A Startup Conversation: Jim Roberts on Cultivating Entrepreneurship in Wilmington
Jim Roberts was the Founding Executive Director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship incubator and is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) as well as the WALE Angel network. He has spent the last decade working to grow the startup community by creating connections that promote growth in Wilmington’s talent and job markets. We had the pleasure of speaking with Jim about his mission and hearing about some of the ways that a small coastal Carolina city is becoming an unexpected global hotspot for entrepreneurs and young professionals. Here is what Jim had to share:
Thanks so much for meeting with me. First, can you tell me a little about your origin story?
In 2000, I was selling websites in Charlotte. This was in the middle of the dot com boom, and every city in America was trying to encourage technology startups – but due to the conservative nature of the banking city, Charlotte was not really participating. As such, all of my dot com prospects had no investor money, and because they had no money, they couldn’t buy a website. I had this lightbulb moment during which I realized that if I could put together a room where these entrepreneurs could meet investors – and if they knew that I was the reason they met that investor – then surely they would buy a website from my design firm. That’s how this got started as a career. I created these connections and began getting involved in more than just selling websites – I became a part of these entrepreneurial teams. After the dot com crash, I ended up being recruited to Asheville, where I was tasked with starting their angel network (BRAIN) and their entrepreneur council (BREC). I was working for what was really an economic development organization as their entrepreneur ecosystem leader. After that, I moved to the Triangle and then ultimately to Wilmington to open the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship incubator before founding NEW and the angel network in 2015.
What exactly is NEW?
NEW is the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington, an independent non-profit organization. At NEW, we really do five things – with the support and sponsorship of professional service providers looking to startups as prospects for their businesses. We put on monthly events, we create and utilize great communication tools – a newsletter as well as media relations across regional markets, we do a significant amount of advocacy, we provide mentorship introductions, and we prepare and introduce entrepreneurs to potential investors. Ultimately, it’s about building community. We’ve built a great one, and in fact, we held the biggest investor event in the history of Wilmington in April. We had 185 people attend, including 53 investors who were primarily from out of town – and several from out of state. The buzz in that room was real. This kind of growth of a startup ecosystem usually takes 20 years, according to Techstars founder Brad Feld. We’re exactly 10 years into it and we’ve built what is now regarded as the #1 ecosystem in the United States and the #1 ecosystem in the world among cities under 300,000 people. (Rankings are according to StartupGenome and StartupBlink.) We’re being recognized for our work, but we have a lot of work to do to continue to attract resources to this community.
What makes you particularly excited about startups?
I love that if I get stuck doing one thing with a startup member, I have dozens of other startups I can call up and ask, “What are you working on? What do you need help with?” I love wearing these different hats. I love facilitating the connections, helping to work out kinks, and becoming a genuine part of the team. It’s validating when you help an entrepreneur and three months later they’re able to say that they raised a significant amount of money in capital. We can prove that we’ve made investor introductions that have turned into checks. It’s all really about these connections because connections create community, and community creates job growth. If you’re from Wilmington, you know that it can feel very isolated. The entrepreneurs here felt very isolated. What we’ve done is create what I call the “Coastal Corridor,” which means that most of the speakers at my events come down from Raleigh and make a weekend of it. We also encourage Wilmington startups to attend business events in Raleigh and Durham. I’ve now invited more than 100 investors from the Raleigh/Durham area, and I’ve been turned down by just one. The work that we have done proves that if someone invites them, they will come. You just have to connect and you will build an audience and then a community.
What has been one of your most cherished experiences since founding NEW?
Working with Untappd and seeing them succeed was incredible. When I met them, they were a father and son team. At their peak, they had 125 employees. They established a downtown headquarters when downtown hadn’t seen that kind of software company take up residence in that neighborhood. Suddenly, you had 20-something professionals earning 85-100k for the first time instead of just having the service industry downtown. These great jobs could help keep UNCW graduates local and attract even more talent. The best and brightest young people used to move away to Raleigh or Charlotte, or even further away to Boston, New York, or Silicon Valley. That doesn’t have to happen anymore. Young, talented people have the option to stay in or move to Wilmington without sacrificing a high-paying job or the potential for career growth. Untappd, nCino, Live Oak, Apture, PlayerSpace… these are all companies that any city in the world would want in their backyard. They’ve proven they can recruit talent, that they can gather the resources and funding they need. The world is now paying attention to little old Wilmington.
Bagchi Law is a proud sponsor of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington. We understand the importance of fostering a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we’re thrilled to partner with NEW to help provide resources, guidance, and support to the Wilmington business community. To learn more about Jim or about NEW, please visit their website or join us at their next event at 4 PM on Wednesday, September 13 at Ironclad Brewery.
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