By David Rogers. December 10, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Blowing Rock and the rest of the High Country have long been considered rural, with the region’s economic development largely stymied by a dependence on seasonal tourism, as well as challenged by significant deficiencies in infrastructure, such as transportation. That may all be changing if Startup High Country, “Silicon Hollar,” and the High Country Impact Fund initiatives have anything to say about it.
What used to be the so-called “secret sauce” of American entrepreneurship is today known globally, Thom Ruhe, chief executive officer of NC IDEA non-profit told some four dozen budding entrepreneurs at Blowing Rock’s American Legion Building Thursday evening. “Competition today,” Ruhe observed, “isn’t two counties over. You are competing with the kid in Bangladesh.”
You are now competing with the kid in Bangladesh.
Once an entrepreneur himself, for the last 15 years Ruhe has been actively involved in entrepreneurship education, seven years with the Kauffman Foundation, working with communities around the world to reap the benefits of democratizing entrepreneurship. He directed the Foundation’s programs addressing entrepreneurial education, mentoring, access to capital and fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems, before moving along to similar roles with other organizations. He has been quoted and published in: NYTimes, WSJ, Forbes, Inc., and more. In addition, Ruhe has spoken and participated in a variety of functions all over the world including the United Nations, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (Vatican), the USPTO, NACCE, AACC, USASBE, and GEW.
As with most of his other positions, Ruhe’s main job at NC IDEA is to oversee the foundation’s grant-giving programs that provide seed and startup capital to budding entrepreneurs in North Carolina.
“When I am giving away money,” Ruhe shared to the laughter of his smiling High Country audience, “I am the smartest guy in the room and the best looking!
“People ask about what we do and why we do it,” the entrepreneurship mentor added. “You might think that I should say something coherent and articulate and intelligent, but I don’t have to because you just saw on display why we funded this. It was the four companies that just gave their presentations. That’s why we gave money. We see the opportunity and we see the potential of what is happening here, and we understand — as do the participants and the people who support it.”
There was a ceiling for most on what they could accomplish.
Ruhe was talking about a $100,000 grant that NC IDEA gave to Startup High Country to promote entrepreneurship in the mountain region of northwestern North Carolina.
He stressed that it was important to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in North Carolina that is inclusive, in order to build a resilient economy that will sustain the changes in what he described as, “…a very crazy changing world.”
Ruhe reflected, “In my parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes, you were significantly economically handicapped if you were illiterate, that you could not read. There was a ceiling for most on what they could accomplish.
“Today, you are illiterate if you cannot think in entrepreneurial terms. That is the sea change that has happened. If we don’t figure out a way to get people capable of critical thinking, maximizing limited resources, and committed to lifelong learning, you will find yourself increasingly irrelevant at the individual level, at the community level, as well as at the state and national level.”
Four entrepreneurs gave short “pitches” Thursday night, covering a variety of market opportunities.
- Hatchet Coffee — a relatively new coffee roastery, cafe, and as an online vendor
- SilverBarre — working with the elderly to age gracefully through dance and motion
- Church Learn — a software developer to help train church volunteers
- High Country Food Hub — a new physical and online resource to help connect local food producers and farmers with retail and business customers
The entrepreneurs representing those businesses recently comprised the first cohort of companies in Velocity Labs, a Startup High Country accelerator program aimed at helping new founders and partners of pre-revenue or early-stage companies with high growth potential.
Doc Hendley, Founder and President of Boone-based Wine to Water reflected back on the origins of his hugely successful non-profit enterprise, offering inspirational insights on having an idea for creating a market solution for a problem. In his case, it was the dearth of readily accessible clean water for much of the world’s population. Whether providing filters or digging wells near communities where men, women and children historically have had to walk as much as four hours each way from their homes to even an unclean water source, Hendley and his team have successfully completed projects in Uganda, Haiti, the Philippines, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nepal, Peru, Syria, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Kenya, Guatemala, Sint Maart, South Africa, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Saint Vincents, St. Croix, Vietnam, Zambia, Ecuador, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and even in the United States.
NC IDEA is a private foundation with a mission to maximize the economic potential of the people of North Carolina by supporting the formation and fruition of high-growth entrepreneurial endeavors in the state.
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