An all too common WV story
I never wanted to leave West Virginia in the first place, I just knew that I had thus far been unsuccessful in finding my place in the world and had wondered if it might lie somewhere else. When a college friend in a similar situation suggested that moving away might be exciting and rewarding, we determined that we would take the so-called Hillbilly Highway south to Charlotte and see what might be in store for us there. I travelled very little growing up, but I had visited my sister in Charlotte and become mesmerized by all the huge, new buildings and the hustle and bustle. Charlotte seemed as good a place as any to land, and so in the Spring of 1998 my friend and I packed up our belongings in a 24-foot moving truck and hit the road for next chapter of our individual journeys.
Life was quite a lot different in North Carolina. I was used to being around people who had grown up nearby, and Charlotte was a melting pot of folks from around the globe. It was all so very interesting to me, and the cultural experience shaped me. I will be forever grateful for my time outside of West Virginia. My wife and I met in Charlotte, and we created a life together there. We still have many friends and loads of great memories of our time there. It was in the Carolinas that I discovered that I am an entrepreneur, setting me on my current path. That said, I never really felt completely settled. There was always a bit of internal conflict when someone asked where I was from. My response would be that I lived in Charlotte (or one of the other cities I lived in over my nearly 20 years down there), but I was from West Virginia. In my mind, there was a huge difference in living someplace and being home.
The strong call of the Mountain State
Every time I spoke these words about my separation between where I lived and where I considered my home to be, I felt a tug on my heart. I was a little sad that I had left, and I secretly entertained visions of moving home one day. My wife is from a small town in Ohio, and she always enjoyed our trips to Huntington for Marshall football games. She knew that I often felt out of place in Charlotte and that I longed for connection and community and a sense of belonging. Like me, she’s a fixer, and she decided that she had a new problem to solve – how to get me back to Huntington. She knew that, as an extraordinary educator, she could find a job pretty easily. The problem was that I had my own growing business that was built on relationships, and I had been gone from Huntington so long that this presented a big hurdle. How would we make ends meet while I attempted to transplant my consulting firm over 300 miles from a metropolitan area of nearly 1.8 million people to a town of fewer than 48,000? In true fixer style, my wife and I hatched a plan and went to work. When I shared our plans to leave the thriving Charlotte area to move to a place that had unfairly become synonymous with poverty, desperation, and economic decline, I got some very puzzled looks from most of my Charlotte friends. They shared that I must have lost my mind, or perhaps I was just in need of a vacation to settle my thoughts and regain my seemingly lost sanity. A couple told me that they feared my business would shutter and I would be throwing away all of my hard work in launching and growing my firm to where it was in 2016. All of these people shared their concerns from a place of love and caring, and so I never begrudged them for their words. They just weren’t from here and didn’t know what I knew.
Making first contact
My plan was rather simple. Long ago I had learned that life was a contact sport, so I determined that I would get out and contact people. It sounds cold, but I categorize people as catalysts, conduits, conveners, and clients. Someone can fall into multiple categories, but it was important for me to consider the value to my business of contacting someone since I had a short timeline, limited availability, and lots at stake. Side note, I’m an introvert by nature, so this is often difficult, and I sometimes feel awkward in social settings. So, I started with people I already knew. I began telling friends and contacts in WV that I was moving home and asked who I should talk to about my business, requesting warm introductions by email when possible. I called, texted, Facebook messaged, and used LinkedIn to re-connect with old friends and colleagues, and to connect for the first time with those who seemed to align with what I was doing. One such outreach message by Facebook with a high school classmate turned into a paid project because she ran a local nonprofit that needed help with something that was in my wheelhouse. Fate had spoken. I was on the right track.
Random messages weren’t enough, however. I had been gone a long time and places change. So, I decided that I would drive from Charlotte to Huntington every month and spend somewhere between 3-5 days here. During my visits, I plopped down at local coffee shops, I attended a “Walk with the Mayor” event in Huntington and went to a variety of events where I could see and be seen. I researched upcoming events and scheduled meetings before arriving so that I could be sure I was remaining active. In one meeting, I spoke with a guy named Jonathan who was tasked with creating and executing the inaugural WV Governor’s School of Entrepreneurship at Marshall University. He invited me to join the team and I’ve been involved ever since. Another meeting I had was with a successful, established consultant. We found that we had complimentary skillsets and experiences and a shared value system, and so we vowed that we would seek out opportunities to work together. Since we met in 2016, we’ve worked together on nearly two dozen projects, either under the EPIC Mission banner or under his company’s banner. There is no substitute for sitting with someone and being present in the moment with them so that you can each feel what one another is all about. The intentional act of meeting with someone else was a game changer for me, no doubt.
Country Roads take me home . . .
Yes, just like every other place on Earth, West Virginia has its own struggles. As an entrepreneur, the problems that others see as fact or futility represent opportunities to me and others like me. My life outside of West Virginia exposed me to a great deal that prepared me to serve in a spirit of excellence upon my return. My work had taken me inside international for-profit and nonprofit organizations, as well as grassroots startups of both the secular and ministry-based variety. I was determined to prove the naysayers wrong as I locked arms with my brothers and sisters fighting to make our state a better place to live. I knew that I would be welcomed home and that I would have a chance to leverage my new and old relationships as I navigated West Virginia’s fewer degrees of separation between influencers and decision makers. I knew that we had loads of terrific people and amazing organizations already doing great work here, and that they would embrace a native son who wanted to join them upon his return home.
West Virginia is a magical place filled with the most wonderful humans and geography on the planet. The late Anthony Bourdain had travelled the globe and believed that The Mountain State was like no other place on Earth. Relationships matter here. Regardless of how much we have on our plates, we make time to help others. We stop in the middle of the aisles in the grocery store to have deeply personal conversations with people we haven’t seen for a while so that we can hear how their moms and dads are doing. We choose to embody Emerson’s invariable mark of wisdom as we see the miraculous in what others may overlook as common. We support one another’s new ventures, as we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one person wins only when another loses. If you are from here, you will always be from here even if you live somewhere else. If you choose to live here, you will quickly be adopted by our people. There is community, connection, and a sense of being waiting here for whoever wants it.
I have come to believe that home is where the opportunity is because we are more willing to take chances where we are loved and supported, and we are more determined to be the change we wish to see when working to bring about said change in a place we love so much. My hope is that others who have moved away will let the Country Roads bring them home, while those who remain will once again see the miraculous all around them.
About the Author
Jeremy Turner is the Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission, a
Huntington-based coaching and consulting firm for everyday changemakers
that believes in the power of ordinary people working passionately to
achieve extraordinary impact. A native of Huntington, WV, Mr. Turner holds
a BA in Psychology from Marshall University and an MBA with a focus on
Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise from Louisiana State University at
Shreveport. He is continuing his education by pursuing a Doctor of
Business Administration degree from Marshall University as a member of
the Class of 2024 inaugural cohort. Jeremy is a DISC-Certified Behavioral
Consultant and holds additional certifications in a variety of entrepreneurial
methods and platforms. Mr. Turner is a sought-after coach, consultant,
speaker, and trainer, and he has worked with many organizations on topics
related to developing leaders at all levels, building healthy organizational
cultures, and launching, scaling, and sustaining for-profit and nonprofit
ventures. Additionally, Jeremy serves as an Executive-in-Residence and an
entrepreneurship instructor within the Lewis College of Business at Marshall
University, and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Marietta College. His
personal mantra is to serve others and those who serve others, and Jeremy
looks forward to learning how he and EPIC Mission may be of service to
you and those you know.