WILMINGTON — Acquinetta Beatty keeps busy in a small office of the YWCA Lower Cape Fear on South College Road in Wilmington, but she’s not a yoga instructor, swim coach or personal trainer. Rather, she fills her days helping local women, veterans, and minority entrepreneurs turn their business dreams into reality.
Beatty is director of Coastal Women’s Ventures, a new program created in partnership with Carolina Small Business Development Fund. Providing entrepreneurs with business coaching, mentoring, and small business education are some of the services CWV provides, in addition to connecting hopeful business owners to much-needed startup funds.
“We pride ourselves on taking risks on people, so things like an individual’s credit score shouldn’t keep her from becoming successful,” Beatty explained, adding that she works with entrepreneurs seeking anywhere from $500 to $250,000.
The types of startups Beatty has been working with range from a sewing business to a hospital transportation service to a new, eco-friendly way of redoing furniture, all unique and even quirky.
A growing ecosystem
Coastal Women’s Ventures is just the latest in an expanding number of groups and institutions in the Wilmington area helping local entrepreneurs. Several of them, including Beatty’s group, have formed an ad-hoc organization called The Coalition to better share and coordinate resources for startups.
Other members of The Coalition include the Small Business Administration (SBA); SCORE, a network of expert business mentors; the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC); Cape Fear Community College’s Small Business Center; Brunswick Community College’s Small Business Center; the North Carolina Military Business Center; AARP; teKMountain,an innovation center/co-working space located across the street from Mayfair; and the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).
The CIE was the organizing entity moving The Coalition forward very quickly in January 2017, in order to begin publicizing monthly events for the entire year. The thinking behind The Coalition, according to CIE Director Diane Durance, was to get the area’s entrepreneurial resources out from behind acronyms and in front of innovators.
“The names are confusing, especially since many of us go by acronyms including the CIE, SCORE, SBTDC, and the SBCs. We wanted to make it easier and more accessible for entrepreneurs to understand and access these free services, many of which are almost too good to believe,” she explained.
The concept of The Coalition is to celebrate one another’s successes, promoting and sharing services for the common good — helping to grow the Wilmington economy. There is additional collaboration on events, such as business roundtables where entrepreneurs can come and learn from experts in various fields. The Coalition is also working on a website and marketing brochure to get fledgling business owners to the right places.
Wilmington’s Place in N.C.’s Startup Future
A newly released Innovators Report from the Durham-based Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) shows North Carolina entrepreneurs raised over $1.1 billion in 2017. This included a record-setting 224 equity investment deals — venture capital, angel, corporate, growth equity and strategic investments — which reflects an almost 20 percent increase over the previous year.
As the report states, North Carolina continues to see an active early-stage (i.e. startups) ecosystem, with over 80 percent of the deals in 2017 under $5 million. That said, the epicenters of investments are Charlotte (38 deals for $614,214,603) and the Triangle (140 deals for $408,109,651). Eastern North Carolina saw a total of 13 deals for $30,472,108 according to CED, putting it more in line with the Triad, both of which were slightly behind the startup community in the mountains of N.C.
Wilmington is growing its reputation as a place entrepreneurs want to live and grow a business, building on a legitimate history of successful startups. Perhaps the most visible is award-winning PPD, a pharmaceutical contract research organization headquartered on Front Street boasting 20,000 employees scattered throughout 88 offices in 47 countries. At the recent Annual Meeting of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, PPD Founder Fred Eshelman said he grew his business in Wilmington because of the quality of life and talent here.
Other businesses like Live Oak Bank and nCino are following suit, according to the Chamber’s Director of Communications Scott Czechlewski. His organization is seeing renewed interest and growing membership lately, with a diverse set of new businesses in the area including IT support and pharma research, among many others.
“We are becoming known for our strong fintech and CRO start-ups across the state and nation. With resources like UNCWCIE, tekMountain, and the Biotechnology Center, the entrepreneurial community will only continue to grow and flourish,” he said, adding, “We expect to see similar success stories in the marine sciences in the coming years and many other areas.”
The marine sciences are indeed becoming part of Wilmington’s distinct startup personality, shaped in part by Wilmington’s location, history, and connection to the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.
As an example, the CIE’s Diane Durance pointed to the Fish 2.0 competition, a global effort to bring entrepreneurs and investors together to grow ventures targeted toward sustainable seafood.
In the spring of 2017, the CIE and the UNCW Center for Marine Science in Myrtle Grove hosted shellfish industry entrepreneurs from the southeast at an intense, closed-door workshop to polish their pitches for the Fish 2.0 competition. Two startups with UNCW ties, ShellTrak and ShellBond, ended up as finalists in the Fish 2.0 Innovation Forum in November.
“We need to develop businesses that are successful and viable in fields helpful to the marine environment, encourage entrepreneurial ventures for seafood and the seafood supply chain,” Durance said.
“With a supportive corporate community, media and film and events like Cucalorus, and active groups like The Coalition, Wilmington can definitely make that happen.”