After carefully culling a pool of 95 applications, Accelerating Appalachia, Western North Carolina-based social impact business accelerator, has chosen eight regional nature-based luminaries to participate in its 2015 cohort — Ecological Services Markets, Green River Picklers, Grow Journey, Harvest Moon Grille, Joseph Adams, ORB Technologies, River Island Apothecary and Smiling Hara Tempeh.
Led by sustainability champion Sara Day Evans, the annual program is a real-world master’s course in upping business momentum strategically.
“We help our nature-based businesses build out all aspects of business development, scale sustainably, connect to supply chains and prepare for investment and pitches,” she says. “Plus, we connect them to a peer, mentor and investor network that is regional, national and global.”
The program’s syllabus isn’t its only all-encompassing aspect. From budding to booming, the 2015 class combines companies of all sizes, development stages and backgrounds. “They are start-ups to more mature businesses in growth, in food, farming, social enterprise, games, agriculture technology, botanicals, affordable green housing and heirloom seeds,” says Evans, “and 80 percent are women-led or co-led.”
And the leading ladies have high hopes for the program’s educational potential.
“I have been flying by the seat of my pants the whole time that I’ve been a businesswoman,” says Katie Vie, founder of River Island Apothecary. “I’ve been relying on my natural talents and a wing and a prayer, [but] I want to leave this program savvy. In addition to saying ‘I’m an oil blender,’ I want to be able to say ‘I’m an entrepreneur’ and have that really mean something. I want to learn the craft of being an entrepreneur and then apply that to my actual craft.”
“I don’t know everything I need to know,” echoes Green River Picklers general manager Brandi Morrow. “I’m only 25 [years old], and we’ve been running this business for four years, so what I hope to get out of this is all the missing pieces — the questions that I have throughout the year that I don’t exactly have a mentor for and the networking. That’s what it’s all about.”
Although not all of the selected are Asheville-based, each has the capacity and intention to contribute to a healthier WNC environment, according to Evans, who is even courting four larger, “fast track” companies from Colorado, California, Tanzania and Greece.
While Accelerating Appalachia doesn’t provide any funding to members — or even broker the inevitable investment offers — participating business owners are regularly coached (often following coercion on Evans’ part) into endless pitching and refinement of their business offerings.
But the key to successful investments, Evans tells the group, requires more than eloquence.
“[The program is] getting us ready so that when we do encounter people with the checkbooks, we’re well-prepared to state our case,” says Smiling Hara Tempeh co-owner Chad Oliphant, adding that not taking a check from the wrong book is equally important. “We’re also well prepared so that when we do get that check, we’re going to use it wisely.”
Evans’ 2015 clan has already begun its intensive, multimonth business immersion with workshops scheduled at Warren Wilson College and across the state, but the students’ journey won’t stop when class is dismissed.
“We are building networks that are committed to these businesses beyond our 12-week accelerator,” she says. “I hope each business leaves with a solid and trusted peer, mentor and investor network and continued access to the support and guidance they need to succeed this year, the next year and beyond.”
Accelerating Appalachia is funded by philanthropic individuals, fees from entrepreneurs and a contract with Warren Wilson College, where Evans teaches a sustainable business class alongside Accelerating Appalachia lead facilitator Kim Hunter. (WWC students are also integrated into these educational sessions.) Visit acceleratingappalachia.org for more information about this year’s program and participants.