Three West Virginians honored for their tireless commitment to entrepreneurship and small business during Bridging Innovation Week

West Virginia BusinessLink partnered with the West Virginia University John Chambers College of Business and Economics to host the inaugural Bridging Innovation Week in West Virginia. Spanning four days, more than 1,000 participants attended activities including interactive networking sessions, presentations from prominent state and national speakers, pitch contests, and more.

During the West Virginia Entrepreneurs Conference, three West Virginians received accolades for their outstanding service and commitment to small businesses and the entrepreneurship community. These individuals have dedicated a lifetime of service to building a diverse economy in West Virginia.

“We were thrilled with the success of the West Virginia Entrepreneurship Conference and Bridging Innovation Week. These events allowed us to showcase the amazing work happening all across the state by entrepreneurs and small business owners. In addition to providing opportunities to discover new ideas and companies from within our borders, we had the opportunity to highlight the contributions of three West Virginia Women who have dedicated their careers to the advancement of entrepreneurship and innovation. Through these three awards, we were honored to spotlight the extensive contributions of Mary Hunt, Debra Martin and Michele O’Connor in developing the small business ecosystem in the state.”, said Bill Woodrum, Coordinator of West Virginia BusinessLink and co-chair of the event.

Debra Martin, WV Small Business Development Center

Debra Martin was honored by Governor Jim Justice as she transitioned from her position as Director of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) network. Martin had an impressive 24-year career as a civil servant, including nine years with the WV SBDC and 15 years in international development. During the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, she led efforts that leveraged more than $18 million in emergency federal funding for small business support in West Virginia and saved more than 6,000 jobs in the state. During 2020-2021, she also leveraged funds to create WV BusinessLink, start a Subject Matter Expert pool of business advisors, and began a childcare support partnership to develop new businesses in this much-needed service sector. An additional $17.4 million in emergency assistance was received as a direct result of the SBDC efforts in 2021.

Honorary Secretary of State for Business Services Award presented to Mary Hunt, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The “Honorary Secretary of State for Business Services” award recognizes lifetime achievement in support for The WV Entrepreneurship Ecosystem. This inaugural award was given to Mary Hunt, Program Director for the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, for her years of service and support to the ecosystem.

“I can’t think of a better recipient to help the Secretary of State’s Office initiate this award than Mary Hunt,” said Mac Warner, West Virginia Secretary of State. “Over the years, Mary has been able to help direct millions of dollars in support for initiatives, programs and research aimed at helping West Virginia create a vibrant climate for entrepreneurs throughout the state.”

2022 Guy Peduto Entrepreneur Partnership Award presented to Michele O’Connor, West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust

The 2022 Guy Peduto Entrepreneur Partnership Award was presented to Michele O’Connor, Investment Manager with the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust, for her outstanding commitment to advancing entrepreneurship and business development. With over 30 years of experience in the finance and banking industry, O’Connor has focused on turning the innovation of new ideas into successful world-class companies through the support of entrepreneurship and innovation efforts in West Virginia.

This award pays homage to the contributions of the late Guy Peduto, a firm believer in the transformative power of entrepreneurship in the Mountain State. Honorees for this award are chosen based on the impact their work has had on entrepreneurs, the broad entrepreneurship ecosystem, and West Virginia’s economy. A primary consideration is given to those professionals who place a high value on partnership and leveraging the efforts of our system to help entrepreneurs.

“Our ability to include these awards in the inaugural Bridging Innovation truly added a special touch to the event,” said Tara St. Clair, Director of Operations at the WVU Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and event co-chair.  “We hope to include similar awards yearly in our annual Bridging Innovation events to recognize the outstanding dedication and devotion of individuals working to diversify our state economy.”


Thank you to Kelsey Clough, Senior Marketing Manager for the Office of Marketing and Communications at the West Virginia Department of Commerce for pulling together media and narrative for this blog.