Editor’s Note: Since 1986, Monica Doss has served as President of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), a non-profit organization founded in 1984 to stimulate the creation and expansion of high-growth entrepreneurial businesses in North Carolina. Doss is responsible for spearheading the direction, operation and overall management of the organization. During her 20-year tenure, CED has grown to become the largest entrepreneurial support organization in the United States, with 4000+ members representing 1100 member companies, and an annual budget of $2 million. Doss has received both local and national recognition as an industry leader.

This two-part interview is part of The Entrepreneurial Spirit series done in partnership between the CED and WRAL Local Tech Wire. Part two will be published on Tuesday.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – For more than 20 years Monica Doss served as the President of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development. During her tenure, she has been an active participant in shaping the entrepreneurial community in the Triangle. With such an active role in the region’s innovation base we sat down with Monica to talk to her about the area’s past, present and goals for the future.

Can you describe the entrepreneurial climate in the Triangle 20 years ago? What were some of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs were facing when they were trying to start a business?

Back then the Triangle had a very successful economy, which made it more difficult to draw attention to entrepreneurs and the things that they need. The Research Triangle Park was filled with recruited research companies that created lots of jobs. So, people focused their attention on those large companies. As the economy continued to strengthen, the attitude held by many was “why bother with entrepreneurship”?

With very few start-ups in the area, there were even fewer entrepreneurial success stories. Entrepreneurs had no one to ask when they had questions about specific entrepreneurial business matters. They found it difficult to get the right advice to help them succeed. Jim Verdonik, a long time member and supporter of CED once said that, at that time, you could fit all the local entrepreneurs in the back seat of one BMW and drive around the Triangle.

Because the Triangle’s entrepreneurial community was so new and so small, entrepreneurship was not discussed in the news. If you read the newspapers from 20 years ago, you would think you were on another planet because there was essentially no public awareness of entrepreneurship. The front page of the business section was littered with stories about the large corporations in RTP, the banks and whether or not Ernst and Young was going to locate its headquarters in downtown Raleigh or North Raleigh. There were no reporters covering entrepreneurs.

Having a very small, underground entrepreneurial community that was not widely covered in the news, innovators from different cities in the region were unaware of the efforts of other entrepreneurs throughout the region. CED was formed, in part, to address the issues raised by the Triangle’s spread out geography. Twenty years ago there was no way for the entrepreneur in Carrboro to cross paths with the entrepreneur from North Raleigh, while they may have been working on the same ideas. The Triangle needed to raise a flag that brought people together.

When CED began to bring entrepreneurs together, everyone assumed that the attorneys and investors would teach the entrepreneurs how to be successful. But, what really happened was a two-way exchange of ideas and information. Service providers and investors were able to attend programs and meetings, and join the entrepreneurial network. In doing so they learned how entrepreneurs work and what kinds of issues they faced. That allowed the service provider and investors to change the way they did business. One of the things that has made the Triangle unique is that all three groups have learned together, and are succeeding together. In other innovation centers I don’t think that is necessarily the case.

The other issue was capital. When CED was first formed, everyone assumed that the Triangle’s problem was that we did not have capital. Kitty Hawk in Charlotte was the lone venture firm in the state. After taking a long, hard look at the issue, we realized that the problem was much more than a lack of funding. Capital was a major concern, but an even greater problem was the lack of an entrepreneurial culture. Back then we had a risk-averse culture. With a risk-averse approach to investing, even with an abundance of capital we wouldn’t have been able to deploy it very well.

How has the region’s attitude toward entrepreneurship changed over the past 20 years?

I think Entrepreneurship has changed from a subculture of the Triangle to something more mainstream. Now you can look around and see how much more attention is paid to entrepreneurs in the newspapers, and by decision makers.

We realized about eight or nine years ago for the community to really blossom we needed to have entrepreneurs involved and engaged in decision-making bodies. If legislators and decision makers don’t know the needs of the entrepreneurial community, even in their best efforts they still won’t make the right decisions to support them.

If you look at the research of the Research Triangle Foundation, they have embraced this. They focus on recruiting large corporations to the area, but they also understand how integrated entrepreneurship is with bringing in good companies and attracting top tier business talent.

Part of what CED has done over the last 20 years is to strategically and purposefully build a public knowledge base about entrepreneurs. One of our goals has been to spread knowledge about entrepreneurship to everyone in the Triangle so that everybody understands how important it is.

No one says that recruiting goes away, large company recruiting goes away, but I believe we need to have a balanced portfolio. The Triangle needs to retain the companies we have, grow the ones that start here, and constantly bring in new companies. The recruitment of Cisco to the Triangle was one of the most important things that happened, in terms of changing attitudes. When Cisco brought their headquarters here, all of a sudden there were thousands of innovative and entrepreneurial minds rushing into the area from around the world. I saw more change in that couple year period and also just the internationalization that that brought with it.

Another thing that makes the Triangle unique is that it has a very dispersed power. And there was actually a study done by McKinsey Company that found there is an inverse proportion to “club” culture and successful entrepreneurship. I believe that when you have a strong, centralized power base culturally and otherwise, it’s hard for other people to get in. In places like the Triangle, with a free-flowing power structure, people can find their place and help shape their culture.

What we have now is a community where a very large majority of the business community and beyond understands entrepreneurship. They know entrepreneurs. People in the Triangle have a very positive attitude about entrepreneurs. They respect them, they revere them, they understand them, and they understand the contribution entrepreneurship makes to the community. There is not much more you can ask.

Coming in part two: What are some of the key issues facing the Triangle?