Heather McWhorter, the new director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, hopes to solidify and expand Wilmington’s role as a breeding ground for entrepreneurs.
“There’s something magical in a community that creates entrepreneurs and helps them succeed,” she said. “My vision is to make our community a global destination for entrepreneurs. I know we have what it takes.”
McWhorter brings a wide range of experience to her role as CIE’s leader. She has been an engineer and entrepreneur, and she has successfully headed other organizations that support entrepreneurs and small businesses. Though her background seems disparate, McWhorter sees similarities between engineers and entrepreneurs. Both take an idea and turn it into something that adds value, she explains.
McWhorter’s career path wasn’t a straight, or expected, trajectory. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in energy and mineral engineering from Penn State University. She also holds a professional engineer license in environmental engineering.
While a student, McWhorter worked in a chemical plant in Texas. That experience taught her that environmental engineering was her preferred field. After graduating, McWhorter was hired as a military contractor with the National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence, where she worked with the Department of Defense and NASA on programs to prevent pollution.
Though it was exciting and rewarding for a 20-something to fly throughout the U.S. and Canada to negotiate with weapons systems managers on environmental strategies, McWhorter had a young family. Eventually, she wanted a job that allowed her to be at home more often. When McWhorter learned that Penn State’s Small Business Development Center was setting up an environmental program, she got the job and built a team that helped small businesses properly dispose of waste.
“The businesses wanted to do the right thing but didn’t know how,” McWhorter said. “Large corporations are regulated, but small businesses can have a huge impact on the environment.”
Then, McWhorter’s career took an unexpected turn. Her supervisor and mentor urged her to apply for the directorship of the development center. McWhorter resisted. After all, she was an environmental engineer.
“He said I was good at working with people, that I cared, and that he wanted to see me in that position,” McWhorter said. “This is why mentors matter. I was not competitive as a female leader. He encouraged me, and I stepped into that role.”
Thus, McWhorter’s foray into entrepreneurship was launched, but that was only the beginning. She was also asked to run the university’s technical assistance program as well as its Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Outreach Initiatives.
Taking on these multiple roles, which encompassed leadership, engineering and outreach, wasn’t easy. In some cases, especially in areas that had been dominated by men, there was resistance.
“That situation can be daunting,” said McWhorter. “It was an adjustment for some of the senior guys.”
Daunting or not, McWhorter made her mark at Penn State, creating new programs that gave life and sustenance to entrepreneurial businesses. Just a few of her initiatives included the Penn State Global Entrepreneurship Week; TechCelerator Incubator Program; and Invent Penn State Inc.U Competition, a TV show during which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for investment dollars.
“I feel like a leader’s role is to create leaders,” McWhorter said. “The impact I’m proudest of at Penn State is the leaders I helped create.”
McWhorter decided in 2017 to move to Wilmington, partly because of the warm weather and partly because she wanted to contribute to the city’s growing ecosystem. In her position as director of the UNCW Small Business and Technology Development Center, she did just that, she said.
When the directorship of UNCW’s CIE opened, McWhorter asked to be considered. She also agreed to serve as CIE’s interim director while continuing to oversee UNCW’s SBTDC until a decision was made.
It was a crazy and stressful 10 months, she said, but McWhorter maintained CIE’s programs and kept the organization moving forward. In July, McWhorter was named director of CIE. She plans to continue many of CIE’s current programs and conduct surveys and focus groups to guide the organization’s future endeavors.
McWhorter has also set personal goals for the organization, including programs for entrepreneurs who focus on solving environmental issues.
Another goal is to establish programs targeting minorities and female entrepreneurs, so they can scale and create multimillion-dollar businesses just as their male counterparts have done.
For McWhorter, supporting entrepreneurship is the gateway to improving individual lives and communities, she said.
“I love helping people, and when you can help someone achieve their vision, their dream of being an entrepreneur, that’s inherently rewarding,” she said. “I also want to help the community be as good as it can through innovation. We all succeed by taking on big community problems through innovation and through the center.