Business, Community

Country Roads Angel Network celebrates West Virginia entrepreneurism at annual dinner

FAIRMONT– “Entreprenuerism” is a key word in the frequent talks about reviving West Virginia’s economy. The Country Roads Angel Network – CRAN – celebrated its mission of fostering West Virginia entrepreneurs during its annual meeting Friday night at the Robert H. Mollohan Research Center.

CRAN was formed in 2019 to provide early stage seed funding for entrepreneurs, President Judy Moore recounted to the investors and entrepreneurs enjoying a buffet dinner.

Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development

“We’re really, really excited for the growth opportunity that we see ahead,” she said. CRAN faced and overcame the obstacle of getting rolling during the pandemic. “We’re proud of the impact that we have seen. 2022 has really been an amazing year for us. … Entrepreneurial spirit is strong and we just continue to be amazed by the ingenuity and the resiliency of entrepreneurs within the state.”

CRAN has 32 member investors and seeks to gain more. The current 32 have invested almost $800,000 in five West Virginia companies; that seed money allowed those companies to raise another $6.5 million. The companies have generated 30-plus jobs with another 15 on the near horizon.

CRAN is a volunteer investor network based in Beckley, administered by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority’s WV Hive resource program. The five companies in its portfolio are Iconic Air, Endolumik, and Parthian Battery Solutions, all of Morgantown; Mountain Steer meat company of White Sulfur Springs; and Cox Telecom of Oak Hill.

CRAN is now partnering with an entrepreneur with a different sort of vision: Brandon Dennison, founder and CEO of Coalfield Development, an incubator devoted to revitalizing coal communities.

Julie Smith, CEO of Performance Ally

He’s a native West Virginian, he said, who like others was “frustrated that it’s a beautiful place, incredible work ethic, amazing people, beautiful culture. And yet it just never felt like we were achieving our economic potential. It always felt like we had more to offer to the country, to the world than what we’ve been able to offer so far.”

Dennison explained his vision and mission to the group. Coalfied Development, he said, focuses on social enterprises. A social enterprise blends the goals of nonprofits and for-profits, using a business model to transform the people and the economy of southern West Virginia.

Some of those it incubated itself and owns and operates, others are the fruit of other investors that Coalfield joined in to help

Coalfield trains and employs unemployed or underemployed people who face barriers to work, he said. More than half of its trainees are in recovery. More than two thirds are on public assistance when they begin and are off when they complete the program.

The panel discussion

Since 2010, he said, Coalfield has trained more than 1,600 people, created more than 550 new full-time jobs and started and supported 64 new businesses.

Dennison talked about West Virginia’s economic gap, comparing the state to neighbor Kentucky as an example. West Virginia’s labor participation rate is 55.2%, Kentucky’s is 58%. West Virginia sees 805 new business applications per 100,000 residents compared to Kentucky’s 1,145. Venture capital per resident is $68 in West Virginia, $490 in Kentucky.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” he said. “If you’re running a marathon and you’re 10 minutes behind the pacesetter, it’s not enough to run the same speed as whoever’s in front. We’ve got to find a way run faster. … I think social entrepreneur is a piece of how we do that.”

The CRAN investors – some there in the room, others participating virtually – heard pitches from two entrepreneurs seeking funding. WVU student Anna Cummings owns Anna Marie Beauty and has created Earring BackTrack, a tool to help women with dexterity challenges or long fingernails put on and remove their earrings.

Julie Smith owns Performance Ally, which is developing real-time performance feedback software Ally Assit that will be initially targeted for the medical community to improve the patient experience.

Investors also heard a diligence update from Alison Ibarra, who owns the Pinheads indoor bowling and recreation center in Oak Hill and is working to open a second Pinheads in Lewisburg. She had met with CRAN before and was providing an update.

The evening concluded with a panel discussion – a conversation on CRAN’s impact that included CRAN leaders and entrepreneurs it’s supported. Endolumik CEO and co-founder Mara McFadden said, “I can say candidly, we would not be here today if it was not for CRAN.”

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