NEWS

1 Million Cups Columbia Nurtures Hopes, Skills Of Entrepreneurs

By Roddie Burris
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, S.C.

1 Million Cups Columbia is an entrepreneurial support and incubation group that’s part of a national group in 66 locations across the country.

Each Wednesday, the Columbia group meets at novelty store Cromer’s on Huger Street at 9 a.
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m. sharp. Entrepreneur discuss their company or invention, their ideas and their plights. A 20-minute question-and-answer period follows the presentations.

Often with butterflies in their stomachs, the presenters get instant feedback, suggestions and direction from the 20 or so peers, mentors, educators and advisers who attend — a priceless experience.

Here, in their own words, three recent attendees have a conversation about the Columbia’s entrepreneurial environment.

AGATA CHYDZINSKI, Cromers general manager: I got involved in 1 Million Cups because Greg Hilton and John Wilkerson (two of the five 1 Million Cups Columbia co-organizers) got a hold of me. We were buddies from my other career.
I come from an entrepreneurial background. I worked with many companies along the way after I graduated from college.
As a matter of fact, Cromer’s is like the best gig for a budding entrepreneur like myself to really, truly test the waters and run an 80-year-old startup that is constantly evolving. Cromer’s (which advertises its peanuts as “Guaranteed Worst in Town”) allows you to really, truly develop a feeling for entrepreneurial activities … because you have to be aware of the same things that businesses that are just now starting out have to be aware of. For instance, constantly changing trends in the retail industry, in taste buds, in the food product. So, we’ve had to re-invent ourselves a many a time over the past 80 years.

The idea of being host to other entrepreneurs … was a no-brainer. It allowed me to pursue my entrepreneurial activities, under the Cromer’s umbrella, but also still be connected with the rest of the entrepreneurs.

We’ve seen that Columbia’s ecosystem, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, has yet a lot to grow compared to a town like Charleston, or a city like Greenville. And a lot of it is due to the infrastructure of Columbia, meaning that we are attractive in concept, but we are also very discombobulated. You have Lexington that’s on one side of the river, and that river acts as if it were the Great Wall of China. Then you have the Northeast, that’s sort of far out there. Then you have the downtown area that’s separated from Five Points. You have these neighborhood clusters that tend to just stay in the their little bubbles. So, you have basically always the same people meeting in the same places about the same things. We’re excellent at meeting to set up the next meeting to set up the next meeting, but there’s not a lot of action going on.

Columbia entrepreneur Kevin Felder, owner, The Euniek Group, a marketing consulting firm: Our concentration is on small businesses, helping them navigate through primarily radio advertising, television advertising and social media management. I have a background in radio — 10 years with Glory Communications radio here in Columbia. I just saw where there was a greater need for business owners. They needed the advertising to get their businesses out there, but they didn’t have a plan in place. They may not have a website yet, they may not have a social media presence, or if they did, it was very basic. So that was the opportunity that I saw.

My other venture is that I’m a Christian rap recording artist. My stage name is Big Redd. That’s my Superman life. The Euniek Group is my Clark Kent life.

I travel across the country performing. People know me as Big Redd and people know me as Kevin Felder, the business guy. So I asked this community here for their thoughts on pulling everything under one umbrella.

If I hadn’t presented to this group, I would have (forever) kept the two worlds completely separate.

I found out about this group through a friend of a friend. It made something jump on the inside of me every time I came. I have to be in this environment. It’s just that entrepreneurial spirit that is fostered here: hearing people thinking outside the box and stretching beyond what’s normal and pushing boundaries.

Some of them have younger startup companies, all the way up to someone who’s been an entrepreneur for over 30 years. You see a very wide range of experience, but that passion is equal across the board. Everybody sees that there is tremendous potential for a greater Columbia.

Ann-Marie Nunziata, communications intern at the University of South Carolina’s Technology Incubator: I’m still a student at the university, in the Darla Moore School of Business, (and) have been working with the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator for two years. I’ve done a lot of communications work, seeing things like 1 Million Cups grow from the first one to where it is now.

I think (today’s students) are scared. What people don’t realize is we grew up in the recession. People were terrified. I was in the ninth grade when it started and my mom was a real estate agent. That puts it in perspective and that shapes exactly what this mentality is.

But people don’t realize exactly what they can also do in college. They should test their ideas and use what they’re learning in class. The professors are planting the seed, and then there’s a disconnect.

We’re partnering with companies like Google, working the Office of Economic Engagement, and bringing attention to it so that there’s not this mentality that I have to go Silicon Valley, or I have to move to Austin, Texas, or I need to go work for someone before I can create my own.

For entrepreneurs, there is so much money being invested in this area. Take the IBM partnership in the Innovista, it’s growing. Why would you want to go someplace where there is so much competition when you can be the only competition for yourself.

The climate for entrepreneurs in Columbia is so exciting. People don’t realize what’s in their backyard.

If Columbia could do itself a favor, it would stop comparing itself to other areas. We have a lake that’s fantastic. We have a university, and football that goes along with it. We have a great Main Street. We are about to get even better baseball.
Why would you go anywhere else?

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