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Opinion-Entrepreneurship: Impacting A Vital Wilmington

By George Taylor, posted Aug 22, 2014
The UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) is preparing to host the first Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference on September 4th at the Coastline Convention Center in Downtown Wilmington. The question is, who cares? 
 
The conference will be everything entrepreneurial, a day of challenging thought, amazing people, and lots of fun. But: who cares?
 
The truth is that entrepreneurship should matter to everyone in our community, and we should ALL attend the September 4th event. WHY? Because entrepreneurship is another critical component in driving a healthy community – just like UNCW and CFCC, our film studio and other arts, our coastal assets, our anchor businesses, and the overall amazing lifestyle our community provides.
 
Our recent UNCW Chancellor, Gary Miller, said that he strongly supported the CIE because its success meant that the University would have led the charge to:
 
         a. Reverse the “Brain Drain” that occurs when UNCW graduates must leave town to find a job
         b. Raise awareness of Wilmington’s Innovation Economy across the southeast region
         c. Make ILM one of the go-to places in North Carolina for entrepreneurs.
 
One year into this project, the CIE has made tremendous progress toward achieving these goals and has established the momentum necessary to accelerate this positive trajectory. This progress is remarkable, but if you’re not part of UNCW and not an entrepreneur, it’s reasonable to ask: Why should I care?
 
Reversing the “Brain Drain”
Wilmington has a reputation for having the best educated wait-staff in the nation. Wilmington’s lifestyle is highly sought after by bright young minds, but it doesn’t provide the job market to match. College graduates generally have to move in order to find a career with a salary over $50,000.
 
When bright minds leave our community, there is a negative economic and cultural impact. 
 
These are the people who will be buying houses, eating at restaurants, raising families, supporting the arts and charities, and paying taxes – in another city. Without them, Wilmington risks becoming a community unbalanced, focused only on retirees and tourists.
 
Entrepreneurship has proven to have critical impact on the future economic health and cultural wellbeing of our community, and Wilmington’s startups have begun to make a big impact. 
 
nCino, N2 Publishing, Castle Branch, and Live Oak Bank are great examples of innovation companies that were founded here, are hiring knowledge workers (over 550 so far), are building amazing workspaces, and supporting our cultural and environmental assets.
 
And then there’s Next Glass, a company that I’m part of and which is a graduate of the CIE. 
 
This 10 month old company has already hired 16 people at 2-3 times the average county wages, moved forward on its new headquarters driving a $2+ million investment in an historic downtown building, supported many of the local arts and charities, and brought national attention to Wilmington’s innovation economy.
 
We need more companies like these. They are exactly how we stop brain drain.
 
Awakening the Southeast to Wilmington’s Innovation Economy
We all used to cringe when Wilmington won another Best Place to Live Award. We knew it meant more people discovering our treasured little beach town. 
 
Like it or not though, Wilmington has grown, and is now in a precarious spot: the middle. The middle can feel good.  It can certainly feel comfortable and “good enough.” But in a city not fueled with change, diversity, and growth, the middle can lead to complacency which will eventually lead to decline.
 
When entrepreneurially minded people come to Wilmington, as they will for Coastal Connect, we demonstrate our success to those who will take risks by starting companies here and investing time and capital into our startups. Growth from entrepreneurship will bring diversity, energized cultural assets, and, in the end, people who will engage and drive change. 
 
Wilmington has tipped, and that’s a good thing – but it also means that there’s no turning back. We all need to learn more about entrepreneurship and support it.
 
Make ILM a Go-To Place for Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs are the holy grail of an innovation economy, and one of the key pillars of a thriving community. They are the ones who risk literally everything to build the next big thing that they believe will change the world. 
 
Imagine Wilmington renowned as a city that helps entrepreneurs thrive. Where they’re welcomed, because we understand that they’ll go on to build companies that hire our sons and daughters (or maybe you). We appreciate the energy, capital, and smarts they bring to Wilmington, and we benefit from their charitable donations – and the taxes they pay.
 
As a community, we need to all understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, and engage with people and organizations who are working to grow this critical part of our economy. 
 
So, who cares? You, I hope. The people who want Wilmington to thrive.
 
Go to Coastal Connect (uncw.edu/cie). I’ll see you there.
 
George Taylor is chairman of Wilmington-based Next Glass.
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