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Create WV Coming to Charleston

Douglas Imbrogno
"What if there was crowd-funding in a hundred communities in West Virginia?" says Jeff James, of the focus on entrepreneurs and the "Innovation Economy" at this year's Create West Virginia conference in Charleston Oct. 26 and 27.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jeff James doesn't come right out and say it, but he's trying to save West Virginia. The chairman of Create West Virginia, which will host its fifth-annual conference Oct. 26 and 27 in Charleston, believes the grassroots organization he oversees is trying to change the future.

Create WV wants to help West Virginians participate more in the "Innovation Economy," which thrives on a "creative class" made up of artists, musicians, technology workers and entrepreneurs.

"West Virginia has been slow to embrace the innovation wave," said James, who also runs the Charleston-based marketing firm, Mythology.

Instead, he said the state has continued to look toward traditional industries, like coal, to sustain it, but coal in West Virginia isn't what it used to be, to devastating results in many small communities.

The Create WV conference hopes to offer another way. Through workshops, meetings and showcases, the conference aims to inspire community leaders, educators, artists and others to effect change in West Virginia.

"During the first four years, we geared the conferences toward community leaders, people who could encourage growth and innovation," James said. "This year, we're focusing on the individual level with people who want to be entrepreneurs."

While this is the fifth Create WV conference, it's the first time the conference has ever been held in Charleston. James said that was by design.

"There's a perception of Charleston as a big city in parts of the state," he explained, then added with a laugh, "and Charleston gets everything!"

James added, "Taking the conference outside of Charleston was kind of symbolic. We wanted to get it out there, but after five years of doing this, we thought it was time to get people to come to Charleston."

Registration for the conference is $189.

James said West Virginia doesn't lack for ideas, but most people who might have a valid, marketable concept for a new business, service or product don't know how to take it forward past just thinking about it. They don't know how to find and reach investors. They don't know where to even start and there's not a lot of encouragement to even try.

"West Virginia has a 'tense' relationship with business owners," James said, broaching the subject delicately. "Barons of industry have exploited us over and over again. Some of these people didn't even live here. They've made fortunes in the state and sent the wealth away."

That kind of history, he believes, has left its mark on the state. Business owners are sometimes distrusted simply for being in business in the first place.

"It's a cultural thing," he said, then explained that most people in the state look toward established businesses, like the mining industry or state government.

Fear holds many back from developing their talents and making their own way.

"We want people to think beyond their boundaries."

Program highlights include three special tracks for entrepreneurs, educators and community leaders, speed mentoring and networking opportunities, and a first-ever statewide crowd-funding contest which allows attendees to present their ideas for the chance to win $2,500 in seed money to get that idea started.

James said, "This is really at the micro-level, to just get things percolating."

But he added that he'd love for this kind of crowd-funding to catch on across the state.

"What if there was crowd-funding in a hundred communities in West Virginia?"

Create WV also hopes to provide budding entrepreneurs with role models from the creative class. Among them are three guest speakers, including: Award-winning director and 50 Eggs Films CEO Mary Mazzio; Nikki Bowman, founder/publisher/editor New South Media (WV Living Magazine); and Dr. Brian Hemphill, the new president of West Virginia State University.

Building up the Innovation Economy in the state, James believes, benefits everyone. Adding jobs and more income to the state would eventually mean improved services, better education and a better quality of life. By encouraging an environment conducive to the creative class, it would also attract interest and investment from outside of West Virginia.

James said the plan has worked in other parts of the country, like Idaho, which he said has come a long way from just being a rural state best known for potatoes.

"It's become a thriving technical state."

Still, the Create West Virginia Conference is really just part of a first wave. James said they want to "think way bigger." Eventually, he'd like to use Create WV to encourage "outside energy," meaning outside investment in innovative West Virginia businesses.

"And I think West Virginia is in a good place geographically," he added. "We're sort of right beside other places that have a lot of innovation, like Carnegie Mellon. I think West Virginia could become a super low cost place for others to try innovation."

However, none of this is likely to happen overnight.

"This might be a lifetime effort for some of us," he acknowledged. "We're trying to get some momentum going, but we might be doing all of this just for our kids."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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