CARY — The ’21 Awards’ is one of my favorite events to attend each year. Why? Because it is a salute to North Carolina’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Other people must enjoy the show, too. Some 486 people literally packed the 500-seat capacity area at the Embassy Suites Hotel where the North Carolina Technology Association put on its annual gala Thursday night. Attendance was up more than 100 from a year ago.

Awards are handed each year out to individuals and to companies both large and small. They represent a good mix of recognizing emerging firms, such as high-definition compression technology firm Inlet Technologies (Early Stage Company of the Year) to established giants such as SAS.

A Common Spirit

All the companies and individuals, such as the outstanding achievement award winner Olin Broadway, Jr. of Charlotte, have one thing in common: an entrepreneurial spirit. The older companies still have it as evidenced by continued growth in an ever-increasingly global marketplace. And the young firms such as Motricity (Private Company of the Year) are on an almost breathless pace of growth.

More established firms certainly have entrepreneurs at the helm, such as Jim Goodnight of SAS (Top Customer Service Company of the Year) who started his business three decades ago with a couple of fax machines. Then there is Ping Fu of Raindrop Geomagic, whose company was recognized as Mid-size Company of the Year. Recently recognized by Inc. magazine’s entrepreneur of the year. She left her native China in 1982 for the United States, launched Raindrop in 1996 and has helped build an outstanding success story in the area of 3D imaging.

The mood for the night was captured quite well by a video put together by Raleigh marketing firm Capstrat. It focused on the “rebels” and “rare breed”, the “visionaries”, “leaders”, “dreamers”, “risk takers” and “rainmakers” who symbolize the take-a-risk spirit entrepreneurs must have in order to succeed.

“Once a year, we gather to celebrate the excellence and thought leadership of North Carolina,” is how Joe Freddoso, NCTA’s chairman and a Cisco executive, described the 21 Awards event. Aptly put.

NCTA’s Own Growth Is Strong

The event also serves as a showcase for NCTA, which has changed more than its name (from NCEITA) in the past year. Freddoso pointed out that the association’s first fundraising drive, announced in May, has raised more than $800,000 of its $1.1 million goal. The group, led by Chief Executive Officer Joan Myers, hopes to reach that total before its annual meeting in January. The success of the fund-raising in what still has to be considered a somewhat choppy economy is reflective of NCTA’S growth over its 12-year history.

“The fund-raiser was a tremendous undertaking,” Freddoso said. “We have grown by leaps and bounds over the last five years despite an economic downturn and an industry downturn. We have done a lot to secure our financial future.”

The NCTA has evolved into one of the state’s more powerful lobbying forces on behalf of the technology sector both at the state and federal level. The group titled their program Thursday as “A Sea of Opportunity”. They pegged it right.

The award winners reflect the ability to capitalize on opportunities when they become available — or are generated by bootstrapped inspiration. And the NCTA is growing rapidly alongside its member firms.

That’s good news for our state — and for the entrepreneurial spirit.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.