Pilot program aims to jump-start entrepreneurship

HUNTINGTON — What does it take to be an entrepreneur?

Take risks. Face failure. Keep your eye on the problem. Find a solution that people need. Research the numbers.

These would all be correct answers on a quiz for students studying entrepreneurship. For a small group of Marshall University undergraduate and graduate students, they were the hands-on steps put into practice as they worked through a 12-week pilot program preparing them to go before investors to discuss funding for their ideas.

The pilot program is called Jewel City Jumpstart. It is an initiative aided by Appalachian Regional Commission funding and supported by Appalachian Investors Alliance, Tri-State Angel Investment Group (TSAIG), Lawrence Economic Development Corp. and EPIC Mission, and offered to students studying entrepreneurship at Marshall University’s Lewis College of Business (LCOB) and the Brad D. Smith Business Incubator.

Jeremy Turner, adjunct instructor and executive-in-residence, and Olen York, entrepreneurship instructor and director of the iCenter at LCOB, had the idea of taking the entrepreneurial concepts students study and applying them to experiences outside the classroom.

“We started talking about how we could better prepare young entrepreneurs for success and connecting them with funding resources that could help them get started,” said Turner, EPIC Mission founder and managing director. “One of the challenges that young entrepreneurs face is that they don’t have the financial assets needed to access traditional loans or financing, and they are often not aware that there are investment groups that are looking for new business ventures to support.”

Those discussions led to the 12-week pilot program designed to engage, encourage and develop Appalachian entrepreneurs through a public-private collaborative effort.

The program seeks to give motivated, aspiring college entrepreneurs the opportunity to learn best practices, develop their entrepreneurial skills and gain access to expert coaching, guidance and insights from experienced educators, entrepreneurs and investors. Under the leadership of LCOB faculty and patent attorney Olen York, students receive coaching and mentoring outside the classroom from the partner organizations.

This is not a by-the-books experience.

“There are plenty of good ideas out there,” said York. “We want the students to realize that just having a good idea or invention does not make you an entrepreneur. The difference between an inventor and entrepreneur is knowing what problem the invention solves for people and how it will meet unfulfilled needs.”

Teams in action

To help them gain the needed experience, York’s pilot course was a lab where students met in teams, came up with business ideas and then set about researching the need, identifying the solutions and developing a business plan.

“With no quizzes, no final exams and no term papers on the table, the students soon discovered that they were, in effect, getting down to business, using creative and innovative ideas to figure out what was the best way to see their idea launched into a business,” said York.

That challenge came with a lot of lessons.

“I always thought I would have my own business someday,” said Hannah Ellis, a senior majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing with a minor in management. “When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian and had ideas for all sorts of pet-related side businesses. Through the Jewel City Jumpstart program, I have developed plans for a product I have been thinking about.”

Ellis was scheduled to present her plan to TSAIG in March.

“I obtained skills to help me know where to start,” she said. “I learned that failure is scary, but it’s an asset if you learn from your mistakes and better yourself and your product.”

Working as a team, Harrison Letchford, McKenna Sunderland and Greg Hewitt are working on a business plan that is not the one they had in mind when they started the program.

“We pivoted as we decided on our product because when we did empathy interviews with people who were potential customers, we learned that our original idea wasn’t really solving a problem,” said Sunderland. “Through those conversations, we listened and, because we were open to what people were saying, we found a different problem and developed a new solution.”

“We learned to fail fast and early and to move on,” said Letchford. “The class is structured in a way that reflects on how we’ll need to work outside of school if we want our business to succeed.”

Investors on board

While the students are developing their business plans, the TSAIG is looking forward to the potential of investing in young entrepreneurial startups.

“We have been investing in this area since 2014,” said Don Perry, TSAIG chair. “We were interested in seeing more investment in the Huntington area and in working with Marshall when Jeremy Turner and Olen York suggested the Jewel City Jumpstart pilot program. Our investment members are looking forward to seeing what the students have developed and how the program will continue.”

TSAIG is a member-managed fund that makes 10 to 15 investments of varying sizes in its fund distributions. All of the members participate in the presentations and vote on the businesses that will receive funding. TSAIG has formed two investment funds and is raising capital for its third fund, which should be actively investing by April.

“An exciting aspect of this is that our members have the option to sidecar, or invest on their own, if they are particularly high on a new business,” Perry said.

This means that an entrepreneur could receive additional funding.

“Our portfolio is blended,” said Perry. “That means rather than just looking at one industry, like high-tech, high-growth opportunities, we will invest in a variety of businesses. In this area, we have funded small businesses, hotels, restaurants and Main Street businesses. These types of businesses are all over Appalachia, and we look at whoever comes to the table with a creative idea and a plan that will ensure economic diversity in our region.”

Building confidence

Bill Bissett, Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, sees much value in the success of entrepreneurs in the area.

“With programs like Jewel City Jumpstart and Marshall’s Brad D. Smith Business Incubator, people realize they don’t have to find a job — they can start one,” said Bissett. “We are seeing a real influx of young people who have a passion for startups and who are keeping money in the local economy.”

Bissett believes this support has a lot to do with happy accidents becoming happy successes.

“With programs that instill confidence with mentoring and funding organizations that are willing to help these people take a risk, we see new business growth here in Huntington,” he said. “In fact, even through the pandemic, we have seen a lot of ribbon-cutting events here as people have decided they want to embrace change, not run from it.”

That confidence helps investors and planners alike.

“What students are learning in this program is that, once they’ve found a good business idea, there are people and programs that can help them,” said Turner. “Entrepreneurs are better prepared to look for funding, and fund investors are seeing better plans, allowing them to make better decisions about the strengths of a new business solution and its risk value.

“Additionally, students in this program are learning that entrepreneurial skills are not just for small-business owners,” he said. “Corporations, nonprofit organizations and other businesses need the creative and innovative thinking of employees whose ‘intrapreneurial’ skills will lead to critical business success and breakthroughs as well.”

York agrees.

“In the end, entrepreneurship is based on problem solving and the deliberate, purposeful search for opportunities,” York said. “Jewel City Jumpstart encourages problem solving, gives students permission to think innovatively, and encourages them to get back up when a failure comes.”

Turner and York both believe that innovative and creative thinking traits are intrinsic to Appalachia and, in particular, West Virginia.

“People who came to these mountains to carve out a life had to be creative to solve critical problems regarding livelihood, home and community,” said Turner. “They were creative makers who wove basic homemaking and lifestyle skills from diverse cultures into the one that we know today.”