Marrying profit and positive change

Asheville is no stranger to the idealistic entrepreneur. The city is fortunate to have a plethora of small, independent businesses started by individuals and partnerships whose missions see no separation between making a living and making a positive difference in the world. We’re also fortunate to have many nonprofits that exist to provide logistical support to these enterprises.

But how many ideas are not able to get off the ground due to lack of funding opportunities? And likewise, how many potential investors keep their money in conventional systems of investment for lack of a structure that facilitates better use of their capital?

On April 30, Venture Asheville, an initiative that aims to create spaces where Asheville's entrepreneur scene can connect, packed out The Venue at 21 N. Market St. with social entrepreneurs, angel investors and members of the Durham-based nonprofit Investors’ Circle North Carolina. All were geared up to talk about the world-changing possibilities that reside in impact investment, and focused on sparking more investment opportunities in the western part of the state.

“What we see,” says ICNC member Steve Monti, “is a lot of investors who want to focus their activity in North Carolina, who want to invest within a couple of hours of IC’s [national headquarters in Raleigh-Durham] and to have real relationships with the companies.”

Founded in Chicago in 1992, the national Investors’ Circle reaches out to entrepreneurs and investors alike to make those relationships accessible to both parties in an organized and empowering way. The North Carolina branch formed in December 2011, when a contingent of members based in the Triangle area realized that they wanted to make an impact on a local level.

Investors' Circle members “are investing like any other [angel] group would invest," says Justin Desrosiers, director of strategy and operations, "but their passion is about positive social and environmental impact."

While the North Carolina branch did not initially have the long-term goal to reach as far as Asheville, Monti explains, after three visits here in the past year, its members are now taking an interest in the community: “We’re seeing a lot of the same demographics and potential to get engaged with the space that we see in the Triangle — it’s a slightly different demographic — but I think it’s a demographic that could work.”

Since its inception, the state branch has invited 15 companies to present at its monthly meetings, and has helped fund three of them.

Kicking off with a presentation by Kevin McCracken, who shared how he created his San Francisco-based company Social Imprints, the April 30 Asheville meeting featured three local startups making their pitch, hoping to receive feedback from IC members on how they can improve their concept and connect with potential investors.

Two out of the three startups were Asheville-based — Accelerating Appalachia, a nonprofit offering services to scale nature-based businesses in WNC and beyond; and Wellcase, an online personal management system for medical records and health information.

“ Money will find good ideas, it will follow good businesses,” says Venture Asheville’s Pam Lewis. She suggests that when it comes to accelerating any entrepreneur scene, networking and connections are all you really need. “If we just focus on the people and putting them together, then they will figure it out.” And that's what happened on April 30, she says.

IC members understand that investors need ideas and organization as much as entrepreneurs need money, and they welcome potential partners from both camps with open arms, aspiring to multiply their local networks — a possibility which could be a boon for many local economies including Asheville, Monti says.

There are multiple sources we can tap to irrigate Asheville’s fertile entrepreneurial ground, and if the initiative is shown, Investors Circle could become one of them, says Desrosiers “If we can get enough interest in the Asheville area, then we can maybe start a local network here,” he says, “and we can combine forces between Asheville and the Raleigh-Durham area and really drive more capital into these high-impact companies.”

For more information, go to www.investorscircle.net.

— Jordan Foltz can be reached at jfoltz@mountainx.com.

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