Homegrown Leaders brings existing and emerging leaders together for a three-day regional leadership and community economic development training that equips them with the skills they need to lead long-term economic advancement in their community and region. In Wayne County, participants Julie Beck and Edward Olive have done just that.
“We were very fortunate because we had 11 or 12 people from across Wayne County in the cohort,” says Beck, president of the Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce. Due to Covid, the program was offered virtually in 2022. “After the program ended, we felt like we didn’t quite get what we wanted out of it because it was virtual.”
So, the Wayne County participants decided that they would take what they had learned in the program and proceed ahead on their own. They began meeting, at first virtually, and then in person, to discuss what they could do that would benefit the county.
Despite having representation from throughout the county, the group was determined to make sure that Mount Olive was the centerpiece for this effort. Like many rural communities throughout the country, Mount Olive tends to lose young people who leave the area in search of work.
“This place is gonna be unrecognizable before long if we don’t provide opportunities and find ways to keep those folks and keep good talent within the communities,” explains Edward Olive, director of the Lois G. Britt Agribusiness Center at the University of Mount Olive.
The Wayne County cohort is still very much digging through the stages of this work. The idea for big deliverables has evolved into creating a rural business incubator.
“We are looking for a physical space that can support those entrepreneurs, find a way to put them all in one place, to give them space, to give them somewhere to find that mentor capacity, to work with other entrepreneurs,” continues Olive. “We want to find a way to provide an opportunity for students and residents that leave because Mount Olive’s not the place to start a business. Well, why not? Why can’t we make Mount Olive a good place to start and keep a business?”
The cohort envisions the space as one where anyone with a rural business idea or something that could help Wayne County, Mount Olive, or even the Mount Olive region, can get the resources they need to start a business.
“Once we started down this process, we began to think about who are some of our stakeholders?” Julie adds. “We talked to business leaders, civic leaders, business owners, farmers. We looked 30 minutes in any direction from Mount Olive, because those are the people coming to our community. They work in our community so we wanted to get their input as well. Our town is so much more than just the people that live here.”
The goal of a physical space is a large one, and Beck and Olive understand that in order to get there, they need to start small and build upon what they have. The next steps involve cultivating stakeholders and offering programming, such as workshops and conferences, that leverage the resources already in the community, such as the university and libraries and businesses. There are a large number of constituents who want to see Mount Olive succeed in this effort to provide opportunities for growth and prosperity in the region.
“We are dreamers. That’s what we are. We have a lot of big ideas,” adds Olive. “As we dream it out, the ultimate goal is to have a business incubator where you can come in with an idea and a dream and have somewhere to grow it into something that’s going to make a difference within the Mount Olive region.”
Julie and Ed, along with the cohort they have curated in Wayne County, are very passionate about proceeding ahead and taking that next step toward making their dream become a reality.