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Competitive grants the right idea for entrepreneurial growth

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Thom Ruhe, CEO of NC IDEA, talked with would-be entrepreneurs Tuesday about grant opportunities during a visit to ECU's Willis Building, home of the university's Office of Engagement, Innovation and Economic Development.

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Thom Ruhe is an idea man. Actually, an NC IDEA man.

His organization’s idea is to give small-scale entrepreneurs with big goals just enough backing to overcome a barrier and possibly grow a lot of wealth for themselves while helping to spur an entire region’s economic growth.

Ruhe, former vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, drew dozens of would-be corporate czars this week to ECU’s Willis Building to hear details about competitive NC IDEA SEED microgrants of between $1,000 and $10,000. The Willis Building is home to the university’s Office of Engagement, Innovation and Economic Development and its offshoot, the SEED program, which provides working space, mentoring resources and even ideas for start-up businesses.

NC IDEA is an independent private nonprofit foundation with a mission to maximize the entrepreneurial potential of the people of North Carolina through a combination of self-funded grants and internally generated programs to help people who are pursuing a high-potential idea to create jobs and economic wealth for the state.

“We meet them where they are, offer them assistance through our several programs or through direct funding, such as tonight’s microgrant program,” Ruhe said.

Entrepreneurs with the potential to demonstrate scalability and the ambition to achieve $1 million or more in revenues within five years were encouraged to apply for the microgrants. Small, localized businesses, including restaurants and retail shops, “lifestyle” companies, consultants and nonprofits were discouraged from applying. There also are specialized programs for female entrepreneurs, leadership training and startup development.

The microgrant funding (not a loan) could be well directed toward product development, marketing, lead generation, travel expenses, sales, crowdfunding and grant writing, Ruhe told the attendees. It also could be used simply as a needed stipend.

About a year ago, Ruhe met with ECU’s SEED program leader John Ciannamea and Associate Vice Chancellor Ted Morris. The two explained their interest in engaging people in an entrepreneurial mindset of controlling the steps to success beginning at the grade-school level.

“It was obvious to me that this university and the entire region are underappreciated assets,” Ruhe said. “I want to see a competitive environment in North Carolina from the mountains to the coast. It builds diversity in our economy and demonstrates that we have other core competencies outside of the Triangle. The resulting growth becomes a virtuous — and infectious — cycle.”

Through his diverse global experience, Ruhe has developed a knack for recognizing areas with high entrepreneurial development potential.

“North Carolina had already earned a stellar reputation, largely for the work that’s been happening in the Triangle,” he said. “Eastern North Carolina and Greenville have struggled for attention, but bright ideas with high potential are not limited by geography, ethnicity, birthright or economic access. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of giving an area an opportunity to participate. You can be wonderfully surprised by the outcome.”

Ruhe walked Tuesday’s attendees through the micro-grant application process and offered advice, information and some inspiration about entrepreneurship and the pursuit of business ownership success.

Carlos Romero, artist and founder of Ikohaus Avant Garde Artists School and a participant in the Greenville SEED program, who has started a social responsibility LLC, was interested in how an NC IDEA SEED microgrant could help him advance his entrepreneurial effort.

“Until recently, I found blocks along my way for advancing my artwork platform,” Romero said. “I gave up until Ted Morris told me about ECU’s plans to have an avenue for entrepreneurial development. I think the part that’s been missing is arts and entertainment.”

Another entrepreneur attending Ruhe’s orientation session was Lori “Yoshi” Newman, a Ph.D in educational psychology who has invested in being a trained nature and forest therapy guide, providing a natural environment in which people can better connect with their internal emotions.

“With a microgrant I could fund the infrastructure of my business, purchase supplies and find help with website and digital marketing and other services,” Newman said. “I was thrilled in so many ways about Thom and NC IDEA bringing their resources to eastern North Carolina. We’ve been the forgotten land, especially for funding, which is a critical piece for small business development.”

ECU’s Ciannamea said the budding entrepreneurs now can have an equal chance of succeeding as do those in the Triangle and Charlotte.

“This cooperative effort with NC IDEA helps us with our networking to develop more entrepreneurs, whether here at our SEED, at the Pitt County Development Commission’s Technology Enterprise Center or out in the community, helping to develop a better economic ecosystem,” he said.

The application deadline for NC IDEA SEED microgrants is on May 14. Grant winners will be announced June 15. Visit www.ncidea.org for more details or email programs@ncidea.org.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.