Accelerating Appalachia helps nature-based entrepreneurs get funding

Riverbend Malt House co-owner Brent Manning, left, expanded his production from less than one ton of malt per batch to four tons while working with Sara Day Evans, right. “Our experience with Accelerating Appalachia was definitely a positive one,” says Manning. “We learned a lot and we got tied into an amazing network of people in our area that we, frankly, had no idea were available to us.” Photo by Pat Barcas

Last year, Accelerating Appalachia orchestrated the transfer of about $505,000 in investment funds toward sustainable, nature-based ventures in Western North Carolina. This year, the Asheville-based nonprofit — the region’s first social-impact business accelerator — partnered with impact investor Reinventure Capital for 2015 and recently invited businesses to submit funding applications online.

Submissions for 2015 are due by Thursday, Jan. 15, and although entities worldwide are eligible to submit plans that benefit other locales, the Accelerating Appalachia management team strongly favors local applicants, according to founder Sara Day Evans, who launched the organization’s initial application drive in January 2013. “If folks from other regions can contribute to improving the soil, seeds, grains, grasses, water, weather in our region, then we want to bring them here,” she says, noting sustainable food, farming, clean energy, forests, textiles, green building, craft brewing and distilling, integrative medicine and more as targeted 2015 project categories.

Year one investments were a success, says Evans. “We helped [businesses] get further down the road to really making a positive social and environmental impact,” she says. “Of the 10 businesses that graduated [from the first round of funding], five of the 10 received investment anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000. They created 35 good jobs, they retained 52 jobs, they added 12 new farmers to their pipeline, and they added 106 new acres to that pipeline,” says Evans, highlighting key achievements. “We picked good businesses.”

Acting as a financial matchmaker, Evans pairs selected companies with investors, based on project category fit and the level of funds sought. It’s a process Evans calls “a pathway to prosperity for nature-based businesses.” She also ensures mentorship and networking opportunities for successful applicants, making Accelerating Appalachia a one-stop shop for business growth.

IMPACT INVESTING

“We support businesses that support people, place and prosperity,” says Evans. This approach to investing goes by a host of names — each a different shade of green. “Triple bottom line,” “nonextractive economies” and “impact investing,” for example, all refer to the marriage of financial gain and sustainability. (See “Sustainability Semantics.”)

“All of the investors in this network are impact-focused,” says Evans, whose current financial partners include Prosperity Collective, Reinventure Capital, Big Path Capital, Transform Finance, BALLE, Village Capital, Social Capital Markets and AdvantageWest. For both investors and entrepreneurs interested in sustainable business, this alignment of principles is critical.

“We are looking for investment, but we’re not just going to take it from anywhere,” says Chad Oliphant, co-owner of Smiling Hara Tempeh. “[Accelerating Appalachia investors] are more concerned [with] not extracting from communities than they are about their bottom line.”

Local impact investor Dave Wheeler says his personal involvement with Accelerating Appalachia ventures like Candler-based Smokin’ J’s Fiery Foods invokes “a whole new type of satisfaction” beyond the monetary gain. “I highly recommend it,” he says.

LEADING LADIES

“Research out of Emory [University] says female-run impact enterprises at the early stage are outperforming [their male counterparts] by 15 percent, but they are 40 percent less likely to get funded,” says Reinventure board member Kevin Jones, a member of Evans’ financial network. His team of investors currently gives a 10 percent quota bonus to women-led businesses and plans to increase the company’s emphasis on female investments if data continues to validate the gender-based performance gap.

Although criticized for implementing that quota, Jones claims the disparity aligns with his fiduciary responsibility to Reinventure’s investors. “We’re picking a group that’s outperforming,” he says.

According to Evans, 75 percent of last year’s 100 applicants were women-led businesses, suggesting at least a robust female interest in nature-based entrepreneurship.

ACCELERATING APPALACHIA IN 2015

“The results of our last round were pretty surprising — even to us,” says Evans, rattling off Riverbend Malt House, Smokin’ J’s Fiery Foods, Bark House, Appalachian Botanical Alliance “and many more” as success stories. “We’re really excited about the next crop of businesses.”

“That was just the first year, so we’ve got a whole lot to live up to,” says Evans, verbalizing her high hopes for 2015. “We’re getting ready to take it to the next level!”

Visit acceleratingappalachia.org for more information or to begin an application for 2015 funding.

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About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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