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Small and mighty

Small businesses are the backbone of every single North Carolina community.

There are an estimated 1 million small businesses in the state in 2024, accounting for 99.6% of all business and employing about 1.7 million people across numerous industries. Two-thirds of all net new jobs created in North Carolina over the past 25 years have been thanks to small businesses.

Numerous small businesses were founded by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School alumni, and many more run them today. In celebration of National Small Business Week (April 28-May 4) and National Small Business Month in May, UNC Kenan-Flagler alums shared how the Business School helped make their venture a success and why small businesses are so vital to millions of North Carolinians.

For many, UNC Kenan-Flagler is where the dream of owning their own business becomes reality.

Mary Laci Motley (BSBA ’21)
Founder and CEO, EATS2SEATS 

Fewer than 10 years after one of her first jobs as a Chick-fil-A cashier, Mary Laci Motley (BSBA ’21) is the CEO of EATS2SEATS, a vending and concessions service operating in sports and entertainment venues from North Carolina to Texas to Wisconsin.

Motley quickly immersed herself in entrepreneurship at Carolina, joining UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Assured Admission Program in the Undergraduate Business Program (UBP) and launching EATS2SEATS as a sophomore in 2018. She received pivotal guidance and powerful encouragement early from those who remain her mentors today, including Professor Shimul Melwani, UBP associate dean, and Professor Jim Kitchen (BA ’87), whose entrepreneurship class laid the foundation for what would become EATS2SEATS.

When Motley struggled at first to land meetings with essential service providers, such as lawyers and insurance representatives, UNC Kenan-Flagler Board of Advisors members Leo Horey (MBA ’90) and Bill Moore (MBA ’67), along with Professor Courtney Knoll, associate dean of the Master of Accounting Program, personally connected her with the CPA firm, law firm and CFO EATS2SEATS still uses.

The company’s co-founder, Maxwell Hurst (BSBA ’21), joined full time after graduating and serves as its COO. Dozens of UNC Kenan-Flagler students and alumni lead EATS2SEATS events and participate in the company’s summer internship program.

“EATS2SEATS owes its existence to UNC Kenan-Flagler,” says Motley. “It was here that I first discovered my passion for entrepreneurship. These past years have been a testament to the unwavering support and guidance I’ve received from UNC Kenan-Flagler.”

Her hard work continues to pay off. Motley has scaled EATS2SEATS to a presence across 10 states and was included in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of impactful young business owners in 2023. She will be the UBP Class of 2024’s commencement speaker.

“At UNC Kenan-Flagler you’re never short of opportunities to connect with like-minded dreamers who understand the highs and lows of starting a business,” she says. “Its special culture and amazing community are so powerful.”

Read more about Motley and EATS2SEATS.

Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte Levy of Firsthand Foods pose for a in front of a delivery truck

Jennifer Curtis (left) and Tina Prevatte Levy (right).

Tina Prevatte Levy (MBA/MCRP ’09)
Co-founder and COO/CFO, Firsthand Foods 

A brilliant business idea is useless without a solid business plan.

Fourteen years after she co-founded meat wholesaler Firsthand Foods, Tina Prevatte Levy still keeps a binder full of the business concepts and case studies she studied voraciously while in the Full-Time MBA Program at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“Coming out of school and shortly thereafter setting up this business, there was a confidence because those fundamentals were baked in from day one,” she says. “They continue to guide how I manage the finances.”

Firsthand Foods began with an ahead-of-its-time vision: creating a more sustainable model of getting local meats to local markets in a way that also generated strong rural economic development in North Carolina.

After working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act, Prevatte Levy wanted to continue working with businesses genuinely invested in protecting the environment. She met business partner Jennifer Curtis (MS ’98) when she was a summer consultant with CSE Consulting, a former on-campus consultancy run through what is now the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability (ACES). Curtis, then the project director for NC Choices, was her client, and they worked on a project together to envision a supply chain that would improve access to local, sustainably raised meats and provide new opportunities for independent farmers.

It started what would become Durham-based Firsthand Foods, launched in 2010. In 2019, ACES honored Prevatte Levy and Curtis with the Leadership in Corporate Sustainability Award.

Firsthand Foods has grown into a $3 million business and helped bring more than 4 million pounds of sustainably raised meat to the marketplace. About 75% of its revenue supports the rural meat processors and 25 small farms they regularly work with to bring fresh beef, pork and lamb to state retailers and restaurants. UNC is a client.

“When I graduated, I knew I wanted to stay in North Carolina and knew that I wanted to do something sustainable and mission-driven,” says Prevatte Levy. “You don’t have to do business as usual when you’re a small business owner. You get to do things your way with your values front and center. Farmers are used to being price-takers. With our model, they’re the price-makers.”

