Editor’s note: Today’s guest opinion contributor is Jim Roberts, the executive director of the MCED and BRAIN.
ASHEVILLE,A pro-business movement in Asheville and western North Carolina is gaining momentum.
The people in western NC are hungry for a change for the better in the local economy. We have had heart-wrenching mill closing announcements on the 4th of July, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. So when AdvantageWest announced the creation of an entrepreneurial development council (the MCED), it peaked the interest of eager citizens ready for some good news.
On March 18, we held the second official meeting of the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network (BRAIN) where entrepreneurs could pitch their business plan presentations in front of a gathering of potential angel investors. Initially, we received 11 business plans by the February 18 deadline and we narrowed them down to the best three that fit the purpose of BRAIN. When we first began to plan this event, we thought maybe 50 audience members would be a good number to have as a goal. I was still getting calls on the day of the event and we ended up having over 90 RSVPs. Over 10 percent of the people were from out of state (TN, SC and GA) and another 15 percent were from out of town.
On the night of the event at a converted mansion called Homewood, the buzz of anticipation was real. These “early adopter” type people were excited by the turnout and felt like they were part of something that could be a missing piece of the puzzle. They came despite the threat of war, the UNC Asheville NCAA tournament game (Go Bulldogs!), the annual wine tasting at the beautiful Grove Park Inn, parents with their children on Spring Break and road construction detours.
Facing three challenges
I opened the presentations by saying that in the first six months of being the executive director of the MCED, I had three major challenges. If I could solve the first challenge, the other two would be solved as well. My biggest challenge is company formation. How do you get talented people in a room to talk and realize that between them, they have the talent to create a company that has solutions to real business problems? The other two challenges are a need to better establish a pro-business reputation (even our baseball team is called the Tourists) and a “brain drain” problem where our best and brightest young adults often move to more urban areas for career opportunities.
Since there are no venture capital firms in western North Carolina, there needs to be an education of the local high net worth individuals to feel comfortable in the private equity process. We had two experienced investors as guest speakers.
Attracting venture capital
The first was Steve Buchanan from Dogwood Equity, a rural fund that makes investments outside of the three major cities in North Carolina. Buchanan discussed due diligence and what to look for in young companies, including integrity. The second speaker was Horace Stimson, an active serial entrepreneur, community leader in economic development with SBTDC and a lead investor in the Piedmont Angel Network. Stimson discussed different ways people could get involved in private equity investing and different theories on economic development within the state of North Carolina.
We have been working with the selected entrepreneurs for weeks to coach them on presentation skills and polishing up the PowerPoint slides. The first business plan was presented by one of the company’s investors as the CEO had been called away for a client installation at one of the biggest newspapers in Florida. The presenter, a doctor, impressed the audience with a deep knowledge of the company and not just what was on the slides, but great in depth answers during the Q&A session.
The second company was presented by the founder and CEO with a very timely product for homeland security and port management a day after National Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge went to Code Orange.
The third company is a multimedia edutainment firm targeted towards preventing accidents involving children. The Asheville Chamber has been working to recruit and build a multimedia culture in the region and this company would be a good addition.
All three companies did a great job and I expect will receive some interest from the investors and community leaders in the audience.
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, at least one of these companies will receive some local funding. That would certainly make my job easier. No matter where I ask the question, “What is the key to creating an entrepreneurial culture,” everyone says that we just need to help create one big success story and the rest falls in place. The local and statewide entrepreneurs would then see MCED and BRAIN as an effective resource to help them grow their business roots in western North Carolina.
As you can see, we are putting the pro-business infrastructure pieces in place and western North Carolina will begin to pop up on the business radar. The three universities in the region, Western Carolina, UNC Asheville and Appalachian State, are beginning to do more research and are discussing tech transfer possibilities. Our broadband piece will improve with the approved multi-million dollar grant from the Rural Internet Access Authority. The work Congressman Charles Taylor has done with the Education and Research Consortium has already attracted some interest with companies interested in relocating next to the High Performance Network Computer and Network Access Point.
(The Mountain Council for Entrepreneurial Development (MCED) was formed by AdvantageWest in early September with the mission to create a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs, which in turn will create diverse job opportunities for our local citizens. Next for MCED, we will partner will Haywood Community College to start the FastTrac program created by the Kaufman Foundation. The FastTrac Vision, a long-term business planning seminar, will take place on April 15 at 5:30 PM at the AB Tech Enka campus and the classes will begin on May 1.)
Jim Roberts is the Executive Director of the MCED and BRAIN and the former founder of the Charlotte based firstround.org, which helped raise the intellectual capital of technology entrepreneurs in five second tier cities in the Southeast. For more details on MCED and AdvantageWest visit: