East Carolina University’s Rise 29 program will aim to promote economic prosperity in eastern North Carolina through the connection of students’ passions with community needs while it works with businesses to create and retain jobs.
Co-directors of Rise 29 Michael Harris and Sharon Paynter came up with the idea of the entrepreneurship program on the back of a napkin while riding a ferry to Ocracoke Island for a meeting, according to Paynter. Harris said with the help of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which gave $1.03 million in grant money, himself and Paynter were able to make their idea a reality.
“They (Golden Leaf Foundation) served as the funder. We developed a program and administering the program and they were the ones who saw the vision and invested in allowing us to make it happen,” Harris said.
After they received the grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation to start the program, Harris and Paynter became co-directors of Rise 29. Paynter said the program is centered around prosperity in rural communities by forming connections between ideas and passions of ECU students so they may start their own business and work with existing businesses in the region.
Harris and Paynter have worked together before they started Rise 29 and known each other for a long time, according to Paynter. She said they both began work on Rise 29 because they care about eastern North Carolina.
Paynter said Harris is talented as he works with the private sector business while she is good with the public and community. Their skills complement each other, according to Harris.
“As we develop the program, what we're really trying to do is to create this entrepreneurial network where it's just not one new business in a town in Martin County, as an example, but we're bringing together multiple ones and they compliment each other and it creates this very vibrant network,” Harris said.
The goal of Rise 29 is to help communities across eastern North Carolina, that is done by creating jobs, according to Paynter. She said possible entrepreneurs may come or stay in the region if more people are attracted to live in small communities.
“We feel like we have really talented students with great ideas at ECU that could help communities across the east by creating jobs and attracting people to live in smaller communities where they really well have a business that becomes part of a core fabric in an area,” Paynter said.
Rise 29 uses the mutually beneficial relationship between ECU and surrounding communities to make way from economic development one small business at a time, according to Paynter. She said in many ways, it is easier to start a business in a smaller community rather than an urban location.
The program does not partner with particular types of businesses but rather those that are in the area of Hyde, Martin, Beaufort and Pitt Counties, according to Paynter. She said the businesses that Rise 29 works with are referred and apply for projects with the community.
“Rise is a program that has long term potential and we're trying to get short term outcomes. So we need to have some success now so that we can build the case that we can have more successes later,” Paynter said.
Derrick Welch, program manager of Rise 29, said he was brought on to the program staff in May 2020 after he worked as the public policy director for the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. When the opportunity came up to work with rural communities similar to those he grew up in, Welch said he saw it as the best of both worlds.
Welch said he worked in higher education before at Central New Mexico Community College with a total of 15 years of experience. He said when he saw the opportunity to work in rural economic development and students, it just clicked.
“Being able to come in and take the best of what they are putting out there because they each have such great ideas and trying to figure out how to make them work their ideas to coalesce and being able to sit down and work with them to bring all of this together on the rise and really draw the program forward has been a fantastic opportunity,” Welch said.
The first months with Rise 29 was spent taking the great work the initiative had already done in the past year and formalizing the process of identifying clients and selecting students, according to Welch. He said Rise 29 had made good strides throughout the first year but being able to bring in structure and expand the program has been a great couple of months.
Welch said he is aware of the potential Rise 29 has to make an impact on the community.