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How this Greenville nonprofit created an Upstate entrepreneur hub

Krys Merryman //July 24, 2023//

How this Greenville nonprofit created an Upstate entrepreneur hub

Krys Merryman //July 24, 2023//

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“I believe that entrepreneurs are going to change the world.”

This is why NEXT Upstate Executive Director Eric Weissmann is passionate about the nonprofit organization that provides entrepreneurial support to startups.

Headquartered in Greenville, NEXT Upstate is a partner of the economic development strategy of the city of Greenville, Greenville County, and Greenville Chamber.

The genesis of NEXT stemmed from a Greenville Chamber program, said Weissmann, and it started more than a decade ago and is still a part of the Chamber’s Foundation.

“In short, we help startups and focus on high-growth entrepreneurs as a part of the economic development ecosystem,” said Weissmann.

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NEXT started as a means to address needs and provide resources to smaller entrepreneurs that were leading, scaling and growing companies that banded together, wanting to learn from one another.

“We want them to find the infrastructure here, to be able to grow and flourish their businesses, to find talent, customers, and capital to grow their business in a place they also love to live in,” he added. “The annual growth here is dramatic. To be in the place drawing people in has made the Upstate region an entrepreneur and startup hub. At the end of the day, we want to have a vibrant, growing, and robust economy and have the startups be a part of that.”

What does being a startup mean?

The top industry verticals in 2021 in the region were information technology and services, business services, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and consumer packaged goods, according to the NEXT 2021 impact report.

When we talk about startups, does that mean they are just starting up, that they have an investor? What does the term mean?

Weissmann said there is no single answer, but NEXT’s definition of a startup is a nontraditional business model that wants to scale rapidly.

“In the Silicon Valley world, if your company has venture capital, you’re a startup but it doesn’t mean you’re just starting up,” he said. “But it’s the energy of the word that gives it meaning. It’s an attitude, a way of doing things differently, wanting to make an impact.”

NEXT Upstate Executive Director Eric Weissmann is passionate about the nonprofit organization that provides entrepreneurial support to startups. (Photo/Provided)When NEXT looks at the companies they serve, said Weissmann, at the center of the bullseye are the questions: Does this startup scale? Do they have the ambition to scale it and how do they want to scale it? Does it create wealth, not just for an owner but for an investor? What is the founder’s ambition? What’s the regional impact? Does it create knowledge-based jobs?

These are the questions that stakeholders want entrepreneurial candidates to answer, Weissmann said.

“Yes, we need to be founder-focused, but there are so many other parts to the locomotive,” he said. “That next founder is working for a current founder and exposing them to this ecosystem is how we keep the train going.”

For a lot of these startups, it hasn’t been obvious what help looks like and how to get it, said Weissmann. It’s also not obvious what “no” looks like, he added.

For example, if an investor tells a startup “no” after they’ve pitched their business plan, there’s not much more that organization can do for you.

So then the next question for them is “who can help me with my marketing plan?” said Weissmann.

“That’s where NEXT comes in,” he said. “We want to be what ‘no’ looks like when someone tells these companies they aren’t the right fit.”

The application process to use NEXT as a resource is simple, Weissmann said.

“Just get involved, just show up at events,” he said. “That’s the best way to get started. Entrepreneurship is an active sport but can be very lonely, too, because you’re not going to have all the answers. And we can help you.”

It’s important to not expect an investor to invest in your idea the first time, said Weissmann. They would like to see your track record as much as you would.

“We all have to embrace failure,” he said.

What’s NEXT? — the economic impact

With approximately 6,000 people in NEXT’S master database, 330 have been identified as entrepreneurs in the region.

NEXT supported 165 companies in 2021, 26% of which were female and/or minority-led, according to the 2021 impact report. In 2022, it grew to support 330 entrepreneurs, with 20% of those being female and/or minority-led — a 6% decrease from the previous year.

“We aren’t uncommon when it comes to the demographic breakdown of entrepreneurs in this region,” said Weissmann. “With that, it is a very male-dominated sector. That cycle is hard to break.”

However, he said, things are changing.

“We're actually seeing more engagement from our female-led teams than at any time before the pandemic,” Weissmann said. 

NEXT’s Women in Innovation Panel this past spring, facilitated by Tina Swolinski and featuring Nathalie Boudain who leads Michelin's innovation team, was one of the highest attended Founders Forums to date, he added. And, the organization has three female entrepreneurs on its board of directors: Paige McPheely, Shontavia Johnson and Nicole Johnson.

“In growing and evolving ecosystems, we have the opportunity to spotlight and do something about it,” he added. “Spreading awareness is critical, which is why we hold all the events we do. We are doing it, but it will take some time to see a shift demographically.”

Weissmann said there is a push for more female entrepreneurs, because with that comes more diversity — diversity of thought, attitude.

“While fewer females get invested in, more females that get investments are successful,” he added. “I’m excited about making a change here.”

In 2021, NEXT-supported companies were responsible for creating 349 new jobs, 2,017 total full-time employees, with an additional 149 interns employed, leading to an annual payroll amount of $195,303,938. In 2022, the organization chose to focus its metrics approach on what stage of growth the companies under its wingspan were in, so this is the most recent data available.

As for significant 2022 accomplishments, the NEXT Founders Fund was created, a $6 million early stage fund developed by local entrepreneurs. NEXT LaunchPad awarded eight entrepreneurs with $125,000 in prizes. And the NEXT Venture Summit exposed firms to more than 20 top investors representing more than $18 million in capital.

“Entrepreneurs are the future,” Weissmann said.