Reversing the brain drain one job at a time

As a well-connected member of the Charlotte business community, I heard people say time and again, “Asheville (and the mountain region) would be a great place to live — but what would I do with my career?”

The most obvious challenge I faced when leading the effort to launch the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council for AdvantageWest was reversing the brain drain that has been happening in the mountains of North Carolina for generations.

The only way to do this is by creating career opportunities that are attractive enough to persuade the region’s newly graduated young professionals to resist the temptation to move to Charlotte, Raleigh or the nation’s leader in brain gain: Atlanta.

But first, the mountain region had to fill in some gaps in its infrastructure. Not the traditional manufacturing infrastructure (roads, sewer, water, buildable industrial sites, a quality work force and incentives packages); I’m talking about the kind that creates a nurturing environment for today’s entrepreneurs looking to launch new companies.

Entrepreneurs seek regions that already have a different kind of infrastructure in place: broadband and wireless Internet, professional service providers, private equity capital, sales-and-marketing training, low-cost “business incubator” space, and a presence in regional, state and national conferences and business groups.

Already, we’ve made significant progress. The amount of angel capital invested in Western North Carolina has increased from the $0 reported in the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s Venture Capital Report in 2002 to the more than $4 million raised by companies in the mountain region last year.

But this approach requires patience; you can’t expect to reverse a brain drain that’s been continuing since the Great Depression in a mere three years. We are starting to see results, however … one job at a time.

BUILDERadius is a terrific example of how to retain the mountain region’s best and brightest. The Asheville area’s most established software company, BUILDERadius offers building inspectors a way to communicate with contractors via mobile-phone software versus multiple trips to county permit offices. When the company was invited to present at the InfoTech Conference in 2002, it marked the first time any North Carolina-based company west of Charlotte had been so honored at any Council for Entrepreneurial Development conference.

Since 2002, BUILDERadius has grown its presence in downtown Asheville from a small office to an entire floor with beautiful mountain-and-skyline views. And rather than spending a lot of money on recruiting, the company has made it a priority to hire local college graduates. Fully one-third of the staff consists of either UNCA or Montreat College graduates or Asheville natives who attended college elsewhere.

And if BUILDERadius is acquired by a larger company, those original investors will put their gains to work in other companies, becoming angel investors and serial entrepreneurs, and the employees will launch another knowledge-based company, furthering the momentum of the entrepreneurial culture. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that CEO Bill Ward was one of the leaders who recruited me to the mountains from the Charlotte area after he’d attended my FirstRound Bootcamp for Entrepreneurs.)

The success of BUILDERadius has boosted the confidence of other local entrepreneurs and enhanced our statewide business profile, helping us recruit more entrepreneurs to the mountain region.

Navigational Sciences is one of those success stories. Using a license from one of our regional assets, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (which is actually closer to our mountains than Research Triangle Park), Navigational Sciences has raised millions of dollars from regional angel investors in Hendersonville, Asheville and even eastern Tennessee. And with the help of a phase II Small Business and Innovation Research grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the company has begun hiring local engineering talent. Four such grants were awarded to WNC companies last year (up from 0 in 2002).

Other potential success stories include such companies as HomeGauge, eGlobalDesign, Mariner Container and LabEscape, a data-visualization-software firm that was chosen for the 2005 CED InfoTech event. A little more than a year ago, eGlobalDesign — an e-mail marketing and Web-design firm — consisted of a husband-and-wife team that moved to Asheville from Florida. Today, the talented team has grown to 10, with a downtown office above a new restaurant called Table.

Other than the CED’s Venture Capital Conference, our annual Carolina Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference is the only venture-capital event in North Carolina. This year’s edition attracted more than $2 billion in potential capital, including more than $1 billion from California.

The 2004 Red Hat Road Trip was a great event, with three top-level Red Hat executives participating. It attracted open-source-software entrepreneurs from several Southern states who had never made a business trip to Western North Carolina before.

And this December, despite the snowy weather, Dr. Robert McMahan spent a day-and-a-half traveling the mountain region, meeting with BREC and Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network clients to get a better feel for the progress being made locally in the evolving knowledge economy. McMahan is the senior advisor on science and technology to Gov. Mike Easley.

Every time a high-net-worth individual or tax accountant learns about the qualified-business-venture tax credit, every time a small software company gains another client, and every time an innovator gets educated about SBIR grants, it opens the door to creating a few new jobs for the mountain region’s talented yet underemployed work force.

As a well-connected member of the Charlotte business community, I heard people say time and again, “Asheville (and the mountain region) would be a great place to live — but what would I do with my career?”

Now we’re beginning to answer that question … one job at a time.

[Jim Roberts is the founding executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and the Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network (both programs of AdvantageWest, a regional economic-development partnership covering the 23 counties of Western North Carolina). He can be reached at jroberts@awnc.org or at www.ncmtns.biz.]

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One thought on “Reversing the brain drain one job at a time

  1. Roselin

    Xcellent writeup and wealth of info .. thanks a lot Jim Roberts for the share.. !!

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