Recently, Golden LEAF President, Chief Executive Officer Scott T. Hamilton sat down with Thom Ruhe, President, Chief Executive Officer of the NC IDEA, via Zoom and filmed the nineteenth edition in a video series called Critical Conversations. In this series, Scott talks with professionals about economic development issues affecting the state.
Ruhe has led NC IDEA since 2016, helping build the economy of North Carolina through entrepreneurship.
NC IDEA is an independent, private, 501(c)(3) foundation whose vision is to help North Carolinians achieve their entrepreneurial ambition to start and grow high potential companies. NC IDEA fosters sustainable economic development with competitive grants and programs for entrepreneurs and funding to strengthen the North Carolina entrepreneurial ecosystem. Its mission is to strengthen the economy of North Carolina through a strategic combination of grants and programs, deployed directly and through a network of partners, in furtherance of the NC IDEA Vision to help people achieve their entrepreneurial potential.
Ruhe said he started his career in entrepreneurship by helping launch and starting businesses and by raising capital for companies. After about 20 years in the business, he decided to move to the nonprofit side of entrepreneurship to provide economic development support to entrepreneurs. Ruhe said he spent seven years at the Kauffman Foundation, a foundation committed to entrepreneurship, learning how to build entrepreneurial ecosystems. About seven years ago, he took over the lead at NC IDEA from the founder, David Rizzo, who was an executive at MCNC before starting NC IDEA.
The two funding programs available for entrepreneurs at NC IDEA are the MICRO and SEED grant programs. Ruhe stated the flagship grant program is the SEED program. This program is for early founder entrepreneurs caught between an idea and the point at which they can obtain seed capital for their business. Ruhe said so many ideas die at this stage because they cannot find the needed funding to move past it. The SEED program provides $50,000 to innovative startups with a proven concept — even if they are not yet profitable. The funds, along with mentorship and guidance, push companies forward and reduce risk associated with growing startups.
The MICRO grant program was born out of the need to help entrepreneurs with a great idea but not enough capital to test the idea or build the idea to see if it will work, said Ruhe. Through small, project-based grants, NC IDEA MICRO awards $10,000 in funding to young companies looking to validate and advance their idea. We have found that funding, paired with mentorship and guidance, early in a company’s lifecycle, can make a significant impact on future success, Ruhe explained.
With both of these funding opportunities, NC IDEA focuses on the funding needs for female, minority, and rural founders, since it is proven that these populations have historically had less access to funding. Ruhe said that to date through the SEED and MICRO grants 80% have been awarded to either women, minority or rural founders.
Part of NC IDEA’s mission is to work on the culture of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Ruhe explained that NC IDEA works with organizations that are working locally in communities throughout the state to help founders build the entrepreneurship community. He shared that each community is different. The organizations come together to tell NC IDEA and the members of the ecosystem what is needed to support entrepreneurship in their communities. Every quarter, 150 funded organizations from all over the state share what’s working in their community, come with an ask for help, and offer solutions.
NC IDEA holds an annual Ecosystem Summit. Registration is still open at this link. This year’s summit will be held November 14th and 15th in Winston-Salem, to kick off Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). GEW is a dedicated week to focus on entrepreneurship. There will be approximately 50,000 events all around the globe focusing on entrepreneurship during GEW, said Ruhe. He explained that North Carolina is the only statewide summit he is aware of that looks at entrepreneurship from a statewide portfolio. Golden LEAF Director of Programs Marilyn Chism will serve on one of the panels at the 2022 Ecosystem Summit. Ruhe said the chief economist from the National Association of Counties will share success stories of communities using Build Back Better funding. He stated that an economic innovation group that publishes the distressed communities index will also be a keynote speaker. Ruhe said that this event gives an opportunity for entrepreneurs to gather, learn from each other, and provide the community needed to provide hope that solutions are in place to help entrepreneurs grow in North Carolina.