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Potential to be Great: The Future of Entrepreneurship in Columbia

This week, we’ve heard from government employees, organizational leaders and a classically-trained musician, all with a common goal: supporting entrepreneurship in Columbia.

They’ve called themselves dot-connectors and cheerleaders, talked about Incubators and pitch competitions, and introduced us to a business venture boot camp for the arts.

So, there seems to be only one question left to ask.

Where does Columbia go from here? What needs to be done next? (Okay, maybe that’s two questions.)

It seems fitting to start with Lauren Liles, whose EngenuitySC organizes an initiative called “What’s Next Midlands?”

“We’ve got a lot of great organizations doing a lot of great work,” Liles says. “But there doesn’t seem to be a streamlined approach to communicating what all these organizations are doing, how they’re different, and what the best outlet is for a specific type of need.”

“There are probably businesses out there that know exactly what they need, but still don’t know the right person to go to,” she says.

Local art, always a crowd favorite at Soda City Market

Local art, always a crowd favorite at Soda City Market

The City of Columbia Office of Economic Development is working on fixing this problem. They are trying to create an online graphical representation of each business development organization’s function. Imagine being able to look at a map of Columbia that features pins illustrating the location of the various business organizations, as well as a description of their capabilities. Such a platform would certainly move the needle in the right direction, in terms of clarity and efficiency.

“These groups get so busy in their own area, inundated with their own projects, sometimes they accidentally neglect what is going on in other groups that may have an impact on what they’re doing, or maybe they’ve got something that can help the other group,” says Ryan Coleman, Director of the Office of Economic Development. “Columbia used to struggle with that. But now we have more groups collaborating and communicating with each other, and that’s promising.”

“Collaboration” is the word that has shown up most often when asking this question of “What needs to be done next?”

“There aren’t enough meetings [between groups], and I think there need to be more,” says Lauren Liles. “We can collaborate a lot more as a community.”

Liles’ and Coleman’s organizations are certainly trying to set the example for the rest of the community; the Office of Economic Development has met with EngenuitySC to discuss how to attract a larger pool of participants to The Ideas Contest.

“Communication is good, it’s the start,” says Coleman. “And then it’s being more thoughtful about how to build businesses together. Business development is kind of a conveyer process, where someone can play a specific role at each stop until you reach the end product of a successful business. In Columbia, we’re just starting to figure out what the assembly line looks like. The next stage is to get it running, and get it running efficiently.”

Multiple sources have said this week that Jack Beasley has taken a lead on bringing groups and leaders from different parts of Columbia together for the purpose of collaboration.

SOCO“We can always do more,” says Beasley. “For the entrepreneur, there are more resources and opportunities here than there ever have been. That’s a really good starting place. But one of the challenges is being able to navigate all of that. That’s a piece where, as a community of support organizations and economic development groups, we’re doing a better job than we were 2 or 3 years ago. And we’re only getting better.”

In terms of improving community collaboration, consider Lee Snelgrove’s One Columbia. The organization aims to unite and promote the arts and history communities in Columbia for the purpose of increasing tourism. Snelgrove stresses the importance of collaboration for the benefit of all. This week, he examined the question of “What about adding business to the mix to further increase economic development?”

This year, Global Entrepreneurship Week lines up during a time when there are also a lot of artistic events going on in Columbia, and Snelgrove believes it’s a perfect opportunity to showcase the city. He believes that by combining a number of events with a common thread, the whole thing becomes a bigger deal. And the outside world will pay attention.

Lauren Liles says that these types of efforts should happen more than once a year.

“It shouldn’t just be Global Entrepreneurship Week,” says Liles. “We do so many great things throughout the year, they need to be recognized more than just once a year.”

“I think we’ve got a different type of community than you’d find anywhere else,” she says. “We always have to have our own spin on things, which gives us the potential to be more innovative, more unique.”

Liles has been looking at the livability of Columbia lately, and how the city can leverage that to attract individuals to the area. She says that things

Indie Grits Film Fest - 2016 - Day Two Photo by Columbia SC photographer Sean Rayford

Indie Grits Film Fest – 2016 – Day Two Photo by Columbia SC photographer Sean Rayford

like the Riverbanks Zoo, The Columbia Museum of Art, and the city’s restaurant scene are all things that make Columbia an attractive destination, a vibrant community.

