The University of North Carolina-Pembroke Case Study

Addressing Economic and Educational Challenges Through the Ice House Model

UNC Pembroke logo
Location: Pembroke, NC
Pembroke population: 2,852
UNC-Pembroke students: 8,319
Robeson County population: 130,000
Ice House participants since 2018: 1,000


The community surrounding the University of North Carolina at Pembroke has a diverse cultural heritage, as reflected in its demographics: 55% Native American, 21% Black, and 17% white. Pembroke is home to the Lumbee Tribe, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. They also hold descendants of Scottish and English settlers and enslaved peoples. Their transaction records were among the earliest public documents in Robeson County after its founding in 1788. Pembroke’s location on the coastal plain is auspicious for agriculture, and roughly 75% of its small farmers are Black (35%) or Native American (41%). 

However, the area’s distinct cultural heritage has not translated into economic prosperity. The average household income is $37,288, with a poverty rate of 45.9%. Pembroke’s population has fallen in the past ten years as tobacco and textile jobs have gone away. Now, it’s one of the most distressed areas in North Carolina. The unemployment rate is 13.6% for Blacks, 9.8% for whites, 20% for Hispanics, and 4.3% for Native Americans.


The lack of economic vitality in Pembroke—as well as the surrounding 10-county area that UNC Pembroke serves—is historical, according to Tom Hall, Executive Director of the university’s Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub. “Nobody has been able to figure out a solution.” 

One of the region’s most pressing challenges is keeping students in high school through graduation. Nearly 20% of Pembroke’s population does not have a high school diploma or equivalent degree. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage for everything from health outcomes to employment. “We want students to stay in school and look forward,” Hall said. “In a lot of ways, the work we do with young people is a dropout prevention effort. When they’re in their 20s, they may start a business, but in the meantime, we’re providing a lot of life skills.”


With the financial backing of NC IDEA, a foundation 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, including Communities in Schools, which works to unlock student potential, and the Sandhills Entrepreneurship Engagement Network, which connects aspiring small business owners to resources.

The approach that underlies all of their efforts is the entrepreneurial mindset within the Ice House model. Hall said the initial impetus for the Ice House program came from Thom Ruhe, President and CEO of NC IDEA, as outlined in this case study. Since incorporating the Ice House approach into their work in Pembroke in 2018, Hall and his team have become strong proponents of its message and efficacy. 

“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.”


UNC Pembroke tailors its offerings to the audience’s skill set and knowledge, the time available, and the amount of content that will be most beneficial to them, Hall explained. Hall has only 50 minutes once per week for the eighth-grade students in local schools, plus homework. So, he offers a 15-minute presentation about one of the eight life lessons, shares a relevant video segment, then moves on to activities. With this method, he spends ten weeks with the students. Then, he ends with a ninth lesson on presentation skills followed by a pitch session. 

At the Thomas School of Business within the UNC Pembroke, all incoming students undergo an Ice House course led by the university’s two facilitators. Students can earn a degree or certificate in entrepreneurship—and Hall said the Hub often has school interns. 

Pembroke-area residents interested in starting their own business often drop by the Incubator space. There they might receive Ice House concepts informally from Hall as he probes the problem they’re trying to solve and how far they’ve gotten in differentiating their solution. “Half the time, they never come back,” he admitted. “But we get 10 or 15 walk-ins a month who engage and develop an entrepreneurial mindset.”

Other audiences include the faculty and staff at Robeson Community College, government groups, and business leaders. Hall said his team hopes to ramp up again on the public workshops they offered before the pandemic. They’re also currently piloting a program for 25 people at a homeless shelter to help participants gain a better perspective on their lives.


Between all of the various initiatives, Hall estimates that the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub has reached 1,000 people with the Ice House approach. Thanks to financial support from the university, grants, and organizations such as NC IDEA, it can offer services for free. They don’t, however, offer office space for the ten tenants in the Entrepreneurship Incubator. 

In 2019, Hall said, he and his team offered 153 live events. Yet, the pandemic caused those to “fall off a cliff”. However, on the consulting side, they’ve continued to work steadily with around 65 startups at any given time. The local branch of the federal Small Business Authority works with about that many as well. Hall is optimistic about the synergy they’re providing for the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Pembroke. 

Similarly, he’s also optimistic they’ll see more and more young entrepreneurs like Roderick McMillan. After being laid off from a meat processing plant, he returned to his family’s agricultural roots. He studied hydroponic techniques, setting up a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, hooking up three miles of pipes, drilling 70,000 holes, and figuring out details like the right fertilizer balance. Eventually, McMillan’s company, MG3 Farms, started supplying wholesale clients like local schools and the UNC Pembroke campus with locally sourced produce.

“He went through all the principles in the Ice House book,” Hall said. “You’ll find a lot of farmers are like this. They are pure entrepreneurs. They figure things out.”