Mining a Rich Lode of Ideas
Accelerating Appalachia helps cultivate region’s revival
It was crunch time for the owners of Sweetgrass Granola, as about 100 potential investors stared back at them in May at Brown-Forman’s offices in Louisville. Carolyn and Jacob Gahn were pitching a new product called EllieFinn’s, a coconut butter truffle snack packed with organic vegetables, in the final session of a 12-week program through Accelerating Appalachia, a first-of-its kind nature-based business accelerator.
For the Gahns the session served as an important primer as they work to roll out a new product and raise awareness about their 3-year-old business in Garrard County.
“It was such a great experience because we had never really talked to investors before or never had our information presented in such a way, where investors were expecting to see our product,” Carolyn Gahn said, adding that the same information was used for a Kickstarter campaign launched the next day. “We had to figure out how to describe our business and cover all our bases. We are so happy we had to go through that process.”
In its third year, Accelerating Appalachia is a nonprofit initiative seeking to connect start up businesses in a variety of sectors to potential investors with the goal of supporting a healthier economy for the Appalachian region. It’s kind of like soul searching for start-ups as they peel back the layers through four intensive sessions culminating in the final celebration and pitch event at Brown-Forman.
Founding director Sara Day Evans’s philosophy is simple: healthier place and people.
“Our process is one of full-on business development in a very high-touch sort of way,” said Evans, a sixth-generation Kentuckian who has a long career of working with distressed communities in Appalachia. “We go deep in every piece: their marketing, their financials, their channels, which are their supply chains. And not just the financial side of it: ‘Why are you doing it?’ The ethical side of it.”
A Sense of Place
Evans, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and central Kentucky, has long had a sense of place.
Both her parents were physicists at the University of Virginia, settling the family on a farm in rural Batesville, Virginia. It was a life of no television and lots of exploring. “It was a very vibrant childhood,” she said. “We had free roam of the farm.”
Though a Kentuckian at heart — Evans has degrees in geology and hydrogeology from the University of Kentucky and lives in Midway — she formed a connection with western North Carolina, where she worked with distressed communities for the North Carolina Department of Commerce and the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, centered in the Asheville area.
“I call myself an ‘Ashetuckian,’” Evans said. “People really want to pin me to one place. But I love both places.”
After being exposed to the rural economies of Appalachia Evans saw potential in tapping into the region’s diverse skill sets to develop what she calls a “place-based economy.” Three years ago she was invited to be a part of Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), an internationally known organization that brings together investors and social entrepreneurs. There Evans was connected to Village Capital, which funds social-minded entrepreneurs — and it was pedal to the metal for Accelerating Appalachia.
The organization works to connect entrepreneurs with investment funds to cultivate businesses with a social conscience that benefit people and the planet. So far, more than 60 jobs have been created and more than $2 million has been invested through Accelerating Appalachia graduates.
It also encourages sustainable farming; about 30 accelerator businesses support about 500 farmers that utilize regenerative techniques to protect the soil “to keep carbon in the soil where it belongs,” Evans said. “Clean energy is great, but how are we going to sequester what we already have, and soil is equal in that.”
In addition, 75% of the applicants to the program have been owned or co-owned by women, and the age demographic trends toward millennials — both of which Evans said wasn’t intentional.
Accelerating Appalachia receives funding from investors and through program fees.
“I’d like to see us be really useful to our region, Appalachia and the urban hubs, while at the same time create a healthier economy,” Evans said. “A lot of these businesses are modeling what I think our economy should look like, which is taking care of people and place.”
While the mission is far-reaching geographically, the Bluegrass State, and its people and places, are in Evans’ blood. The most recent program, which wrapped up in May, was the first to specifically focus on Kentucky.
“This mash-up is really important,” she said. “East Kentucky has this whole history and these stories attached to it — all the poverty that people in the media often want to focus on. There’s so much more going on, especially around food.
“What I’m seeing, and not just with this program, is this spark happening in east Kentucky and West Virginia, specifically the coal-impacted regions of Appalachia. People are looking to rebuild their economies and a lot of them are doing it right here.”
