Photo above: Recipients of KIVA loans gather to discuss their entrepreneurial success.
By Scott Robertson
The 2018 Southwest Virginia Economic Forum May 17 at the University of Virginia at Wise promised a great deal of informative content. Listed on the agenda were a panel discussion on what communities in neighboring states are doing to drive economic development, a talk by Travis Staton on efforts to bridge the gap between education and employers in Southwest Virginia, a discussion of workforce needs in the advanced manufacturing sector and a keynote speech from Governor Ralph Northam.
The day got off to a slower start than had been hoped for when Northam’s flight from Richmond was socked in by fog, leaving Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball to deliver the keynote. Ball admitted to being a neophyte student of Southwest Virginia, but told the audience of business and education leaders the Northam administration would, “work hard and be here a lot.”
“All of us (in the Northam administration) share this commitment to do good things in Southwest Virginia,” Ball said. At the same time, Ball worked to manage expectations of what that commitment might produce. Using a baseball metaphor, he said that rather than swinging for home runs, Southwest Virginia should be aiming for “singles and doubles.”
The afternoon keynote speech by Cheryl Cran, CEO of Evolutionary Business Solutions Inc., was titled, “The Future of Work is Now! Are You Ready?”
Cran encouraged the audience to be willing to take new approaches in dealing with talent. She told an anecdote from her career as a banker in Canada. She managed a branch that was robbed, “ten times in a year, by the same two guys.” Every day there was a robbery, Cran said, the day’s workflow was destroyed. So, Cran said, she instituted a new policy in which she started giving the same orders the robbers had been giving as soon as they appeared. “I told everybody to get down on the floor and I told the robbers to go ahead and take the money. I even offered them donuts on the way out,” Cran said. That strategy, Cran said, minimized the distruption in the workday, allowing her staff to return to normalcy quicker.
As Cran was making a point about the need for businesses to be “disruption tolerant,” a member of the audience passed out, causing a call of “is there a doctor in the house?” Cran told organizers of the event she was ending her remarks at that point and left the stage.
Perhaps the most inspiring moments of the day came during the presentations by several Southwest Virginia entrepreneurs who have received funding from the KIVA loan program. Kiva.org loans are crowd-funded, low interest loans available online to entrepreneurs who make a convincing case.
Stephen Curd, owner of Lavelle Manufacturing, a clothing design and manufacturing company in Glade Spring, told attendees that an $8,000 loan allowed him to buy machinery and hire two part-time employees to bring hand-made clothing production back to the community. “Our plan,” Curd said, “is to grow our business to be able to offer jobs in the area at a fair wage thus starting the resurgence of small manufacturing back in the South and in the USA.”
Steven Harris, owner of Appalachian Drafting, discussed the success of his firm, which creates ultra-accurate 3D models of construction projects allowing clients to program automatic welding processes. The company is now doing work on projects in major markets.
The 2019 forum has already been scheduled for May 15 at UVA-Wise.