If you look at a map of distressed communities within the U.S., the southern and eastern states are overrepresented. If you zoom in on Appalachia and then North Carolina, you’ll find Robeson County, the state’s most-distressed county in 2021.
But, if you were to look at Robeson County in another way—as an area full of rich culture and interesting individuals—it would place near the top of the list. For example, U.S. News ranks it as the 12th-most diverse county in the country. It is home to the Lumbee Tribe, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. These members make up 55% of the population. The next largest demographic group is Black, at 21%, followed by white, at 17%.
Also, if you were to look at individual residents, you would see even more dynamism in people like Roderick McMillan. After being laid off from a meat processing plant, he taught himself hydroponics and founded a small business named MG3 Farms. Similarly Naomi Blackwell, a charismatic young student who spoke to a statewide convention about her experiences developing an entrepreneurial mindset through the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program.
Building a steadfast solution
These interesting dichotomies drew Tom Hall to the state from his home base in Boston to head the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The lack of economic vitality in Pembroke—as well as the surrounding 10-county area that UNC Pembroke serves—is historical, Hall said. “Nobody has been able to figure out a solution.”
With the financial backing of NC IDEA, a nonprofit that fosters sustainable economic development and strengthens the North Carolina entrepreneurial ecosystem, the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub and its 20,000-square-foot incubator offer education and resources to residents of all backgrounds and ages, starting in middle school. Hall and his team partner with other organizations as well. These include Communities in Schools, which works to unlock student potential, and the Sandhills Entrepreneurship Engagement Network, which connects aspiring small business owners to resources.
“Ice House is one piece of the complex picture for building bench strength among our residents,” Hall said. “Most people embrace the entrepreneurial mindset because of their situation rather than their desire to start a business. And among the students, we’re seeding the entrepreneurial mindset as they grow. Every year, we add more layers to the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it becomes more vibrant.”
Hall believes the model resonates because it’s not just about business skills. Instead, it redefines entrepreneurship in a way that everyone can embrace. It is the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others.
Because of this, Hall and his team offer courses in a wide variety of settings. This includes the incubator and schools and professional business groups. They also offer courses to business students at Robeson Community College, even residents of a nearby homeless shelter. To learn more about the results, read this case study.
The Ice House model posits that by creating value for others, we empower ourselves. Thomas believes that spreading this mindset within the community will be the long-awaited catalyst that propels the struggling area from the former agriculture and textile manufacturing powerhouse into a new and more successful iteration.