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August 31, 2016 | Tom Ballard

Rural entrepreneurship key theme at “Aspire Appalachia” conference


By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Entrepreneurship was front and center at yesterday’s “Aspire Appalachia” conference hosted in Johnson City by the Appalachia Regional Commission (ARC) and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).

“Aspire is not a theme for just this year,” ECD Chief of Staff Ted Townsend told the more than 400 attendees as the conference opened. “It is something we should aspire for at all times.”

Sessions were focused on key strategies to bring new jobs to a region that has historically faced economic challenges and where a number of communities have been particularly impacted by the decline in the coal industry.

During a morning panel on entrepreneurship that was repeated in the afternoon, each speaker reiterated a theme first struck by Jill Van Beke, Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Launch Tennessee.

“People, partnerships and collaborations are key,” she said. Van Beke was pinch hitting for Launch Tennessee’s Charlie Brock, who had been asked to tell the story of the resurgence of Chattanooga as an entrepreneurial mecca. Brock is a Chattanooga native who led the city’s CO.LAB program before taking the top spot at Launch Tennessee.

“The story of Chattanooga is all about community-based leadership,” Van Beke explained to an overflow room of nearly 150 people.

Her presentation highlighted key activities in the last eight years that have provided a 3D-printing like building block approach to the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Those key events included:

  • 2008 when CreateHere was charged with making Chattanooga the most dynamic, creative and entrepreneurial city in the world.
  • 2009 when InnovateHere was provided valuable resources to fund and co-locate start-ups to the city.
  • 2010 when CO.LAB was launched.
  • 2011 when Chattanooga was designated as the GIG CITY.
  • 2012 when the “GIGTANK” accelerator was launched.
  • 2015 when the Innovation District was unveiled and plans for the Edney Innovation Center were announced.

VanBeke was joined by two other panelists who described various initiatives in their states. The goal was to spark entrepreneurial thinking across the 13-state ARC service area.

Devin Stephenson, President of Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Eastern Kentucky, used the word fear, both literally and as an acronym, to describe the challenge he faced when he came to the institution 14 months ago.

“I could either fear everything and run or face everything and rise,” he said. After all, the unemployment rate in one county in college’s service area is 22.5 percent and four others hover around 12.5 percent. The entire region is severely impacted by the collapse of the coal industry in Appalachia.

Stephenson described workforce retraining efforts the college has launched to provide new skills and new opportunities for the displaced coalminers. They are in technical fields like splicing and testing fiber optic cables and coding.

College presidents today clearly have to be more entrepreneurially-minded and focused.

The final panelist was Joseph Carlucci, Director of the West Virginia HIVE Business Accelerator.

“We are brand new,” he told the attendees, describing a nine-county area with 235,000 residents that has also been “devastated by the loss of coal jobs.”

The partnership that Carlucci helped launch started with $25,000 and has leveraged it into $2.1 million in 18 months. The organization now operates five co-working/incubator facilities and a maker space.

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