September 30, 2016
By Lindsey Adkison for Brunswick News
Dozens of community leaders gathered early Thursday at College of Coastal Georgia for a critical issues breakfast and forum hosted by Hunter Maclean, an area law firm.
During the event, several speakers took to the podium to discuss a key concept for building business in the community — entrepreneurship. A panel of experts were assembled to discuss that topic. Those included Reg Murphy, a local community leader and the namesake of the college’s business center; Skip Mounts, dean of the school’s college of business and economics and Eric Parker and Grace Belangia, the co-founders of The Clubhouse.
Murphy kicked off the event with remarks followed by Mounts who offered a presentation on the current state of the local economy and how it can improve.
“This community, relative to the state and nation, started the recession first and stayed in it longer. We have the 2014 data and the 2015 data will come out soon. I think we will see a little upswing with the 2015 data but not much,” Mounts told the group.
“We’ve had little job growth, minimal business formation, our labor participation rate is falling. But we also have a booming hospitality industry, a booming port, large employers are doing well. Real estate on St. Simons and Sea Island are doing well. But it’s still not enough to pick back up to where we need to be.”
Mounts, Murphy and his colleagues like Don Mathews took time to discuss what was the cause of this problem. After much reflection, they surmised that the reason for the lag was a lack of a managerial class, namely entrepreneurs who are opening new businesses, investing in the community via jobs and capital. And that, he feels, is the missing ingredient for a successful Isles economy.
“We have this wonderful graph and it shows that net job growth between 1988 and 2012. And it shows that it’s the newer firms that create the new jobs. They have to be created and that’s where an entrepreneurial ecosystem comes into play,” he said.
To ensure economic growth, new companies should be started and new employees hired. That cycle supports the growth, Mounts said. But encouraging and fostering that growth can be a bit tricky. It’s one reason Mounts has worked to spearhead the Coastal Entrepreneurial Project.
“It has several parts. It’s three stages. First we want to create a culture of entrepreneurship. Second, we want continue that entrepreneurship and then informally connect mentors and entrepreneurs. And then, the third part is, we want a formal structure of mentoring that can be used to recruit entrepreneurs,” he said.
Mounts says that plan has been put into action in a number of ways. The first step, he says, is creating awareness. One way they have done that is by inviting high schoolers to participate in a business concept competition where students were tasked with coming up with ideas to bring more foot traffic into downtown Brunswick.
Mounts also mentioned the monthly 1 Million Cups event which has helped generate buzz for the project. It’s also helped them work toward finding mentors and starting to form those relationships between mentors and entrepreneurs. Mounts reminded the audience that the program will hold it sixth month 1 Million Cups meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Tipsy McSway’s in downtown Brunswick.
“We’ve started really getting people talking and getting people excited,” he said.
Creating excitement is one of the things the remaining panel members discussed after Mounts concluded. Eric Parker and Grace Belangia, the co-founders of The Clubhou.se., took to the podium to speak about their tech and business-based nonprofit based in Augusta.
They described how their program came to be and how allowing entrepreneurs space to meet and hosting special events buoyed the local economy.
Known as “mesh networking,” the group has used social media sites like Twitter to help draw people to their location, which brings both participation and conversation.
“We host what are called ‘Hack-a-thon’ challenges where you get a group together and present a challenge. Then they have to find a solution while timed,” Parker explained.
The Clubhou.se is located in a historic building in Augusta and offers a place to connect as well as a “makerspace” with tools for members to use. And it has worked.
“We have generated about 60 ideas, 32 businesses and 87 jobs that have come about through The Clubhou.se. We estimate that over 1,000 people have come through and learned a new skill,” Parker said.
Parker and Belangia also encouraged audience members to consider a similar program in Brunswick. And in closing, Murphy stressed that all of the ideas shared will go a long way toward solving the area’s problems. And he suggested merging all of those ideas shared by previous speakers.
“The problem is that most people want to be entrepreneurs just don’t have any idea of how to do that,” Murphy summarized. “We need to make sure that we can connect them to people with experience in business so they can help take them under their wing.”
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