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ECU receives $1M grant for rural innovation, student businesses

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Robert Ola (center) presents his business model of a clothing design company during the first round of the 2019 Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge. Students like Ola are getting a boost for their business and entrepreneurship ideas from a $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation to support ECU’s newest micro-enterprise program, RISE-29.


ECU News Services

Saturday, February 23, 2019

East Carolina University has received a $1 million award from the Golden LEAF Foundation to support rural economic prosperity through innovation and entrepreneurship, the university announced this week.

The grant, awarded on Feb. 7, will support RISE-29, a university-wide program launched recently to create a new generation of business owners in 29 counties of eastern North Carolina, according to a news release issued on Monday.

Specifically, it will support and strengthen partnerships between ECU and the counties of Beaufort, Hyde, Martin and Pitt. The partners will create a pipeline for ECU graduates to establish new businesses in towns throughout the region, which has been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and supporting industry.

Additionally, many students who graduate through the RISE-29 program will team with small businesses in the region looking for succession and continuity plans as the small business owners prepare for retirement, the release said. County partners and regional mentors will provide students with in-depth knowledge about the communities housing these young microenterprises, helping them integrate with the community. RISE-29 will provide regional employment opportunities to graduating students, helping to reverse negative population trends in eastern North Carolina.

“ECU is making significant investments in entrepreneurship, innovation and new ventures, which we expect will drive student success and regional economic prosperity,” said Jay Golden, vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement. “This generous grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation allows us to grow and leverage our resources to give back to eastern North Carolina through strategic partnerships with business, community and government partners.”

Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach touted the number of jobs the program is projected to create. “This innovative partnership will help create 150 jobs in rural communities and provide long-term business growth strategies for current and budding business leaders,” Gerlach said.

Faculty and staff at ECU will work with the student teams to develop and refine business plans, obtain sector-specific training, locate workforce needs and access grants and critical seed funding, the release said. The student teams will engage in leading entrepreneurship programs through ECU and the College of Business’ Miller School of Entrepreneurship.

Teams also will develop and refine their technology or service business with seasoned business professionals at ECU’s Van and Jennifer Isley Innovation Hub. Currently under construction, the 25,000-square-foot building will be the state’s largest university-based innovation hub, housing business startup creation, prototyping equipment, pitch rooms, sales training and collaboration space.

“Economic development professionals across RISE-29’s service area identified a need for career development through internships and data-driven community development,” RISE-29 Program Director Sharon Paynter said. “Through RISE-29, students emerge from learners to doers, providing an engaged, supportive network of microenterprises that become community assets for the region.”

Students will be recruited to RISE-29 through several pathways, including Golden LEAF Scholars, the Miller School of Entrepreneurship, ECU’s Honor’s College, the university’s Horizon Living and Learning Community, the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge and various entrepreneurship courses and internship programs.

“It’s an exciting time at ECU for emerging entrepreneurs,” Miller School Director Mike Harris said. “Various initiatives have demonstrated a substantial increase in the number of students interested in business ownership. There is a coordinated effort across campus to prepare our students to become successful entrepreneurs and we’re excited to partner with RISE-29 communities to connect them with strategic, data-driven opportunities.”

Jason Semple, president and CEO of Martin County Economic Development Corporation, said he is looking forward to exploring how the program will bolster regional businesses.

“Small business creation is essential to the long-term health of rural communities,” Semple said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to partner with Golden LEAF and ECU as part of the university’s Rural Prosperity Initiative. This project will encourage entrepreneurial growth in Martin County and provide much-needed support as we seek ways to strengthen our local and regional economies.”

In addition to the Golden LEAF grant, RISE-29 will be supported by ECU’s philanthropic microenterprise fund. Those interested in supporting student teams or serving as industry mentors can contact ECU’s Office of Innovation and New Ventures.