With a focus on innovation, local businesses and industry are giving unique opportunities to East Carolina University students and getting back quality and talent in return as part of the Rural Innovations Strengthening Eastern-29 Counties Program, known more simply as RISE29. The 29 counties in the title refers to the eastern North Carolina region primarily served by ECU. Formed out of ECU’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship, one of the program hallmarks is that the internships come from almost every academic discipline at the university.
Through the Community-Based Grants Initiative, Golden LEAF awarded $1 million to help counties in the Northeast Prosperity Zone retain existing small businesses and foster new business growth. East Carolina University received the award in February 2019. For now, the initiative is focused on businesses in Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, and Pitt counties. So far, 29 businesses in these counties have received the support of 76 interns.
“The idea for RISE29 originated from thinking about ways to attract talent to rural communities,” said Dr. Sharon Paynter, ECU Assistant Vice Chancellor for Economic and Community Engagement. “ECU has a huge resource of students and talent to be deployed to help address some of the capacity issues in small businesses, whether it is consulting on a specific project or problem or helping them to think about new innovative ways to do something to expand their business.”
ECU connects with businesses in the four counties involved in the program through advisory councils. The councils consist of the local economic developers and business representatives. They assist in the marketing and recruiting of businesses who have a set of goals and a scope that student interns can help solve.
Second generation auto repair business owner Chris Johnson moved home to Washington, in Beaufort County to take over his dad’s business when his father became sick. Beaufort County Economic Development Director Martyn Johnson helped Johnson connect with the university’s RISE29 program to help build up his clientele and operational efficiencies.
“Sometimes when you are running a business, you get in a rut,” said Johnson. “The RISE29 program team was very insightful in how I could make some tweaks to things to increase business.”
Johnson received a RISE29 team that included marketing, accounting, and graphic design majors. In fact, one of the interns also wanted to open his own auto shop, said Johnson.
“The team provided me with lots of strategies to support growing my business,” said Johnson. “One of the programs I was already using had a way to send out message alerts to let my customers know about weekly promotions. The team also provided tips to make the shop’s appearance more inviting. I even had my website updated to be more responsive to my customers.”
Johnson said the team was just about finished working with him when the pandemic hit. They decided to finish up their last few sessions virtually.
“Through the pandemic, I haven’t had to let anyone go,” said Johnson. “I actually need to hire two more people right now.”
Another goal of the RISE29 program is to help build new businesses in the four-county area.
“We wanted our students to consider launching a small business in a rural community, both from a customer base, but also from a resources and assets base, that demonstrates that connection between a small town and a small business,” said Dr. Paynter.
Pitt County native, Ashely Nolan, was finishing up her senior year at ECU in 2020 and wanted an internship experience. She applied for the RISE29 internship. During the interview process, Nolan talked about her only business experience, which was a small jewelry business she created called Copper Ashes. Nolan told the interview team she had sold $20,000 in custom-made jewelry through Facebook Marketplace in about six months.
“I thought I didn’t have enough experience, and there was no way I was getting the internship,” said Nolan. “They emailed and asked if I wanted to be an intern and a client! I was given a team of two other interns to work with.”
RISE29 helped Nolan incorporate her business and provided her a toolset that launched her business.
“The experience pushed my business ahead by what would have taken me four or five years by myself,” said Nolan. “In 2020, I did well over three times as many sales as I did in 2019. I even hired one of the interns to help me part-time.”
Nolan attributes the tremendous growth of her business to the help she received from RISE29.
“Currently, this is my full time job,” said Nolan. “I definitely would not be here without the help I received from RISE29. I wish I would have learned about it sooner. It is a great opportunity for ECU students to learn more about how to build a business and to have the opportunity to work with other businesses.”
The pandemic has slowed the business growth goal of RISE29, but in the entrepreneurial spirit of the program, new ways of growing have started to take shape. One of the changes to come out of the COVID-19 economic slowdown is the creation of the RISE Up program.
The RISE Up model will give students the experiences and resources they need to have a comprehensive network ready to help them start their business by the end of the semester.
“They meet with three entrepreneurs, the county manager, and the local Chamber of Commerce in each of the four counties,” said Welch. “They will present a business plan to these same economic development officials at the end of the semester. These students will have the connections built so they are ready to start their businesses.”
RISE29 is developing a national model for rural entrepreneurs with the goal of transforming eastern North Carolina through microenterprises, job development and existing business support. In fact, ECU has pledged to create the most student-led startups of any university in the state. Learn more about this innovative program by clicking here.