In addition to Sweetgrass, other participants in the most recent program included businesses from diverse sectors, such as Berea-based Village Trough, a worker- owned cooperative farm-to-table mobile food business; Baqua Brands, a Kentucky barley water beverage producer; River Hill Ranch alpaca farmers in Richmond, Kentucky; and NOURISH Body + Botanicals, which produces herbal medicines and aroma- therapeutic botanical perfumes out of Lexington.
Evans’s focus on Appalachia “is so needed right now,” Gahn said. “There is so much opportunity in Appalachia. This is the first accelerator focusing on for-profit business ventures that isn’t solely focused on farming. Putting that hope and trust into this region is really special.”
Cultivating a Resurgence
It’s a region experiencing an economic revival — with food and nature-based ventures playing a vital role.
Wendy Wasserman, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.–based Appalachian Regional Commission, which provided grant funding to Accelerating Appalachia through the federal Rural Jobs Accelerator Program, calls it a “tipping point” in entrepreneurism with local food holding its own weight against more traditional sectors like manufacturing in driving Appalachia’s economic resurgence.
“We’re just seeing a lot of activity in the entrepreneurship space harnessing skill sets so there’s a lot of opportunity for different sectors to pop up around the region, and obviously food is one of them,” Wasserman said. “That sort of sector-development thing is awesome, and it means folks are able to use resources and assets — people, places and culture — that are right here to deal with this changing economy.”
The local food economy is “super-hot,” according to Wasserman, and the commission is pouncing on the popularity with initiatives like Bon Appetit Appalachia!, a comprehensive listing of the region’s local food enterprises. Other broad-sweeping organizations like Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), which works to cultivate various economic development opportunities throughout the region, are changing the country’s perception of Appalachia through what is called the “creative economy.”
“Now what we’re seeing is people coming back,” Wasserman said. “There is a deep cultural heritage of using the land so I think what’s happening now is folks are thinking of different ways to use those land resources. Local food is just as competitive as technology and manufacturing. The common thread is the interest in harnessing entrepreneurs and giving them the support to bring new ideas to the region so it’s not just about money and poverty.”
Initiatives like Accelerating Appalachia are on the front lines of effecting change. “You need strong leaders to have a vision,” Wasserman said, “but with that vision creating what we call an ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem,’ anything can happen — and that’s the exciting part.”
Planting the Seeds of Success
The possibilities for Sweetgrass Granola have opened up after meeting with Evans and going through the accelerator. The Gahns were on the prowl for such a business booster but were looking at programs as far away as New York until connecting with Evans at a food show last year.
“We weren’t sure what to expect, not having done an accelerator,” Carolyn Gahn said. “We had our needs and we were really pleased to cover those needs in the program. “Sara can make connections with lots of different people. She sees the strength in people as she meets other people and says, ‘They’d do really well together.’ Her networking ability is pretty incredible.”
Accelerating Appalachia put the rollout of the company’s EllieFinn’s on the fast track. More than $6,500 was raised through the Kickstarter campaign, exceeding its goal — 107 orders need to be filled — and the company is working on package design with nutrition labels while obtaining certification for being organic, gluten free and vegan. Then it’s on to pursuing retail stores, starting locally and then looking regionally into places like Whole Foods.
“The one thing Accelerating Appalachia was really good for was defining the challenge with our current business,” Gahn said. “We knew there were challenges with granola but it was really hard to identify why they were challenges. Now that we understand how competitive the granola market is we realize how much resources it will take to overcome that, starting with a more niche product and growing with what we already have with granola.”
That’s music to the ears for Evans, an accomplished musician who passed up a recording contract at a young age because she didn’t want to be on the road. Now the road is her constant companion as she routinely checks in on graduates of Accelerating Appalachia.
“If I go for too long without connecting to them something feels like it’s really missing,” Evans said. “They really inspire me and I realize I can’t go for too long. Being connected to them is as important to me as it is for them.
“Seeing this actually go from a dream, seeing it actually come to life through these businesses, is even better than I could have imagined. It gives me hope for the future.”
Accelerating Appalachia is the first nature-based business accelerator, connecting innovative businesses, investors and mentors aligned with people, place and prosperity in the following sectors: farming, food, clean energy, forest products (natural building) and non-timber forest products (ginseng, mushrooms, fruit and nut trees), fiber/ textiles, craft brewing/distilling, botanicals/wellness, outdoor industry and other innovative businesses.
Jason Thomas is a Louisville-based writer with more than 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism and public relations