FAYETTEVILLE – Economic prosperity and mobility in southeastern North Carolina is lagging behind statewide and national averages. Average incomes are lower than state averages, poverty rates are higher, and unemployment levels are among the highest in the state. The North Carolina Department of Commerce classifies most of the counties in southeastern North Carolina as among the most distressed counties in the state.

Fayetteville State University

A new partnership between Fayetteville State University and the Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF) seeks to change long-term economic outcomes for residents across six counties in the region: Bladen, Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Robeson, and Sampson.

Forward Cape Fear will address the need for a broader base of successful, innovation-based companies that can benefit from the skills and resources available in the region, said Malika Mercer, the Economic Development Association University Center Director at Fayetteville State University, who will oversee the new innovative program.

“Support of economic transformation and entrepreneurship is the stated mission of the College of Business and Economics,” said Mercer, “The university has a long history of support for regional entrepreneurship.”

Through the partnership, Fayetteville State University will conduct the entrepreneurial training. The Carolina Small Business Development Fund will provide supplemental training and mentorship around funding processes companies may wish to pursue.


CSBDF is set to provide two revolving loan pools—one $50,000 pool to be distributed as microloans to emerging entrepreneurs and a separate $75,000 pool to support mature businesses seeking expansion.

“There are several universities and community colleges in this six-county region,” said Mercer, “graduating thousands of highly-skilled and capable individuals.” This is in addition to the thousands of highly-skilled, trained military professionals transitioning into the civilian workforce. The challenge for the region—which took a large economic hit in 2016 when funding for Fort Bragg was cut and the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew—is not a lack of talent as it is a lack of opportunity, said Mercer.

Mercer, an alumnus of Fayetteville State University who later went on to study human resources at Cornell, rejoins the institution after serving as the assistant director of career development in the career services center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. While working at UNC-Pembroke, Mercer earned her masters of public administration. She has enrolled in Fayetteville State’s educational leadership and administration program working toward a doctorate in education.

She brings15 years experience working with individuals and communities in socioeconomically distressed regions, and serving traditionally underserved communities. Meeting the needs of traditionally underserved individuals is a critical focus for Forward Cape Fear—and the largest opportunity for the region to experience long-term economic growth.

“There is a resurgence and revitalization underway in this region,” said Mercer, “we believe our Forward Cape Fear program can be an important contributor.”

Those that complete the entrepreneurial training program will be eligible to apply for one of the two loan programs. Existing staff at CSBDF will review, evaluate, vet, and make an approval decision to administer these loans to members of the program. There will be a loan review committee that operates with oversight from Forward Cape Fear.

Hands-on experience, mentorship

Fayetteville State already boasts a long history of supporting entrepreneurial ventures, including coursework and faculty-mentored student projects, a Veterans Business Outreach Center that provides entrepreneurship support for veterans and their families, an active technology transfer office, and a regional small business technology development center (SBTDC) funded through the U.S. Small Business Administration. Yet Mercer hopes that Forward Cape Fear, designed to be an eight-week intensive training, will provide the hands-on experience and connection to mentorship to help budding companies and scaling companies determine product-market fit, build minimum viable products, testing business concepts, and improving core competencies to ensure business viability.

Mercer expects to put a significant amount of folks through the program. In the first year, she hopes to run multiple training cohorts, attracting at least 200 entrepreneurs to apply to participate in the program. She imagines that selection will be limited to a total of 100 people each year, with at least a 75 percent completion rate and a funding rate of 20 percent.

After two years, if all goes according to plan, Mercer expects that as many as 40 new jobs—including at least 20 income-generating sole-proprietorships established through participation in Forward Cape Fear—will exist in the six-county region. To achieve this, she’ll run three cohorts with 8–10 entrepreneurs each quarter, for a total of twelve cohorts and roughly 100 participants each year.

“Our focus is on providing opportunities to advance underserved communities,” said Mercer, “We want to provide a space that is personable and supportive to them throughout the process.”

Mercer is overseeing the hiring of a successful regional entrepreneur interested in teaching the program’s entrepreneurship startup course and serving as the mentor for members of the first cohort. Additional community members and business partners will serve as mentors for the program participants as well, said Mercer, particularly during the training and funding process.

Funding for the program was secured through a renewed five-year grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s University Center Development Program. The initial five-year grant, initiated in 2012, focused on providing a database of informational resources and operational training to small businesses and farms in the region. The new grant, secured beginning in 2018, will pivot the organization’s focus to improving access to capital and expanding support programs for underrepresented emerging entrepreneurs.