Small Business Center Network helps NC entrepreneurial economy thrive

North Carolina residents have access to more than 58 small business centers dedicated to helping them start and grow their dreams.

Posted Updated
Lisa D'Aromando
, freelance reporter
This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Community Colleges.

Entrepreneurship is not a career for the faint of heart.

Only half of all startups are left standing after five years, and even fewer last past 10 years. These small businesses fail for many reasons, but a lack of knowledge and preparedness is often a contributing factor.

"A fundamental lack of knowledge on how to run a business could have been the greatest hazard to my business," said retired U.S. Marine Brian Vinciguerra. Vinciguerra and his family fell in love with escape room games while on vacation, and when he decided to start his own, he knew he would need help learning how to operate a business.

Both the North Carolina Community College System and the General Assembly believe that small businesses are a critical component of economic development. With their help, residents have access to more than 58 small business centers dedicated to helping them start and grow their dreams.

With 683 startups launched and more than 3,800 jobs created or retained from 2016 to 2017, the N.C. Community College System Small Business Center Network has proven to be a vital component of North Carolina's growing economy.

The centers are all open to the public, and those who are interested do not have to be a student at one of the colleges. Anyone can take advantage of the free services offered, from confidential one-on-one business counseling, to high-impact seminars and classes, and information and referral services.

Each center offers standard, core programs, while other programs are more specialized and customized to a particular community.

Popular programs include business planning -- where you learn how to obtain capital -- and social media marketing for those with limited budgets. In the last few years, there has also been a skyrocketing interest in anything to do with food and farming enterprises, or agripreneurship. Urban areas tend to see an uptick in interest in things like international trade, importing and exporting, as well as anything technology-related.

Educational opportunities also range in topics depending on location. For example, Fayetteville Tech, Central Piedmont and Coastal Carolina offer a program called A New Mission, targeted at military women who want to start businesses. Similarly, Boots to Business is a program for veterans offered at Fayetteville Tech, Coastal Carolina and Wayne.

Anne Shaw, the state director of SBCN, highlighted the value of networking with other hopeful entrepreneurs and business owners.

"You're going to be in a room with other people who are trying to do the same things you’re doing," she explained. "You support each other."

Support from professionals with valuable experience spanning industries and business topics is vital for success. Most of the counselors have owned or operated a business in the past, or have experience dealing with business ownership and operations in a related area.

With mentorship, people are able to learn about business-related topics or simply troubleshoot issues with people who have likely been there before. The combination of local volunteers, contractors and the center directors themselves serve as personalized guides for the entrepreneurial journey.

Business success stories coming out of the SBCN range from confectioners like Sweet Cheeks Bakery to automotive businesses like Back Roads Adventures.
Vinciguerra took advantage of every seminar he could at Coastal Carolina, in addition to all of the networking opportunities and business counseling. Even after three years of successful Cracked It! Escape Games experiences in North Carolina, Vinciguerra continues to utilize the network to help refine and grow his business.

"The small business center network has been incredibly valuable to my fledgling startup," Vinciguerra explained. "The lessons I have learned and incorporated into my daily operations have directly contributed to the success of Cracked it! Escape Games. From the moment I walked into the center and met with the counselor, I have had a support network available to me."

Cracked It! Escape Games suffered a "massive amount of flooding and roof damage" as a result of Hurricane Florence. "The customer side of the building escaped relatively unscathed, but unfortunately our workshop did not," Vinciguerra said. "There was a massive amount of flooding and roof damage to the other half of the building, including the second room of Maude's Madness." For ways to assist in hurricane relief efforts, visit Small business centers also help others elevate their communities.

"The Small Business Center helps businesses grow from the seed of an idea into a strong pillar in the community," Vinciguerra said.

Kathy Hatfield saw a need in her community for senior residential facilities specializing in memory care. She began The Almost Home after taking care of her father with Alzheimer's Disease for 12 years.

"Because of zoning and other strict rules, including a saturation of family care homes in Forsyth County, I took my business concept and asked the director of the SBC at [Davidson County Community College] if my business would work in Davidson County. The 55th version of my business plan helped procure the SBA loan ... I received to open my first home in 2013," Hatfield explained.

Now, with a staff of 46 and three homes for seniors with memory issues, Hatfield gives back to the community as a mentor for others at the small business center.

"Owning your own business is hard. I would never want anyone to go into business blindly without a solid plan [and] the knowledge of what it takes to be a business owner," Hatfield explained when asked why she decided to mentor at the Small Business Center. "My business did not have a proof of concept, but a group of people at the SBC, Rural Center, The Bank of N.C. were integral in helping our small business become a successful reality."

Shaw has been helping North Carolinians achieve business ownership dreams like Vinciguerra's and Hatfield's for decades. Prior to accepting the position of state director of the SBCN in 2017, she spent 30 years as the Small Business Center director at Coastal Carolina Community College.

Her passion for the network, and for the people and businesses that come out of it is clear.

"Directors are part of the local communities and want to see the businesses succeed," Shaw said. "They'll be on the phone with vendors or helping troubleshoot regulatory requirements."

Shaw said network directors understand that entrepreneurs are putting a lot of faith in their hands.

"We know when people come to us for help, they are bringing us their dream," she said.

"They're asking us to walk with them on their path to their dream, and that's such a privilege and honor to be able to help people nurture and grow and turn their dream into a reality.”

With that kind of support, it is easy to see how small businesses have helped the growing economy across North Carolina thrive.
This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Community Colleges.