The Coastal Entrepreneur Awards began 10 years ago to shine a spotlight on our region’s up-and-coming entrepreneurs, but it also had broader goals.
With the exception of PPD’s then recently opened, shimmering headquarters downtown, entrepreneurial activity was hard to see in the Wilmington area. It existed, but was mainly tucked away inside homes, office parks and executive suites.
Most residents and outsiders viewed the Wilmington region as a great place to live and visit, but not as a center of entrepreneurial activity.
Part of the goal of the Coastal Entrepreneur Awards was to create a mind shift — both in the awards program and in our community.
The awards program was previously called the Coastal Small Business Awards, and it mainly recognized lifestyle businesses that were active in the community.
Fortunately, Larry Clark, then the dean of UNCW’s Cameron School of Business that ran the awards program, was creating an entrepreneurship center 10 years ago when I presented him with the idea of morphing the Small Business Awards into the Entrepreneur Awards.
The idea was to shift the program away from lifestyle businesses to showcase entrepreneurial, fast-growing and job-creating organizations in our region, particularly those that could benefit from the publicity and connections around winning a Coastal Entrepreneur Award.
We’ve since recognized 90 organizations in the past nine years. It’s been a diverse lot, including high-tech firms, a trash company, logistics businesses, Freakers, Internet start-ups, toothfairies and numerous non-profits, which we felt were also important to recognize for their entrepreneurial activity.
A number of the award winners went on to be recognized on Inc. magazine’s list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. Some have been sold, and several have gone out of business. One was honored as CNN’s Hero of the Year.
Beyond the individual stories, what’s most striking is how far our entrepreneurial community has come.
Think back 10 years ago.
Live Oak Bank was just getting its banking charter. Castle Branch was crammed into offices at the Cotton Exchange, and tekMountain didn’t exist. UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was just an idea on campus.
Today, Live Oak is a public company worth more than $1 billion. Its spinout technology firm, nCino, is a private company worth more than $1 billion, and a separate spinout business, Apiture, recently opened downtown with 50 employees.
Castle Branch is spread out over two buildings near Mayfaire, while tekMountain and UNCW’s CIE are thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Other signs of entrepreneurial expansion are more evident when you’re driving around town — from new buildings at Quality Chemical Laboratories along I-40 to the Untappd building downtown on Front Street.
While many other ventures remain tucked away and many people still view our region as a vacation destination, our entrepreneurial progress of the past 10 years is clear.
And we want to celebrate it!
To recognize this progress and the 10th anniversary of the Coastal Entrepreneur Awards, we’re having a special dinner on May 23 at UNCW’s Burney Center.
The Keynote Speaker is our region’s most accomplished entrepreneur of the past 10 years, Live Oak Bank CEO Chip Mahan, and we’ll announce the “Top Ten for Ten” — the 10 entrepreneurial organizations among the 90 previous winners that have stood out the most for their innovation and growth.
I hope you’ll join us. Please visit CoastalEntrepreneur.com to register and make sure you scroll down on the main page to see the 90 previous winners.
And make sure you invite some people who still view our region as a sleepy beach town so they can see all the entrepreneurial activity that’s underway.
Rob Kaiser is the publisher of Greater Wilmington Business Journal and WILMA magazine. He can be reached at (910) 343-8600 x204 or [email protected]