In a business environment where it seems every Tom, Dick and Harry organization touts itself as a resource for entrepreneurs, new and emerging business owners may feel overwhelmed about where to best turn for help.
In Charlotte, they have turned to the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council (MEC) since 1987. The nonprofit group’s longevity is a testament to its effectiveness in meeting the needs of those with the entrepreneurial spirit.
“The cornerstone of what we do is content, with strong monthly meetings, and an opportunity to network,” says MEC president Mike Praeger, who owns Avidxhange, which provides e-packaging software tools for the commercial real estate industry.
For Praeger, who came to Charlotte about five years ago after selling his company in Boston, the value of the networking opportunities goes beyond nuts- and-bolts information.
“The group helped me meet other software/technology entrepreneurs in the market that helped me craft my new company, but I also formed friendships – my best friends are people I originally met through MEC,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is essentially lonely, and my MEC involvement has helped me face both personal and business challenges.”
MEC was formed to promote the development of growth-oriented companies by sponsoring seminars and meetings and by compiling and disseminating information on various aspects of high-growth entrepreneurship.
Membership around 500
The organization currently has about 500 members, says executive director Lori Antoniak, who has been with MEC for about six months. More than half the members (52%) are entrepreneurs; the rest are service providers, such as law firms, accountants, venture funds and banks. About a fourth of the entrepreneurs are technology-related. Members generally come from within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte.
MEC holds eight meetings a year, plus three conferences and an awards banquet. Meetings, which attract an average of 150, are held the third Thursday of the month, from 5:30- 8 p.m., at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. Guests are welcome to attend. “Our meetings are value-added learning experiences to help businesses interact with other entrepreneurs facing the same problems,” Praeger says.
Mark Schaffner, a member of the MEC board and president of the Ben Craig Center, which is one of the oldest business incubators in the U.S., agrees.
“You can learn from others how they accomplished their goals and then use the knowledge to get where you want to be,” Schaffner says. “Often, with a speaker, you may learn things you didn’t think you needed to know. For example, you might not think you have a problem with customer service, but then you hear someone speak on it, and you realize there are things you can do to improve yours.”
Conference topics for the year have been set. On March 21, the MEC will hold its Future Technology Conference; in May, one on entrepreneurship; and in September, one on access to capital.
In addition to the monthly meetings and conferences, MEC also offers members access to a business assessment, where four to five members spend about 1-1/2 hours evaluating a business, and to a business plan review, where a group of members provide feedback on an entrepreneur’s presentation for financial support and backers.
Schaffner says a prime value of MEC is that it offers members the opportunity to network in a one-to-many format, which enables them to learn from a variety of people in a variety of areas, to glean knowledge and gain new ideas from many sources, many times unexpected. Agencies such the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE and the Ben Craig Center offer intense one-on-one help, but it is usually focused on one specific concern.
“MEC is one of the few places that offers this one-to-many format,” Schaffner says. “It’s very helpful. It gives them access to lots of people, to hear their thoughts.”
Adds Praeger: “We have a sharing kind of environment at MEC. There’s no better value than that.”