector across the state. Meanwhile, the North-Far North is keeping pace in its own right, boasting a faster-than-average nine-percent percent-projected growth** for business and entrepreneurship.

Ensuring that there are qualified workers available to step into those jobs at an entry level is a priority for California’s community colleges. It’s also the reason that ChicoSTART, an entrepreneurial and tech hub in downtown Chico, was created. With the goal of keeping that pipeline filled with skilled workers who can support the Northern California entrepreneurship and tech ecosystem, it’s the go-to place for students eager to tour various companies, network with entrepreneurs and industry professionals, get tech assistance, and learn about internships and industry events. ChicoSTART serves all 22 counties in the North Far North region and has a relationship with all the Northern California colleges.

“All start-ups need interns and all interns need exposure,” says Eva Sheperd-Nicoll, executive director of ChicoSTART and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship. “We work with California community colleges because they create the pathways to those industries and are all about support and growing business for the future. 

“ChicoSTART provides resources for students and faculty by giving them access to accelerators.”

Delivering that access is the driving force behind growTECH FEST, a ChicoSTART initiative launched four years ago. Featuring companies representing banking, software, hardware, fintech, AI and consumer goods, growTECH Fest offers a smorgasbord of opportunity for students seeking to make connections with various industry professionals. Besides the industry speakers and entrepreneurial icons in attendance, there’s a student start-up portion where students can present their ideas at a roundtable, are asked the hard questions, and are given a chance to meet potential investors. Students come from different areas of study, including agriculture, natural sciences and engineering. 

This year, growTECH FEST will be held at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico on October 11 – 12. Entry is free to currently enrolled community college students and faculty, but tickets are limited and must be reserved.  Those interested are encouraged to visit  

“Entrepreneurship is responsible for 90 percent of new jobs,” says Sheperd-Nicoll. It’s not the mega corps creating new positions, she emphasizes, it’s the little guy. Of course, entrepreneurship and tech often go hand-in-hand; after all, over 10 percent of workers in the North Far North region are self-employed, and 80 percent work for companies with 20 or fewer employees.  Consider a web designer with her own business, or an electrician who does his own social media marketing. “We’re elevating entrepreneurship and expanding students’ mindsets by bringing in a nanotech group, a biotech materials company, robotics to growTECH … they need to know about what is possible.”

Blaine Smith, Executive Director for the North Far North Regional Consortium, concurs.

“Business and entrepreneurship are priority initiatives in the North Far North region, accounting for just short of 250,000 jobs,” says Smith, whose NFNRC partners with growTECH to provide professional development opportunities in the region. “The state wants us to grow opportunity in these areas for students and faculty, yet sometimes resources are lacking for students. 

“With Strong Workforce program funding, we’re encouraging attendance at growTECH with scholarships so that there are no barriers for those who want to take part.” 

The free attendance offer extends to high school students, as well as current community college students and their instructors. GrowTECH is just one of many opportunities that the NFNRC supports with the goal of bringing industry closer to educational programs at California’s community colleges. 

Typically, about 20 percent of students have landed internships or made connections for their business idea as a direct result of their growTECH attendance. Stone Cottone was one of them. A CSU Chico student, he studied small business management and entrepreneurship with the goal of opening his own business one day.  He says his internships, one at a company that handled social media for small restaurants and another for a video production company, were game-changers.

“They were great opportunities to funnel your creativity, get your mind thinking about what you want to do, what space you want to inhabit, and what value you can bring,” says Cottone. “It was cool to meet people who started something from the ground up, and I really liked seeing all the businesses coming out of the North State. … It’s amazing to see that students are able to attend growTECH for free.”  

With solid experience in both management and video production, Cottone hopes to open his own firm producing video content one day.

“Networking, social media marketing, and project management skills” were Cherie Higgs’ main takeaways from her involvement with growTECH and her internship working with Sheperd-Nicoll at the Center for Entrepreneurship. Currently, Higgs is finishing up at Chico State and running her own small business – a hair and skin care company for African American women with a focus on mental health. 

“I love growTECH because it’s a way for small, local businesses to get involved with the community,” she says. “It’s not too big, so attendees have a chance to have one-on-one conversations with business leaders. Most of all, it was nice to see what the next level is for me and for my business.” 

Higgs, currently studying public health and small business entrepreneurship, plans to work in community service and open her own nonprofit. “Interning gives me the chance to see how it’s done,” she explains. 

“GrowTECH is our chance to elevate and celebrate the companies we have in the region,” adds Sheperd-Nicoll. “Many of these multi-million dollar companies are hidden gems, and students need to know about them. 

“After all, a community is only as strong as the story it can tell.”


**NFN_RegionalReport_StrategicPlanLMI_22_23.pdf, page 12

September 2023