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Columbia’s Entrepreneurial Cheerleaders, Dot-Connectors and Mentors: The Groups that Facilitate Startup Successes in the Midlands

Today, The Anchor recognizes several of the individuals and organizations that support entrepreneurship in Columbia.

Lauren Liles is a Senior Project Manager at EngenutitySC, a non-profit working in business development.

“Back in the early 2000s, we felt like the community wasn’t as connected as it might be now,” says Liles. “The University was a bit of a silo, the City of Columbia a silo, Richland County, Lexington County. They didn’t’ have a forum to look eyeball to eyeball at each other on a consistent basis, talking about problems and opportunities that really affect us all. EngenuitySC was formed as that nonprofit that could be the neutral middleman to bring all of these different groups around the table, and start working on a regional, collaborative forum.”

Photo by South Carolina photographer Sean Rayford

Ignight! 2015, Photo by South Carolina photographer Sean Rayford

“We feel like we’re dot-connectors,” says Liles. “We partner with business, government, education, and community leaders to pull people together for regional collaboration.”

“We’re a big cheerleader for the area.” Liles says. “We want to be the ones that help foster those relationships where people can come together around a common cause and help move the needle forward.”

EngenuitySC is heavily involved in Global Entrepreneurship Week; its biggest entrepreneurial endeavor is its annual “Ignite!” celebration, which we discussed yesterday. The organization is also involved with USC’s “The Proving Ground” competition.

“I think what’s so awesome about Global Entrepreneurship Week is that there is so much opportunity for folks that are in the startup community to get involved, to network and meet other people that could have a huge impact for their business,” says Liles. “We’re thankful to just be one piece of the puzzle here. This community continues to amaze us, with what they’re willing to embrace and support.”

Liles says that meetings between Columbia’s business development organizations ramped up in the past few weeks.

“Jack Beasley has spearheaded meetings with all these groups together to talk about how we as a community can make a bigger impact during Global Entrepreneurship Week,” she says.

Jack Beasley is the Managing Director of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, a startup accelerator that has been in the community for almost 20 years. The Incubator offers educational workshops and seminars for fledgling companies, provides mentors, and makes connections for companies with local professionals and individuals at USC, among other things. It also provides its companies with office space, which certainly helps in the business development process as well.

“But probably the most important thing is allowing [these companies] to be a part of a community of entrepreneurs where they have access to each other,” says Beasley. “A lot of really cool interactions happen that way. Our companies are learning from each other, engaging with each other, sometimes they spin off new companies together. Some cool things happen when you put smart, engaged entrepreneurs all in one place.”

usc incubatorCompanies that are accepted to the program are beyond the idea phase; they have the potential to deliver a product or service to market within 6 months.

“We’ve had companies come in at those early stages, and have been with us for a couple of years, and have exited with 15 employees,” says Beasley. “They’re generating revenue, they’re well-respected within their field.”

Accordingly to Beasley, 80 to 85% of companies that graduate from Incubator programs stay in business for at least five years, and 85% of those companies stay in the communities in which they were incubated. Thus, they contribute to the local economy and provide new job opportunities to community citizens.

“The people that come in with great ideas, great teams, they come in and work really hard, they take advantage of mentors and education and networking, they tend to do pretty well,” says Beasley.

Examples of successful Incubator companies include 52inc, the app development whose successes include a recent partnership with The Karcher Group in their efforts to establish business in the Midlands. TCube Solutions is an insurance technology company still in the Incubator; launched three years ago with two employees, they currently have about 300 employees globally and are hiring more on a monthly basis.

And it’s not just young professionals trying their hand in the startup world. Sue Levkoff, Endowed Chair of the SeniorSMART Center of Economic Excellence, has a startup in the Incubator that focuses on slip-and-fall technologies for seniors.one million cups

The Incubator’s major contribution to Global Entrepreneurship Week is its hosting of Columbia Startup Weekend, which kicked off the week’s events.

The organization boasts collaborative relationships with many resources that contribute to entrepreneurial development in the Midlands. This includes a partnership with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which provides assistance with business planning, coaching, financing, and certifications for government contracting. They also work with the South Carolina Women’s Business Center, EngenuitySC, and of course, The University of South Carolina and the City of Columbia.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without that collective effort,” says Beasley.

Ryan Coleman is a member of the Incubator’s Board of Directors. He is also the Director of the City of Columbia Office of Economic Development.

Historically, the office’s main involvement in entrepreneurship has been through its relationship with the Incubator, which lives in a city-owned building and is a paid partner of Coleman’s office. However, they have become more directly focused on the efforts recently.
usc incubator 2“We’ll receive calls from people wanting to start businesses, and we’ll direct them to the best resources and departments to make that happen,” says Coleman.

Last year, the Office of Economic Development hired Sergio Aparicio as Business Development Manager. His job is to work with businesses that are trying to get started or expand, to get them the assistance they need.

“I also re-worked his job description when he got here,” says Coleman. “I noticed, within our entrepreneurial community, you had these subgroups like One Million Cups and the Incubator that were working in silos. So what we needed was a person that could ebb and flow between those kinds of organizations to connect them all together.”

Coleman says their main mission right now is to make information more readily available and easy to access for entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurs generally don’t have time to go out and find these resources by themselves,” Coleman says. “They’re so committed to getting their business up and running, they don’t have the capacity to look for these things. So the more information we can put out there and make available to them, the better. But at the same time, someone who is starting a graphic design business is going to have much different needs than someone who is starting a restaurant. So we can’t just rely on boiler plate facts. That means it’s really important to have someone that can work with them in a one-on-one capacity.”

Coleman says his office can help startups find the right financing outlets based on their needs and specific stage of development.

There are countless other organizations that play a significant role in entrepreneurial development here in Columbia. The Office of Small Business Opportunities assists women- and minority-owned businesses. IT-Ology advances talent in the information technology field through education and networking. SOCO offers collaborative work spaces, networking events and seminars. There’s also One Million Cups, The Iron Yard, the Columbia Chamber. And the list goes on.

To learn more about these organizations, check out their respective websites (linked above).


Catch up on the Global Entrepreneurship Week Series:

#1 Columbia Kicks off Entrepreneurship Week

#2 Columbia’s Entrepreneurial Cheerleaders, Dot-Connectors and Mentors: The Groups that Facilitate Startup Successes in the Midlands

#3 “More Than a College Town”: Columbia Offers Resources for Students to Become Entrepreneurs

#4 The Entrepreneurs You Don’t Think of: Arts and Music in Columbia

#5 Potential to be Great: The Future of Entrepreneurship in Columbia

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