In one course, she began writing the business plan for Firsthand Farms before she knew she’d run it as her own. Her business instincts were built through participating in case competitions, meeting a different entrepreneur each week of her Business Plan Analysis class and mastering concepts in managerial accounting while navigating her MBA and Master of City and Regional Planning dual-degree program.

“Those I met on the entrepreneurship track are still some of our biggest cheerleaders. They’re people you can lean on whenever it’s hard,” she says. “You know you’re not the only person forging this tough path.”

Read more about Tina Prevatte Levy and Firsthand Foods.

Austin Helms

Austin Helms (BSBA ’16)

Austin Helms (BSBA ’16)
Founding partner, NuBlue Service Group

When Austin Helms discovered what he didn’t want to do it was almost as powerful as fully embracing the best fit.

He didn’t see himself strictly in direct sales or marketing. After two consulting classes, he knew that wasn’t for him either.

Then he got to Professor Jim Kitchen’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship class, where student teams are given $50 to start a business. Helms had been an entrepreneurial kid. He sold Halloween candy he collected to friends and family, and handmade bows and arrows to kids in the neighborhood. By 12, he had a car detailing business. As a teen, he operated gumball machines at small businesses in his hometown of Valdese, North Carolina.

In Kitchen’s class, he saw he could be an entrepreneurial adult as well. In 2019 Helms opened Charlotte-based NuBlue, a plumbing, air and electrical business with multiple North Carolina locations.

“Small businesses give life to a community,” says Helms. “I grew up in a small town in Western North Carolina. Small businesses make things work there.  When small businesses leave, a town isn’t the same.”

By Helms’ count, there are at least 50 people at the Business School who had a huge impact on him. In Kitchen’s class, he took less than a week to turn the $50 seed money into a profitable business, raising a record $1,904. An early business concept, a water-saving car wash service called Waterless Buddy’s, won third place at the former Carolina Challenge, thanks to encouragement from Professor Tim Flood.

From the early stages of developing NuBlue Service, Mike Griffin (BSBA ’87), partner at Griffin Brothers Companies was there for support as he had been for Motley and EATS2SEATS. He took Helms on as an entrepreneurial apprentice. Now Griffin Brother Companies is a major backer for Helms’ Charlotte-based NuBlue. The company aims to become the largest employee-owned plumbing and HVAC business in the U.S.

“One of the things the Business School does so well is not forcing you down a certain path. I never felt like I had to do one thing or the other,” says Helms. “What you do know right away is have good people around you. Professors told me that starting a business was not going to be easy, but that I could do it and the steps I should take. I had great mentors. I’m emulating them.”

Read more about Austin Helms and NuBlue.

Simone Saleh Lawson

Simone Saleh Lawson (MBA ’17)
Co-owner, Sassool Mediterranean Café

Simone Saleh Lawson was born into a successful family of restauranters, but she never had an easy pass in the industry.

She still doesn’t. After working with her father, Mounir Saleh, for years at his first restaurant, she now manages the Raleigh and Cary locations of Sassool Mediterranean Café, founded in 2011. Lawson plans special events at the restaurant, directs marketing and social media, manages its online ordering system and oversees its monthly cooking classes.

Even with her experience and family history she knew she needed to grow as a business leader. She chose UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Evening Executive MBA Program to take her family’s business to the next level.

“The connections I formed while getting my MBA continue to give such amazing strategic feedback,” says Lawson. “It’s not just them giving their opinion, but also giving business critiques of any ideas I would talk to them about. I chose UNC Kenan-Flagler for its reputation and to build a business network to establish myself in the business community. I needed the MBA to grow the business.”

Like most small business owners, Lawson does a little bit of everything at Sassool, not just because she has to but because she does it all so well. At the Business School, she found a marketing course with Professor William Putsis especially valuable since she manages the company’s print and digital communication. The Business School gave her fresh perspective on concepts such as employee retention, product consistency and brand identity.

“A big challenge is that you start a business at 200 miles an hour and you forget that you might not have all the fundamentals down for every position. That’s not sustainable,” says Lawson. “But you can’t be scared of the challenges. Embrace them, get creative and always seek out advice and consult with others in the same industry.”

Another must for small business owners is giving back, she says. While at the Business School, Lawson mentored a woman interested in the food service industry through Fostering Wellness, a youth advocacy program. Now, Lawson regularly organizes Sassool teams to participate in and donate to Triangle organizations and charity events, such as the Foundation for Hope’s Walk for Hope, supporting mental illness research and treatment, and the American Diabetes Association’s Tour De Cure.

“Small businesses are the heart of every community,” says Lawson. “It is so important for them to thrive and evolve.” 

Read more about Simone Saleh Lawson and Sassool.