CHARLOTTE — Before Terry Cox, then Teresa Thorson, gave up world traveling to come to Charlotte from San Francisco in 2003, the Queen City had entrepreneurs, but nothing like an entrepreneurial culture.
A former entrepreneur herself who ran wholesale and retail ice cream businesses in Georgia, Cox, now president and CEO of Charlotte’s Business, Innovation and Growth organization, did more than anyone else to bring Charlotte’s entrepreneurs together.
Originally, she came to Charlotte to take the helm at the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council (MEC), but when she got there, discovered an unpleasant surprise. A CPA who was graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Georgia, Cox had worked for KPMG and Adobe Systems’ predecessor firm in high level financial positions in San Francisco, including advising on IPOs. Looking at MEC’s books, “The first thing I discovered was a significant embezzlement,” Cox says.
While the embezzler was convicted of a felony, the money was never repaid. MEC eventually merged with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and Cox stayed for a time, “But it was a mismatch,” she says.
Why she’s in Charlotte
In 2006, she founded BIG, which has since held a variety of regular and special events geared toward the city’s high growth companies and entrepreneurs. Cox, who has an infectious laugh and is a proverbial “live wire” who seems always in motion, has a talent for getting things moving.
One sign of her success: Tech Media once again plans to hold its Southeast Venture Conference (SEVC) in Charlotte March 31-April 1 – this second time in combination with a Digital Media conference similar to TechMedia’s other events such as the Internet Summit in Raleigh. That’s the first time TechMedia has combined its two types of events. It will also include the Charlotte Venture Challenge. It will bring dozens of national venture capitalists to Charlotte, presenting companies from the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, and digital media headliners to the Queen City. The event runs from April 28-30, 2015.
Venture capital is still a challenge in Charlotte, Cox says. “There’s no Series A money in the area. We have a slightly stronger angel community, but it still needs some help. That’s part of the reason to bring the venture conference here. Charlotte isn’t on the radar of the venture capital community.”
But, despite being what the city needed to spark the evolution of an entrepreneurial community, Cox probably would not be in Charlotte if she hadn’t met her future husband while travelling in the 2001-2003 period.
From college to KPMG
After college, where she earned her degree in accounting, Cox joined KPMG as a CPA. In 1984 she took over an Atlanta ice cream shop called Steve’s, which became Gorin’s. “I took over the Atlanta store, opened one in Buckhead, moved to Savannah and opened a store there, and built a manufacturing plant,” she says.
While she liked the wholesale business selling to hotels and restaurants, retail, she says, “Was hard.” She eventually sold the Atlanta and Athens stores, then the shopping center where the Savannah store was located “went kaput.”
“I was 31, a female tied to a business,” Cox says. “I was never going to get married. So when the lease came up, I said ‘I’m done.’ I sold the equipment to a guy I thought was a good friend.” He sold her the chocolate she used in her ice cream, and she felt like she knew him. Unfortunately, she later discovered he had been running from the IRS for years – and they caught up with him. “I got a little down payment but never any more,” she says.
Then, following a visit to her sister in San Francisco, she took a position working with the controller to help the company now Adobe Systems go public. Then “I ended up with this job with Wells Fargo Investment Advisors (which became Black Rock) in asset management.” She says that “was a good ride,” but in 2001 she decided to take two years off to travel.
“I travelled to Asia and Europe.” Her favorite spots? Patagonia and Moravia. During her travels, she met her future husband, Penn. For a time they did long-distance dating. “We would meet in Italy and so on. It was fun, but I had to buckle down and get back to a job.
Penn Cox worked for Duke in Charlotte, so that’s where she started looking and a week after she took the director position at MEC, they were engaged. “That secured me coming to Charlotte,” Cox says.
Start with entrepreneurs
After MEC merged with the Chamber and she left and began exploring how to start an effective organization to support high growth entrepreneurs. At the time, she says, “Literally, there was o high growth entrepreneurial ecosystem. Zip.
“I’ll never forget Mitch Mumma (of Durham-based Intersouth Partners) saying ‘You need to start with entrepreneurs and rest will follow.’ I said ok.” She brought together David Jones and about 13 other entrepreneurs, who she notes, “Didn’t know each other. The whole community was fragmented and disconnected. That’s why we started BIG.” She says the organization and its goals actually got a boost during the 2008 recession when big business and banking suffered.
Since then, the Packard Place building downtown opened, and meet-ups such as Startup Weekend became more common. “A lot of little accelerators and incubators bubbled up. The Ben Craig Center adopted a new strategy. The Portal, another new center opened across from the Charlotte Research Institute.
The biggest overall challenge Cox has faced, she says, “Is the culture here. It is a risk adverse, conservative culture where banking and financial services largely defines behavior. It’s hard to shift that. We need more successes like Yap and Peak 10 so people will appreciate how important entrepreneurship is.”
About BIG, she says, “In simple terms we’re a membership organization comprised exclusively of high growth companies with high potential. We didn’t want a membership anyone could join, but rather those who fit the criteria.”
The companies don’t need to be equity-backed, which in Charlotte is easier said than done, so some are boot-strapped. But they all have the potential to grow 20 percent or more a year and see an eventual exit via a merger, acquisition or IPO.
Big things coming
Since the fledgling organization didn’t want sponsors, it made each entrepreneur pony-up $1,000 a year at the lowest level. Some pay $3,000, some $5,000.
The organization has evolved, however, to include both some startups and some growth partners such as Google and the Charlotte Research Institute. She notes that she’s had help from people such as Jim Van Fleet, who she says is “Largely responsible for the tech community we have here today, creating a startup newsletter, startup weekends. He pioneered that the way I did the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
She does see good things coming down the pike for Charlotte. “We’ll definitely be a Gigabit City this year and that will help attract talent and companies.”
Next year, funded by the Charlotte Regional Fund and matching contributions, BIG, the Urban Institute at UNC-Charlotte, and the Venture Prize are sponsoring an expanded high growth survey of the region that will benchmark Charlotte against other cities.
Also in 2015, she says, “We’re going to focus on stage two companies from $2 million to $20 million. There is a viable startup community now and we have enough support for companies under $2 million, but no one is helping companies accelerate once they’re above $2 million.”