ECU launches microenterprise program to help revitalize eastern NC communities

East Carolina University is launching an innovative new strategy to help revitalize communities in eastern North Carolina, turning to its students to develop and support new enterprises in the region.

This week the university launched its microenterprise program, a multidisciplinary strategy that brings together teams of students and industry mentors to support regional business development.

Microenterprises are businesses that operate on a smaller scale, typically with fewer than six employees at startup.

However, while these businesses may be small, ECU is not investing small-scale resources into them. University leaders are committing to produce the most small business startups of any North Carolina university and believe this program will help drive a new generation of businesses in eastern North Carolina.

“One of ECU’s school mottos is ‘Loyal and Bold,’” said Jay Golden, vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement. “That’s exactly what this microenterprise program stands for. Our Pirate entrepreneurs are loyal to the region and are excited to help reinvigorate economies across eastern North Carolina. Our goals are also bold. We not only want to see success with the program, but we want to become a national model of student success for other universities aiming to solve big challenges in rural areas.”

Teams with two to four students in each group from undergraduate business classes, science and engineering capstone courses, ECU’s entrepreneurial-minded living learning community, and the university’s premier business pitch competition, the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge, will form a student pipeline for the program.

ECU’s microenterprise program strategically places student teams into economically depressed areas to help jumpstart sluggish economies with new business ideas.

Once established, teams will be matched with eastern North Carolina communities, economic development groups and regional businesses that align with their business passions.

Teams will then develop business plans and strategies using ECU resources, including the university’s Office of Innovation and New Ventures, Innovation Design Lab, and the new Van and Jennifer Isley Innovation Building with its sophisticated design and fabrication equipment.

With a business plan in hand, teams will not only launch their microenterprises, but live in the communities that they’re committed to rejuvenating with their new businesses ideas.

Developed in collaboration between units across campus, including the university’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship and the Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement, the program integrates critical business education with entrepreneurial grit to drive economic improvements and growth. The program allows students to connect with regional communities and provide assistance to industries facing real-world struggles.

“We have multiple courses in both our degree and certificate programs aimed at providing our students with highly-impactful engaged learning experiences,” said Mike Harris, director of the Miller School. “This includes projects to help regional business clients identify new opportunities or improve performance, and ones that allow students to develop their own entrepreneurial ideas.”

The program is part of ECU’s larger goal of supporting rural communities in eastern North Carolina. The university has embraced its public service mission of helping the region adapt, grow and thrive in an ever-changing economic landscape. In 2017, ECU launched its Rural Prosperity Initiative to address this growing need, driven by its strong desire to serve and its faculty’s passion to assist others.

“With new microenterprise creation, we can better address other key facets of economic vitality through business growth, making life better for all residents of eastern North Carolina,” Golden said.

To help support the program, the university announced the development of a microenterprise fund. The fund will be established through philanthropic gifts and endowments that provide much needed capital for project delivery and execution directly to the student teams.

To learn more about the microenterprise program and fund, contact Mark Wdowik, executive director of innovation and new ventures, at Information about the program can also be found online at