It was April 2019. There was a lot of change occurring in the state of West Virginia and in my professional life.
I needed a new project to keep me focused when school let out that summer. I had been working with the WV Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition Oversight Committee and made a lot of progress that year. I started thinking about how to connect that committee into what I knew other entrepreneurial resource providers were doing around the state. I began talking to some key players across the state like TechConnect WV, Start Up WV, and National Center for Resource Development. These partners pulled together a working group. Shortly after our first meeting, I received an email from someone I had never heard of before, Joe Kapp. Little did I know that the message from Joe would change my world forever.
Joe was dynamic, brilliant, and was a man on a mission. He told me I needed to meet with another person I had never heard of, Bill Woodrum. At that time, Bill worked for RCBI (a Marshall entity). It was a taboo thought to meet with him for a potential partnership but rounded up my trusted colleague, Liz Vitullo and we made the trip to Charleston (to meet in a neutral location). Almost instantly, I could see this was the start of a beautiful friendship. Bill told us about how he had been cultivating a similar group around the idea of entrepreneurship. We decided we would co-chair a statewide group, and the West Virginia Entrepreneurship Ecosystem was born.
Bill and I immediately got to work. We were lucky to have supporters like Mary Hunt from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Guy Peduto from Innova giving us the background and foundational knowledge to understand the foundation that had been laid before.
During the first meeting as co-chairs, we had a surprise visit from The Honorable Secretary of State, Mac Warner. The turnout for that first meeting was so great; we had to move into a larger room. Everyone there has the same goal in mind, creating and shaping an ecosystem to support entrepreneurs in West Virginia. The energy was inspiring. We were off to the races.
Bill and I had decided we wanted to implement monthly meetings and start planning the first entrepreneurship ecosystem conference. We picked the first week of April in 2020 to launch the event. We worked tirelessly for months raising money, creating a robust agenda, finding speakers, advertising, etc.
We received a call from Joe Kapp in March 2020, less than a month until the event, telling us about a virus spreading throughout the world called coronavirus. He advised us to cancel, and we agreed. We were devastated. Bill and I had put our blood, sweat, and tears into this event for a year, and it was all over with one phone call.
Determined to host some type of entrepreneurship ecosystem event, we decided (like most events) to go virtual. We hosted the first official West Virginia Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Virtual Symposium series in November 2020. It was a success with over 250 people in attendance over three events.
In my opinion, the reasons for the entrepreneurship ecosystem’s success include the following:
- Half degree of separation in WV
- Willing and able resource providers
- Support from the state
Bill and I have been working in the entrepreneurship world in West Virginia for collectively more than 30 years. We have countless connections and friends that jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. Some say in West Virginia, we have a half degree of separation—which is an incredibly valuable trait when building an ecosystem. If Bill or I do not know a particular subject matter expert, someone in the group likely does.
In addition to the ecosystem members, the support the group has received from the state is invaluable. The West Virginia Small Business Development Center and the West Virginia Secretary of State‘s office have been monumental in the creation of the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem. Without their support, the ecosystem would not be where it is today.
If you are reading this thinking, “wow, I wish I could join this great group of folks”. You are in luck! New members are always welcome, the WV Entrepreneurship Network meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 2:00 pm. Our first in-person entrepreneurship ecosystem is scheduled for conference on April 5, 2022 (details to be posted soon).
At the time, I did not know how much I needed Bill and this new initiative in my life. I believe we were brought together for a reason. I am lucky to call him a partner, mentor, and friend.
About the Author
Tara St. Clair is the Director of Operations for the Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Chamber’s College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University. In her role, she provides critical direction for the development and implementation of programs in the Encova Center. Her expertise lies in developing strategies to implement new programs and expand existing programs. St. Clair has a strong commitment to building innovative initiatives that create synergistic relationships between the academic world and the community. She has developed a number of initiatives including the Impact Challenge which is an immersive weekend experience that gives high school and college students the opportunity to work in teams to define solutions for West Virginia’s most pressing challenges. She also works collaboratively to plan, organize, and coordinate with institutions across the state to enhance outreach program participation in West Virginia. She is one of the founding members and current co-chair of the WV Entrepreneurship Ecosystem.