TUPELO — Hancock Fabrics, Bryan Foods, Aspen Bay Candle Company, Mossy Oak and Trailboss Trailers, all nationally-recognized companies, were founded by Mississippi entrepreneurs. Now the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) wants to make it easier for enterprising business folks to give entrepreneurship a try.
Project TEAM (Training Enterprising Appalachian Mississippians) is a new program developed to identify, support, educate and network with entrepreneurs and is the focus of the ARC’s three-year, $15-million initiative. More than 30 grants totaling $2 million have been awarded throughout the entire region, said Chris Sheffield, developer of Project TEAM and associate manager for ARC in Tupelo, a division of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development.
“We receive roughly $300,000 a year that we direct toward entrepreneur efforts,” he said. “The steering committee was put together to more effectively target that money where it is best needed.”
Since the initiative started, a joint youth entrepreneur leadership project with the Girls & Boys Club and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Tupelo has been established to help introduce over 100 high school students to elements of entrepreneurism, Sheffield said.
The TEAM’s steering committee, which consists of entrepreneurs and leaders in business, education, finance, technology and government, met for the first time in December, Sheffield said.
“A cross section of diverse people was chosen to serve on the team with the goal of determining strengths and weaknesses in the region as it relates to entrepreneurs,” he said. “Some of the questions we’ve been asking are, ‘What do we need to do?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’ Our first step is assessing an inventory from the 22-county region to find out about programs that tend to fall off the radar, such as church programs and community groups. We are encouraging everyone to let us know about these programs. It’s the key to what we will do.”
Congress established the ARC in 1965 to support and promote economic and social development in 13 states that make up the Appalachian region. The program was implemented in Mississippi in 1967.
Dr. Beth Duncan, home-based and entrepreneurial business specialist at Mississippi State University, who develops programs for extension agents to administer at the local level, said Project TEAM was very much needed.
“We have a lot of programs going on in the state, but they are fragmented and isolated,” Duncan said. “Everybody’s doing their own thing. I see this program bringing together a lot of people who are working in the small business arena and to find out what each other is doing and explore ways of working together.”
Benny Walls of Oxford, entrepreneurial consultant, said Project TEAM will help fill gaps, create resources and bring opportunities for training to those who need it.
“As an African American, I am passionate about connecting all people with the right programs that can promote independence and success in business,” Walls said. “There are so many great ideas and ventures that are potential businesses for people to develop. Project TEAM will provide means and opportunities for entrepreneurs to learn how to effectively pursue their business dreams. So many businesses fail due to a lack of awareness of the programs that are available to help them succeed.”
Tim Weston, executive director of the Itawamba County Development Council in Fulton, said one of the group’s first tasks is to make the network more efficient instead of duplicating efforts.
“Everybody’s coming to the table for different reasons and we are recognizing common ground of the need to do more for entrepreneurs and to have a cohesive sector,” Weston said. “That’s what we’re trying to put our hands around, to mold the different places each of us is coming from. In the long run will make for a much better effort, but also takes a little more time on the front end because we don’t have a groupthink scenario already established.”