Supporting Entrepreneurship in Beaufort County

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entrepreneurialCouncil1In April, Rick Morse wrote on this blog about local councils, common purpose, and collaboration, and particularly the role an organized council can play in bringing common purpose to a collaboration. Quoting Mary Parker Follett, an early scholar of organizational behavior, Morse writes that “when people come together in dialogue and create common purpose, that purpose becomes an ‘invisible leader.’” Organizing a council can help make explicit the common vision that stakeholders want to bring to life, and that explicit common vision helps all stakeholders understand how to align their work toward the group goal.

This past spring, a UNC-CH STAR team made up of MBAs and BSBAs had the opportunity to apply these ideas about councils and common purpose in Beaufort County, NC, a rural Inner Banks county with about 50,000 residents. A small group of Beaufort County economic development stakeholders – the county economic developer and the heads of the downtown business alliance, the county Chamber, and the community college SBC – approached UNC’s Center for NC Strategic Economic Growth for help with the county’s entrepreneurship strategy. They in turn connected the Beaufort County stakeholders with UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s STAR program, which provides low-cost student consulting teams to global corporations, local companies, and public entities, every spring semester.

The STAR team’s initial expectation for the project was that they might recommend programmatic solutions – they’d craft some suggestions for improving access to capital, or perhaps they’d go with the always-tempting main street business incubator. A team of undergraduate public policy students working at the same time in Beaufort County on a river ecotourism strategy suggested that the STAR team might take an industry-focused approach – suggesting particular sectors that they assessed to be ripe for entrepreneurship in Beaufort County, most likely including ecotourism. 

However, very early in the project, the team’s thinking began to circle around networks and organizations. The key foundational element they saw missing in Beaufort County was a space where stakeholders who cared about entrepreneurship could come together to define shared goals, build on each others’ efforts, and bring more stakeholders into the conversation. The STAR team heard agreement from many corners of the county that more support for entrepreneurship was needed, along with a diversity of perspectives about what was holding entrepreneurship back. Many stakeholders throughout the community – including not only the team’s direct clients but also elected officials, community and faith leaders, and existing small business owners – were passionate about the future of entrepreneurship in the county. But aside from the work the STAR team was doing, there hadn’t been any place to organize their energy or provide a channel to transform that collective energy into action.

The STAR team’s final key recommendation was simply to organize an entrepreneurial council that could implement any number of programmatic ideas (they also shared a handful of potential programmatic jumping off points, from a day-long Resource Forum to a Shark Tank event). The STAR team suggested that not only would an entrepreneurship council be a place for stakeholders to come together around a shared purpose, but it would also streamline the experience for would-be entrepreneurs. Beaufort County already has a great set of resources for entrepreneurs, but they have to do a lot of legwork to find them all. With an organized entrepreneurial council, once a potential entrepreneur connects with the council’s network, that would open the door to a wealth of other resources.

The STAR team presented these suggestions to our clients and as many other stakeholders as we could get the word to on May 5, and the response was enthusiastic. The Center for NC Strategic Economic Growth plans to continue to work with the nascent council in the coming months to support them in getting organized and getting some initial programming off the ground.

Julianne Stern is a Master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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