The dialog was flowing at this summer’s HR Chamber-Strome Business Series panel discussion, “Developing an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Hampton Roads.” But the time we had together was all too short, and we longed for a deeper dive. So we asked two of the panelists, Paul Nolde, managing director of 757 Collab and Blair Durham, business leader and co-founder of Black BRAND, to share their perspectives on the current state of the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Coastal Virginia.
CoVABIZ: Our region has many assets already in place including research facilities, great institutes of higher education, and an experienced pool of military veterans. What, if anything, is holding us back from creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem that works for everyone. One that has tighter connections between the nodes?
Paul Nolde, 757 Collab: I think that part of this has to do with how we collectively brand this region, and then, how we work together to support our founders and increase founder density. Various organizations have already started to address the former, but with a region that spans across 18 cities and counties, we need a regional brand that’s broad enough to speak to the diversity of these assets and localities, but focused enough to tell entrepreneurs, funders and stakeholders from outside of 757 why we’re the place to be for “x” industry or “y” experience of living. With respect to growing our founder density, there are several efforts currently underway by economic development and entrepreneurial support organizations to strengthen the support scaffolding for startups. Most notable are the RVA757 Connects mega-region concept to better align our complementary regional assets. Also of note is this region’s participation in a multi-state effort to be named one of 15 national, Economic Development Administration-designated Tech Hubs centered around unmanned systems. Both of these efforts, if achieved, will undoubtedly draw national and international attention.
Our region boasts a number of significant resources: incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and organizations like 757 Collab, HIVE, Accelerator Start Wheel, and Innovate HR. But do these organizations work together in terms of lobbying efforts or initiatives to make funding for startups more available?
Paul Nolde: The short answer is yes. In fact, 757 Collab (which includes 757 Accelerate, 757 Startup Studios and 757 Angels), Black BRAND, Innovate HR (formerly StartWheel), and the Hampton Roads SBDC recently banded together to apply for a large, federal grant that would help each organization scale their current operations to reach more tech founders through a targeted consortium effort. Each of these entrepreneurial support organizations have unique strengths and networks that, when leveraged together and with the understanding that no one organization can do it all, offers startups from idea-stage to scale-stage all of the counsel, connections and capital required for them to take the next step.
Are we being held back by regional tribalism? Given that individual cities within our region seem to resist the notion of a unified Hampton Roads region, where would you say are we in terms of regional cooperation?
Blair Durham, Black BRAND: The regionalism concept is growing, and I do believe we are becoming more unified. I also view the municipality division as a strength that if collectively leaned into, would contribute to greater growth faster. Each area offers unique experiences that help feed our endless curiosity about the world. In Hampton Roads, there is always an adventure. The RVA757 Connects project is also something that has caused Hampton Roads regional leaders to think more thoughtfully and intentionally about collaboration in ways it had not considered before. Considering how much of our shared energy we will devote to RVA757 Connects projects means we’ll need to decide what investments we need to make when planning for the needs of Hampton Roads. But we are getting somewhere.
If you were to put the Coastal Virginia entrepreneurial ecosystem on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning a fully-functional ecosystem, and one being almost nonexistent, where are we? Why?
Paul Nolde: This one is tough, as I’ve only been here for a few months and am still getting the lay of the land, not to mention the subjectivity of what is a fully-functional ecosystem. That said, what did draw me to 757 (relative to other entrepreneurial ecosystems in the state) was precisely the progress that has been made in a relatively short period of time, vis a vis the scaffolding that has been put in place to enable founder growth. With 757 Collab specifically, we have three critical components under one roof (incubation, acceleration and capital). With Innovate Hampton Roads you have a master calendar of ecosystem events and a microphone for the region’s entrepreneurial efforts. With Black BRAND you have a targeted focus on underrepresented founders, and with the Hampton Roads SBDC you have a “clearing house” of sorts for founders seeking guidance across the 757 region.
Additionally, public-private partnerships in the innovation ecosystem appear to be strong: the HR SBDC is housed within the HR Chamber, Black BRAND is also known as the Black Chamber for Hampton Roads and Dan River regions, the REaKTOR Technology Innovation Center has strong support from the City of Hampton, and 757 Collab will be hosted by the Peninsula Chamber in the fall for monthly office hours. Adding all of this together, and I would assert that we’re currently at number 6 marching our way to a number 7 over the next few years.
Blair Durham: I’d give it a 7.5. And, this score has little to do with whether the environment has what it needs. Like every ecosystem, we are still dealing with institutional and systemic barriers that are not easily shattered. We still need to overcome ego issues and trust issues that impact effective collaboration. Since COVID, we have made remarkable strides in this regard. A fully functioning ecosystem needs great messaging, customers, funding and accessibility. We’re working on all of these areas.
Successful entrepreneurial ecosystems grow best organically, creating a positive feedback loop of sorts, that attracts more investors, mentors, entrepreneurs and other resources to make the network more dense. Here in Coastal Virginia, is this growth slowing, accelerating or staying the same?
Paul Nolde: I have to believe that this is starting to happen! I do think it’s accelerating, but at an incremental pace versus an exponential one.
Blair Durham: This is very much a “it depends on who you talk to” kind of conversation. Businesses that traditionally receive investment to scale seem to gravitate toward regions that financially incentivize their relocation, making it difficult for them to remain in the Hampton Roads region. In my community, where we are creating networks that promote business growth through sales as well as debt financing, the growth is accelerating. When I answer these questions however, it is always from the place of “how do I help create access for black businesses?”
Finally, what three things do you think should be top priorities as we work to develop a robust entrepreneurial system here in Coastal Virginia?
- A regional identity (vs. Peninsula-Southside) in concert with being more vocal on a regional and national scale about our “wins” and native centers of excellence.
- Corporate support.
- Politicians, press, and centers of influence “leaning in” to the ecosystem and taking the time to ask the tough questions, offer some solutions, and seeing this topic as a Switzerland of sorts to combat “regional tribalism.”
- Youth entrepreneurship programs for low status communities.
- Workforce development for emerging industries.
- Asset mapping for existing resources and a public-facing entrepreneurial ecosystem hub.