GREENVILLE – East Carolina University’s student entrepreneurship program, RISE29, was honored for its co-curricular innovation by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) at its annual conference Monday in New Orleans.

RISE29 received the association’s Excellence in Co-Curricular Innovation Award, presented annually to the college or university whose entrepreneurship program encourages creativity, quality and sustainability, and produces an impact on the communities it serves.

In its first year, RISE29 earned top honors over a field that included the country’s No. 1 ranked entrepreneurship program by U.S. News & World Report.

Mike Harris, director of ECU’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship, and Sharon Paynter, assistant vice chancellor for economic and community engagement, co-led the program during its inaugural year.

“When we first had the idea for the program, we knew we wanted RISE29 to become a national model for rural entrepreneurship,” Harris said. “We’re excited that other entrepreneurship educators from across the country saw the same potential in the program that we did. They have faith that RISE29 will serve as a blueprint to foster economic success in rural regions not only in North Carolina, but across the country.”

Spurred by population loss, declining employment opportunities, and “brain drain” in eastern North Carolina, RISE29 began in February 2019 as part of a $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation. Led by the Miller School of Entrepreneurship and the Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement, the program became the first university-wide initiative targeted at transforming students into emerging entrepreneurs.

The program works hand-in-hand with local community leaders to identify community needs and pairs business clients with students to address those concerns. As a result, students that participate in RISE29 create new opportunities and sustain existing businesses in rural North Carolina that add value and complement existing ventures in the university’s 29-county service area.

During its first year, RISE29 recorded more than 18,000 hours of fieldwork with 36 business clients in Beaufort, Hyde, Martin and Pitt counties. In total, more than 140 students with backgrounds ranging from nutritionists and biologists to engineers and marketers participated in the program.

RISE29 leaders plan to expand the program to more counties in 2020, eventually servicing all 29 counties that help make up its name.

RISE29 is part of a growing effort to advance entrepreneurship across ECU’s campus. In 2015, the university established the Miller School of Entrepreneurship and last year announced a new undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship. The university has also developed the annual Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge and its residential, entrepreneurship-based Horizons Living Learning Community.