ASHEVILLE, N.C. — On September 4, 2002, Advantage West, the economic development agency for western North Carolina, announced the creation of an organization dedicated to fostering new homegrown businesses: the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council (BREC). Jim Roberts, known for his boot camp seminars for start-ups in Charlotte, was brought on as the executive director. Now, as BREC begins its fifth year — along with the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network (BRAIN) — the group is getting ready to host its fourth annual Carolina Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference on Sept. 14 at the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville.

It is the largest entrepreneur conference held in the western part of the state and will include sessions on sales and marketing, obtaining private-investor capital and increasing revenue. Keynote speakers are Jud Bowman, founder of Motricity; Steve Nelson, managing director of the Wakefield Fund and former chairman of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development; Robert McMahan, senior adviser on science and technology for Gov. Mike Easley; Mike Elliott of Noro-Moseley Partners, Atlanta’s largest venture capital fund; and Chris Kelly, a management consultant based in the Chapel Hill area and formerly with First Flight Ventures in Research Triangle Park.

Last year’s event attracted some 250 people.

It was actually the need for venture capital that was the catalyst for BREC’s inception. Recalled Advantage West board member David Reeves, “The need for venture capital was phenomenal for those young entrepreneurs.” So he and Bill Ward — already a successful business owner of BUILDERadius — got together to consider how to begin such a fund. But, added Reeves, “We quickly realized that what the region needed was a clearinghouse to give entrepreneurs the resources they needed to go forward. Capital was just one part of it.”
Advantage West still funds BREC, making the council the only one in North Carolina to receive direct funding from an economic development organization. The Appalachian Regional Commission provided seed money to create BREC and also continues to provide financial support.

Reeves explained that Advantage West has always been a traditional industrial recruiter, plus also focuses on travel and tourism initiatives. But the area is still reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs and coping with a workforce that is not highly educated. Those with degrees often leave the region for jobs in
Charlotte or the Raleigh area, creating a “brain drain.”

That’s why entrepreneurs are so important to the economy. Observed Reeves, “We’re going after the creative class — you’ve got to have a place where entrepreneurs can thrive. Our calling card is our beautiful mountains. We couldn’t be happier with BREC.”

Two-year-old eGlobal Design is an example of how that approach — and BREC’s efforts — is working. Tim Gallaugher and his wife came to Asheville from Fort Lauderdale, FL when they felt it was time to move their fledgling interactive marketing agency out of their home and into an office. They initially chose Asheville because “it was a beautiful place to live,” but soon realized it also made business sense.

Says Gallaugher, “We found we had better access — and more opportunities — to major metro areas so we could tap into them for growth. And there was a wealth of talent here, so we found everyone here we needed for our team.”

Gallaugher first contacted the regional small business technology center, which sent him to BREC. “BREC provided a lot of sales leads and networking opportunities, and getting connected with the community was indispensable. The content at meetings is very useful and applicable. We wouldn’t have been as successful without BREC.” This year, eGlobal is a sponsor of the Carolina Connection conference.

Roberts also got involved with the company’s strategy sessions and “gave us a tremendous amount of advice,” plus hired eGlobal. “Jim inspires a lot of loyalty because he gives so much — and it’s so usable,” Gallaugher said. “If a company isn’t going there, I strongly encourage them to.”

Roberts has been expanding BREC’s presence beyond Asheville into the other counties served by Advantage West. Earlier this summer, he helped set up the first meeting of the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur Network. “He put that together for us in 10 days and brought in a venture capitalist from BRAIN to talk about how to make your company investor-ready,” noted David Horn, chair of the chamber. “”I could have looked high and low and never founds someone like that.”

For Horn, the purpose of the Entrepreneurs Network is twofold: “to demonstrate to those who want to be part of the global economy how to be and to show them there is an opportunity for them and how to turn on the light” and “for those who are in business, how to grow it. Growing a company is as important as launching one.”

BREC is also holding monthly meetings in Boone and Cullowhee, hooks up young companies with mentors, produces a bi-weekly newsletter and provides access to capital. Since 2003, BRAIN’s angels have invested $10 million in local companies.

To register for the conference:www.ncmtns.biz