Franza: Augusta’s entrepreneur scene needs more catalysts to succeed

Most successful people readily credit mentors as being crucial to their success.

 

Evidence of such mentoring goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks: Socrates mentored Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle, who ultimately mentored Alexander the Great.

The mentoring relationship between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford helped Ford master the business strategy and technological research necessary to revolutionize the automobile industry.

In sports, we often use the term “coaching tree” to demonstrate how a successful head coach mentors his or her assistants to go on to be successful head coaches themselves.

Successful business people can point to formal and/or informal mentors who have been instrumental in their career successes. However, there may be no area in which mentoring is more important than in entrepreneurship and the start-up of new businesses.

During my last five years at Kennesaw State University, I was involved in the development of an incubation/acceleration space now known as IgniteHQ, a joint venture between KSU and the Cobb County (northwest suburban Atlanta) Chamber of Commerce. From 2014 to 2016, I accompanied the Cobb Chamber on three economic development trips – to Dallas, Chicago and Denver – in which we visited “entrepreneurial spaces” in those cities and their suburbs to learn how we might best develop our space.

Mostly what we learned about these spaces is that they are all different, but the successful ones have three things in common: educational programming for entrepreneurs; an atmosphere of community for entrepreneurs; and accessible mentors for new entrepreneurs to call upon.

In Augusta, we currently have one such space, theClubhou.se, and two more in their development stages — the Augusta Innovation Zone and an unnamed space within the new Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center.

The existing space, theClubhou.se, led by Eric Parker and Grace Belangia, is doing a nice job of working to provide the three crucial elements identified above. It has a solid record of providing needed programming in all aspects of entrepreneurship, and particularly in the tech space. Partnering with Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center and its Augusta startup catalyst, Scott Hardigree, it is providing additional excellent programming such as the Startup Bootcamp, which runs from Sept. 26 to Nov. 16.

In addition to the excellent programming, if you spend any time at theClubhou.se, you will quickly notice the sense of entrepreneurial community they have built there. Events such as “Beer and Bytes” typically feature speakers, but more importantly provide a forum for community-building.

However, the biggest challenge for theClubhou.se and the other spaces under development will be to find an adequate number of mentors to support the burgeoning start-up community in Augusta.

While theClubhou.se continues to try to bring in as many experienced entrepreneurs as it can to support its efforts, it seems that Augusta might lack the critical mass of such entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech space, necessary to provide the mentorship required to grow a significant number of startups.

While I have only been here in Augusta a short period time, my initial sense is that we may be a little shorthanded in those entrepreneurs in the technology and physical-product spaces — the serial entrepreneurs who have swung and missed a few times between hits and home runs.

On Aug. 30, I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for EDTS headquarters at the new Augusta Cyberworks facility at Sibley Mill, developed by Cape Augusta Digital Properties. In his remarks at the ceremony, James Ainslie, president and CEO of CADP, indicated the need for Augusta to attract young entrepreneurs to the city.

While I agree with Mr. Ainslie that we need to attract young entrepreneurs, I also would argue that it is just as important to attract more seasoned entrepreneurs to both build new businesses and serve as the needed mentors for young entrepreneurs.

The Augusta area has done a fantastic job in economic development. Kudos to Walter Sprouse and Robbie Bennett and their respective economic development organizations for attracting businesses to Richmond and Columbia counties, respectively. Now comes another challenge: Bring us the seasoned entrepreneurs (and their companies) who will grow their “coaching trees” in Augusta and hopefully develop the Henry Fords of cyber.

 

Richard Franza is dean of the Augusta University James M. Hull College of Business. Email rfranza@augusta.edu.

 

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