Sixth-generation Kentuckian Sara Day Evans is the founding director of Accelerating Appalachia, described on its website as a nature-based business accelerator. The non-profit supports the growth of entrepreneurial efforts in areas like Eastern Kentucky where the decline of coal mining and related businesses has cost middle-class jobs and driven young talent out of the region in search of better opportunities.
Q: Accelerating Appalachia: What does it do and how does it work?
A: We select applicants from across the Appalachian region. These are entrepreneurs who are creating jobs that won’t be exported overseas, and they are working with the natural resources that are abundant in our region. We help them scale and grow across our region in a way that diversifies our economy.
Q: You call these “nature-based” businesses, implying that they rely on local resources and on the earth itself, which I would think would ensure that they’re not outsourced overseas.
A: That’s exactly the point. Southern and Central Appalachia was recently recognized as the most diverse food-shed in North America and Northern Mexico. This is huge. We have more heirloom seeds under cultivation in Appalachia than any other region on most of the continent. There are all kinds of wonderful businesses leveraging that in a way that they can run a business and create jobs but have minimal impact on, if not actually helping, to restore the soil. There are particular agricultural practices that can actually put carbon back in the soil. We are particularly focused on those kinds of regenerative practices. Putting carbon back in the soil is increasingly recognized as just as important as emissions reduction.
Q: “Food-shed” is a term I don’t think many people are familiar with. Can you define that for us?
A: When we talk about a food-shed, specifically the data is around the Southern Appalachian region of North Carolina, the northern part of South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. And it’s measured by the diversity of seeds and plants being grown in that region as compared with other food-shed regions that are interconnected to one another.
Q: How does your organization fit into this picture?
A: We attract businesses in food, farming, forest products, textiles. We pick them up in their growth stage. These are businesses that have a few years under their belt. They’ve got some growth, some customers. They’re facing a lot of challenges in their growth. They need to hire people, purchase equipment, the myriad reasons that a business needs business development assistance. They may need investment. So we help them in every aspect of their business: customers, marketing, financials and prepare them for investment, if that’s what they’re seeking. We help them with their supply chains - building these supply chains across Appalachia is really important to us. We have a vast array of mentors, advisers and investors that are regional and global that help through this process.
Q: Who’s the typical investor?
A: It depends on what kind of investment the business is seeking. Some of our businesses may be seeking $10,000 (or) $20,000. Some may be seeking $250K, $500K up to $1 million. We’ve had businesses of that growth and of that scale. So it’s going to depend on what that business’ capacity for investment is - if their interest is in scaling across the region or if they just want to stay real local. We have a partnership with a program called Kiva Zip and they help to crowd-source $10,000 zero interest loans. But then we have individuals who are interested in supporting their local economy. They’re not interested in a fast return. They would like to get their money back maybe at a low interest rate. Some are just happy to get their money back with no return. We have a whole slew of partners from Kentucky, North Carolina, from actually all over the country that are interested in this nature-based business concept.
Q: How have these investments and loans performed?
A: Keep in mind we’re just coming into a third year of running this program. So we don’t know, yet. We do know that there haven’t been any defaults on any of those loans. But as far as the equity-backed investments, that’s yet to be seen. There’s plenty of data out there that impact investing - investing in socially and environmentally responsible businesses with a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit have returns that are as good if not greater than your typical investments. This is a growing trend in investment right now, especially with younger folks of high net worth. They actually want their money to go towards something that matters more than just a return on their investment.
Q: Most of your applicants are women-owned and co-owned businesses. Is there an intentional focus on women?
A: We hadn’t put that out there when we launched our program. But about 75 percent of our applicants are either women-led or co-led businesses. There are a lot of women in agriculture and in the natural products industry, healthy body care products, etc. Women-led businesses tend to be more profitable, yet sadly they’re undercapitalized.
Q: How is Accelerating Appalachia funded and what kind of partnerships have you developed so far?
A: We had an early federal grant and we have been working with high net worth individuals, grants, donations and foundations. We have decided to open up to the public and take donations of individuals who also love our work. We’ve been operating from decent-sized grants from a few individuals.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming spring program — who, what, where and when?
A: Applications on our website are open now until Jan. 9. We are seeking businesses from across the Southern and Central Appalachian region. We’ll make our selections by the end of January, and the sessions will begin right at the end of February. They will run over a 12-week period. The program consists of four three-day sessions. So it’s a total of 12 days — three days on, two to three weeks off. It will be hosted in Lexington, Louisville, Pikeville and Asheville.
Q: And you mentioned businesses will be “selected” towards the end of January.
Q: Is that because you’re limiting attendance, or does it also have to do with criteria?
A: Certainly they have to meet the criteria: What’s the good they’re doing for the planet? How are their profits looking? Can we really be of assistance to them? Sometimes, if it’s a brand-new idea, we’re not the right people to go to. If they’re not a right fit for us, we have a great network of folks that we will refer them to. Kentucky especially has a lot of free services for entrepreneurs.
Q: Is there a registration fee?
A: There is tuition. We have scholarships and we’re continuing to build more scholarships. So we’ve got a range right now, anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500.
Q: And you can apply for this program through your website?
A: Correct. www.acceleratingappalachia.org.
If you go
Sara Day Evans will participate in a panel discussion about business development in Eastern Kentucky at the Jan. 7 Lexington Forum breakfast at the Boone Center on the UK Campus. For more information and to register go to lexingtonforum.org.