Board, college hope to spark entrepreneurs

WELLSBURG – The Brooke County Economic Development Authority could take a cue from network television’s “Shark Tank” and more locally, West Liberty University, by welcoming area residents with ideas for new businesses to pitch their concepts to local officials.

Carrie White, executive director of the WLU Center for Entrepreneurship, told the board Wednesday six individuals within and outside the university, with ideas for businesses, participated in the center’s first Entrepreneurs’ Pitch Contest in March.

White said each was given five minutes to describe his or her product or service and five minutes to answer questions from the audience, which voted on their favorites and included bankers and potential investors.

The six participants competed for cash prizes of $5,000 to $7,000 to aid them in establishing their ventures, and the winner – David Seum, owner of Sunset Recycling – will advance to a statewide competition and a chance to win $10,000.

Norm Schwertfeger, board vice chairman and a West Virginia University Extension agent specializing in economic development, asked the board to consider its own pitch contest in the future.

Schwertfeger said he’d like to know how many would participate if a local competition were held and encouraged those interested to contact him at (304) 737-3666.

Schwertfeger also asked White to share efforts to encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to establish businesses locally.

White said in the past many college graduates have taken their dreams of business ventures to larger cities, but she and other WLU officials hope to change that mindset.

“We’re really encouraging our students to stay here,” she said.

To do that, she said, the center has established business incubators on campus and at the former state capitol building in Wheeling, the latter with the help of the Wheeling Academy of Law and Science.

White said as those business concepts are developed, the students will seek independent locations in which to operate, and vacant storefronts in Brooke County could serve that purpose.

She said the university offers a program of studies in entrepreneurship geared toward traditional and non-traditional students at its main campus and its campus at the Highlands. The program involves 12-15 hours in related courses with no pre-requisite courses. It’s designed as a minor for students pursuing other fields of study, and many of about 30 currently enrolled are pursuing careers in technology, particularly web-based applications, White said.

But the center hopes to encourage entrepreneurs interested in hospitality and tourism, a major source of revenue for West Virginia, she said.

County Commissioner Norma Tarr voiced support, saying, “I love it because the (steel) mill is gone. Natural gas won’t be here forever. We need to be working toward the future.”