Lee Snelgrove believes this is very important, especially in terms of attracting talent to the area.

“We’re going to see more startup companies or more young entrepreneurs in a city that has a lot of vibrant activity going on,” says Snelgrove.

In some cases, that vibrant activity can attract entrepreneurs in and of itself.

“Even from the first year, we were bringing in people from California, DC, New York, and we were sharing them with our community,” says David Cutler about his SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge (which we discussed yesterday).

Cutler says his event is “unlike any other on the globe.” Because of this, SAVVY garners international attention; people from all parts of the globe travel to Columbia for the program.

This, in turn, gives the city a chance to shine.

“People would come from across the country to experience Savvy, and they would go out and say ‘Columbia is amazing,’” says Cutler.

Seeing this, David Cutler realized an opportunity to become an ambassador for the city he calls home; to put Columbia’s best foot forward and give it some worldwide attention. For example, he began treating meals as cultural experiences, partnering with non-chain local food vendors to serve his participants grits and other southern delicacies they may have never seen before.

“We were doing an event at Tapp’s one year, and this guy walks by,” Cutler recalls. “One of our participants starts making small talk with him, and finds out he’s the mayor here. Steve Benjamin. Where else does that happen? That your mayor just happens to stop by? And we’ve actually involved him the past few years in different capacities.”

Live performance at CMA's Arts & Draughts

Live performance at CMA’s Arts & Draughts

“This is really an event that brings together various organizations from the business world, from the food world, from the arts world, from USC, all together,” he says. “And it really is a showcase of our town.”

So, what else does this town have to offer?

“The advantage of living in a capital city is all of the resources for the whole state are right here,” says Cutler. “The South Carolina Arts Commission is two blocks away from me, I’m good friends with the Executive Director.”

Cost of living in Columbia is also an attractive quality. Ryan Coleman says he has talked to tech companies looking to establish themselves in Austin, New York, Boston and other well-known business development cities who are shocked to learn they can have the same opportunities in Columbia at a fraction of the cost.

But Lauren Liles says that Columbia’s true selling point is its citizens.

“There is a sense of community here, that people are really connected,” says Liles. “When you talk to someone here, when you have a meeting, there’s two degrees of separation between anybody. And being able to pick up the phone and make one call to accomplish what you need, that’s huge.“

“Part of what makes [Columbia] unique is that everybody seems to be on the same team,” she says. “Everyone wants to see Columbia do good things, and we’re all willing to chip in to see that happen. And I’m not sure that’s something you get in a bigger city.”

Because of all this, the thought among many is that Columbia’s future is very bright.

“We’re only scraping the surface of our potential,” says Liles.

“There’s a lot of good buzz about what’s going on around here, and it’s a really good time to be in Columbia,” says Lee Snelgrove. “We’re at this really good place where there are lots of good ideas out there that we can put our minds to together. We’re at the high-energy beginning stage, where everyone is really excited and really enthusiastic.”

But that’s exactly what this is; a “high energy beginning stage.” The city has to make sure to keep going, to strive to be even better.

The Iron Yard - Photo by Columbia SC photographer Sean Rayford

The Iron Yard – Photo by Columbia SC photographer Sean Rayford

Lauren Liles believes it is important to “keep a pulse on what’s happening statewide,” especially in areas well-known for successful growth like Greenville and Charleston.

“There are a lot of really great incubators out there, there are a lot of great startup and innovative groups that are doing great things that can be resources here for our entrepreneurs,” she says.

Above all, the conversation, the communication, and the collaboration must be ever-present.

“What works today may not work tomorrow,” says Ryan Coleman. “You may perfect the model today, and find out tomorrow it’s no longer applicable. There will always be things changing that will force us to rethink the way we do business development.”

“There’s always work to be done,” says Coleman.

He’s right. And with so many organizations in town with a common goal, with EngenuitySC, the Incubator, the universities, the city offices, One Columbia, SOCO, One Million Cups, IT-oLogy, The Iron Yard and more, there are so many connections that can be made, so many conversations that can be had.

Here’s hoping our work this week helps.


Catch up on the complete 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


Feature Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

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