The path to becoming a successful entrepreneur was rough, Sean Wilson admits. The “chief executive optimist” at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham spent a decade working for startups and dealing with the ebbs and flows of each.
“The lowest point of my career was getting fired from a diaper company,” said Wilson, a Duke University graduate. “When you get an MBA from a great school and you get fired from a diaper company, it’s time to kind of re-evaluate.”
Wilson and two other local entrepreneurs spoke at the 12th annual Careers in Sustainability Forum, which showcases professionals who work at the intersection of business and sustainability, Nov. 1. The Center for Sustainable Enterprise, MBA Career Management Center and the MBA Net Impact Club hosted the forum.
Nick Black (MBA ‘13), managing partner of Victory Social Capital, and Liz Morris (MBA ‘11), founder and CEO of Sanitation Creations, joined Wilson to share tips for funding entrepreneurial ventures and using resources that are available at UNC.
In his second year of business school, Black and his partners came up with the idea for Victory Social Capital and raised money using angel funds in the area. He stressed the importance of preparing to run a business while still in school since diving right in can come with a fair share of surprises.
“The biggest surprise for me was all the legal work,” Black said. “I thought starting a business would be a lot of business stuff but it was doing all legal work. I got a library card to the UNC Law library to understand words I’ve never heard before. That was a complete blindside for me.”
Black recommended connecting with SCORE, a nonprofit dedicated to educating entrepreneurs about the process of forming and growing a small business. Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh each have a SCORE chapter.
“It’s unbelievable how many people who retired as CEOs of companies like Campbell’s Soup and came down to North Carolina,” Black said. “They love business, they love interesting ideas and they want to leave a mark.”
Morris, too, found many of the resources she used to kick-start her business through UNC Kenan-Flagler.
She developed the idea for Sanitation Creations, maker of a waterless, odorless toilet, while working on her MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler.
In 2011, Sanitation Creations participated in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s “Launching the Venture” program, a venture lab and business accelerator that gives students a series of intense, hands-on academic courses designed to help turn startup ideas into viable ventures. Later it was selected as the winner of the 2012 Cherokee Challenge and placed second runner-up in the inaugural UNC Social Business Conference.
Sanitation Creations is now headquartered at HQ Raleigh, a startup space for entrepreneurs housing more than 45 companies.
“It’s very nice to be able to talk to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I need a marketing person. Who did you use to do your website?” Morris said. “It’s also great because they’re all entrepreneurs. You make friends with all these people who understand your crazy schedule.”
She was surprised at how helpful people are. “The moment you tell them, ‘I have this idea and I want to do this,’ they start thinking about who they know who can help you and… almost automatically want to help you become successful, even if they have nothing to gain.”
The panelists discussed the value of local resources that provide funding and guidance for entrepreneurial ventures, including:
- 1789 (Chapel Hill), a startup venture-lab community for student entrepreneurs and recent alumni
- American Underground (Durham, Raleigh), which now has two campuses in Durham and one in Raleigh
- Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network (Durham), “for entrepreneurs who have already founded their business and are trying to take it to the next level,” Morris said.
- Cherokee Challenge (Raleigh), which provides $20,000 and three months of office space for its annual competition’s winners
- The CUBE at Campus Y (Chapel Hill), a business incubator located on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus
- Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) (Durham, Raleigh), a worldwide invitation-only network for entrepreneurs with a division for the Raleigh-Durham area
- HQ Raleigh (Raleigh), an entrepreneurial workspace formerly known as HUB Raleigh
- Launch Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill), one of Chapel Hill’s premiere startup accelerators
- Launching the Venture (Chapel Hill), which Morris said “really pushes you to formalize a plan”
- NC Idea (Durham), which serves as a catalyst for technology startups
For more of resources available for students, faculty, staff and the UNC community, visit UNC Innovation and Entrepreneurship.