Entrepreneurship is often championed as a key element of economic growth, but proposals for spurring entrepreneurship and small business growth can lack specificity. Arguing to “strengthen entrepreneurship” is often like arguing for “more sensible taxes”: there are many different kinds of taxes, which one are we referring to? And how should we interpret the phrase, “more sensible”? Entrepreneurs are sometimes seen as a monolith, with identical needs, motivations, and behaviors. Designing policies to support entrepreneurs across North Carolina requires acknowledging that not all entrepreneurs are the same.
When people think of entrepreneurs, they tend to envision Silicon Valley-esque tech innovators, straight out of “The Social Network.” But that’s not who all entrepreneurs want to be or try to be, especially entrepreneurs in rural areas. They might be restaurateurs who are trying to expand into a second location, or artists who want to bring an art gallery or performance theater to their hometown. And in the conversation of entrepreneurship in North Carolina, we tend to focus on Research Triangle Park, and can forget that rural counties have their share of entrepreneurs, too.
My Master’s thesis produced for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners focused on how Northeastern North Carolina can build an ecosystem supportive of entrepreneurship. I investigated the characteristics of entrepreneurs in rural, Northeastern North Carolina, what their business creation process tends to look like, and how they interact with the numerous economic development non-profits across the state. Rural entrepreneurs often have different needs and experiences than entrepreneurs in the Triangle, which demands a unique toolkit of policy options. Increasing the number co-working spaces might be a great strategy when you have an abundance of experienced, serial entrepreneurs—like you might find in RTP—but it probably won’t be as successful in a region of North Carolina that does not have a developed wireless infrastructure.
One key practice towards supporting business development organizations and entrepreneurs will be through knowledge sharing. Many entrepreneurs in rural North Carolina suffer from a lack of familiarity regarding the abundance and efficacy of business development organizations in the state. After speaking with business owners who recently opened brick-and-mortar storefronts, and with individuals in North Carolina’s economic development organizations, I learned that entrepreneurs don’t always possess the necessary business acumen to ensure they are successful in the long run. Not only that, but entrepreneurs in the Northeast are often unaware about where to go to get that information. However, this does indicate that there is growth potential in better educating entrepreneurs.
Business development organizations would also benefit from shared resources and information (more so than is being done now). Some organizations have limited financial and personnel resources, which constrains their ability to fully market their services, given that they also need to host workshops and privately consult with clients. Greater collaboration is one strategy to overcome the resource constraints experienced by some business development organizations, and the region as a whole. Local government partnerships could increase the marketing capabilities of the business development organizations, and also strengthen the public’s confidence in its government’s ability to serve its constituents. Local governments would not only reap the benefits of stronger economic performance from supporting business development organizations, but they would also be establishing a collaborative ecosystem where the public clearly sees its government investing in the local human capital.
Northeastern North Carolina doesn’t share RTP’s demographic profile, but that does not mean its human capital potential and potential for supporting entrepreneurs should be discounted. Greater collaboration to overcome resource constraints, and to better inform the potential small business creators in the region, may help foster a regional ecosystem that is more supportive of entrepreneurs.