The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 10, 2013

Finalists will compete — not eat — for seed money at cafe



The American dream of owning a business, of being one’s own boss, is not well and living in West Virginia, according to the executive director of the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce.

Katie Ickes says that, according to the Kaufman Foundation, West Virginia has the lowest entrepreneurship participation rating in the United States. Vision Shared and the Chamber want to change that by offering quarterly “Entrepreneurs’ Cafes,” where people can obtain seed money to launch a business venture.

Vision Shared was created in 2000 as a public-private partnership, bringing together business, labor, government and other interests to develop a strategy to make the state more economically competitive. The organization earlier launched Cafe events in Shepherdstown and Huntington, encouraging such varied home-grown entrepreneurs as birthday party planners, a software inventor, an alterations business owner and a massage therapist.

With the Greenbrier Valley’s first Cafe right around the corner on Feb. 26, Ickes says, “We’re trying to spark interest in the business community and think creatively about jobs.”

Five finalists have been selected from among the applications received by the Chamber. The Cafe’s competitive format will mirror that of the television show “Shark Tank,” in which business owners pitch their ideas to a panel of experts in the hopes of winning mentoring and financing.

Each finalist invited to the Greenbrier Valley Cafe will have 5 minutes to make a pitch, followed by a question and answer period.

Finalists are:

- Jeremy O’Sullivan, who has developed a frozen yogurt vending machine dubbed “Frobot”

- Jeff Bray, who heads up a group responsible for inventing a GPS self-tour guide system for smartphones

- Pam West, who will present on behalf of her organization, Greenbrier Valley Farmers Market

- Troy Manney of Lewisburg Diamond & Gold, who wants to launch an archaeological dig for artifacts at a historical site

- Lewis Leaseburge of Leaseburge Chiropractic, who will pitch a system for muscle-stimulated facelifts and body contouring

Vision Shared is providing the initial $500 in seed money that will be awarded to the entrepreneur who makes the winning pitch to the business leaders attending the February Cafe.

Ickes says plans also call for each person attending the event to invest $10 in dinner and the opportunity to vote for the person he or she considers most deserving of the win. The vote/event admission money will also “go into the pot” for the winner, Ickes notes.

“The Cafe taps into the new ‘crowd funding’ concept,” she explains.

“It is a great way to encourage growth in our small business sector,” Ickes continues. “While to some, $500 may seem like a small amount, to others it may be just what they need. My hope would be that some great projects, products or services brought forth by these events may ultimately catch the eye of a larger investor.”

The winner’s only obligation is to return to the fall Cafe and relate how the money was used and to what benefit.

Ickes says the Chamber also hopes to involve business and accounting students from area high schools and New River Community and Technical College — which has already signed on as a partner — in the Cafe events. The Small Business Administration and its Women’s Business Center are lined up to provide links to resources that may help the budding entrepreneurs with their endeavors.

Plans call for Entrepreneurs’ Cafes to be staged on a quarterly basis. First National Bank is scheduled to sponsor the second quarter’s Cafe, and the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation is sponsoring the one after that.

Dinner will be served at the Feb. 26 Cafe starting at 5:30 p.m. in the Community Room at the Greenbrier County Library in Lewisburg. The finalists’ presentations will follow the meal.

This event is open to the entire community, not just members of the Chamber, Ickes emphasizes. For meal planning purposes, she asks that those planning to attend the Cafe pre-register at the Chamber’s website under the “Upcoming Events” header (click on “Entrepreneurs’ Cafe,” then “Register Online”) no later than Feb. 22.

“We hope for great attendance,” Ickes says.

For more information on the Entrepreneurs’ Cafe, visit the Chamber’s website at www.greenbrierwvchamber.org or call 304-645-2818.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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