Advancing the Culture of Entrepreneurship in West Virginia

In my two roles advocating entrepreneurship in West Virginia, I often hear people say that one of the obstacles to new business growth is that West Virginia has no established culture of entrepreneurship, as its economy has historically been fueled by natural resources with large companies in the forefront. But that impression is incorrect and needs to be removed, if West Virginia is to become one of the leading champions of new business growth in the 21st century.

Part of the challenge is language: “entrepreneurship” is often associated with technology and cutting-edge initiatives, when in fact “entrepreneurship” is simply starting up a business, and West Virginia has centuries of experience starting up businesses.

I see evidence of it all the time, as I travel within the state in my dual capacities as Entrepreneur in Residence at Marshall University and as an Advocate for Right to Start, the national nonprofit organization championing entrepreneurship as a civic priority. I see it in the many shops on Oak Street in my hometown of Kenova. I see it in the many small businesses that serve the West Virginians who work for larger companies and that, in many cases, serve those companies, too. 

I also see it in the informal businesses that dot the state: the firewood being sold by the side of the road, for instance. They may not be incorporated businesses, but they reflect a culture of entrepreneurship nevertheless. Side hustles have long been part of entrepreneurship.

I hear it, too, from students at Marshall University who turn to me for advice, as they plan to fulfill their dreams of business ownership. I hear it, as I speak with entrepreneurs for Right to Start about the challenges they face and the obstacles that could be cleared to ease the path. 

Fortunately, West Virginia has the best of both worlds: a centuries-old legacy of small business startups and high-tech resources to catapult West Virginia’s economy forward. Both are vital.

Key among those resources is Marshall University, whose president Brad D. Smith, the former CEO of Intuit, is a leading national champion of entrepreneurship. He is prioritizing design thinking – Silicon Valley’s methodology for innovation – and championing it across the university, the state, and the nation. Marshall’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (iCenter) is a leading force for growing new businesses in West Virginia, and the opening of Marshall’s 78,000-square-foot Brad D. Smith Center for Business & Innovation is a major step for Huntington and West Virginia.

The challenge is to see entrepreneurship not as something new being imported from outside, but as something that is inherent to West Virginia – something that has been here all along and that needs to be celebrated and cultivated in new ways. It’s not a departure from West Virginia’s history; it’s an evolution of it.

Entrepreneurs are simply problem-solvers. They see something missing from the landscape – whether it’s a new store or a new application of technology – and they set out to fix it. 

Often the entrepreneur is seen as a solitary figure: starting a business alone in the kitchen or the garage. But what’s needed is an infrastructure that supports, celebrates, and encourages new businesses and those who aspire to start them. What’s needed is a recognition that small businesses are the centerpiece of our economy and should be heralded as such.

All West Virginians can help in two easy ways. First, let your elected officials know that you care about new business growth and want to see it prioritized statewide. Nationally, young businesses create virtually all job growth.

Second, when a new business starts in your town or neighborhood, try it out. Give the entrepreneur a chance to show you what he or she can do. If you like the product, go back again and tell your friends. 

Every small business depends on its customers. Give every new business a chance, and you’ll see your town and the state prosper.

Ariana Shives, a resident of Kenova, is Entrepreneur in Residence at Marshall University and an Advocate for Right to Start. She is a social entrepreneur and product designer passionate about design thinking and social impact. Her work is focused on education and helping startups and small businesses develop their brands and meaningfully engage with their customers. Ariana is also the Head of Product Design at Kairos Financial, a fintech startup on a mission to provide simple, relatable, proven financial education and resources to the rest of us. She graduated from the University of Southern California in 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and in 2019 with a Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship from USC’s Marshall School of Business.