Entrepreneurs seeking support are accustomed to making their pitches in a concise “elevator speech.”
But the tables were turned Thursday night at Packard Place, the uptown startup hub, as nearly 20 candidates for Charlotte city office gave their own bite-sized pitches to a roomful of small-business owners and innovators.
The event, the first of its kind in Charlotte, was the brainchild of Packard Place founder Dan Roselli and was co-sponsored by the Observer’s ShopTalk section.
Mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon touted the citywide economic development seminars he hosted as mayor pro tem, as well as his experience as co-owner of E-Z Parking. The uptown parking company has grown from 75 spaces and four staffers when he founded it in the late 1990s, to 25,000 spots and nearly 60 employees.
Cannon, a Democrat, said he wants to make it possible for entrepreneurs “to take their rightful place at the economic development table” by providing them with access to information and resources, and hearing their concerns. “You are Charlotte’s future.”
Republican mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock III is a financial adviser with Northwestern Mutual and said he works with small-business owners and startup founders every day.
He said he believes Charlotte is “living off its past glory,” acting as though the city can still look solely to major companies for leadership. He highlighted the need for a more risk-taking business culture that celebrates the potential in high-growth startups.
“We need to divorce ourselves from the reputation of having (only) two big banks and a power company,” Peacock said. “I can put Charlotte on the path to embrace risk-takers and encourage collaboration.” He’d like to see key partnerships form around economic development, education and transportation.
Roselli likened the two-hour event to an “entrepreneurial pitch day.” After giving their pitches – council candidates in 90 seconds; mayoral candidates in two minutes and 30 seconds – the candidates lined the outer walls, each with their own table.
The nearly 100 attendees then circulated to the candidates’ tables, to ask their own questions about how the candidates would support Charlotte’s small businesses and startup community.
“We want to hear about what they want to do for entrepreneurs,” Roselli said.
All of the candidates cited the role of small businesses and entrepreneurship in the local economy. In Mecklenburg County, about 97 percent of all employers have fewer than 100 workers, according to 2011 data, the latest available.
But the city and county are still struggling with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, higher than the national average of 7.3 percent. Many at the forum said they believe small businesses and startups can play a big role in a turnaround.
Roselli said he hopes Charlotte’s next mayor can pick up the mantle of former Mayor Anthony Foxx, whom he has called a big proponent of entrepreneurship. Before being named U.S. secretary of transportation this summer, Foxx, a Democrat, regularly met with leaders of Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community.
“(Foxx) did a good job,” Peacock told Jay Bendis, a consultant and a mentor for some of the city’s social entrepreneurship startups, and Barry Francois, a chef who started a mobile farmer’s market to serve parts of Charlotte without easy access to healthy food.
Bendis and Francois encouraged Peacock to find out more about the startups at Queen City Forward, a nonprofit housed in Packard Place that helps entrepreneurs who have business ideas that address social needs.
Bendis also spoke with Cannon about the need for support and partnerships within the startup community. Cannon said he understood the value of mentorship, saying that he’s trained many of his employees to run their own companies.
Cannon, who has served on the City Council since 1993, says access to capital and support in putting together a business plan are some of the biggest obstacles facing small businesses in Charlotte.
That’s why his table, laden with business cards and campaign paraphernalia, also had printouts from the city’s website, detailing small-business programs and services – from contracting opportunities to training to small-business loans.
He touted his role in building up that reserve of information, which can be found at CharlotteBusinessResources.com, and in the city’s overall effort, starting in 2010, to make city government more friendly and accessible to small businesses and startups.
Peacock said when he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1992, he saw Charlotte as a “white-shirt city,” a conservative, risk-averse business climate. He wants to encourage entrepreneurs who are willing to take a risk.
He envisions the area along the extended light-rail line to UNC Charlotte filled with high-growth startups – risky ventures with a potentially big payoff.
He cited a successful idea once thought improbable: “Just look at bottled water,” Peacock said. “An idea married with what’s possible.”
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