Entrepreneurial Excellence: North Carolina Small Business Centers and Directors Recognized for Innovation and Impact

The North Carolina Community College System Small Business Center Network (SBCN) announced the winners of the Centers of Excellence Awards during the Professional Development Conference in November.

The annual statewide awards honor small business centers and center directors for Innovation, Service/Collaboration and Programs/Seminars; Business Success Story, Most Impact and Overcoming Challenges; as well as State Director of the Year and Rookie of the Year. Center directors are also recognized for years of service and professional credentialing. 
Small business centers are located at all 58 community colleges and contribute to North Carolina’s economic development by helping to start more than 600 small businesses each year — retaining more than 4,500 jobs annually.

“Congratulations to the exceptional Small Business Centers and their dedicated directors across North Carolina. Their commitment to fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, and community growth embodies the spirit of our state,” said Dr. Jeff Cox, President of the North Carolina Community College System. “Your impact on small businesses is a testament to the vital role community colleges play in shaping the economic landscape across the state. We celebrate your outstanding achievements and look forward to continued success in empowering entrepreneurs and driving prosperity across our great state.”

State Director of the Year is recognized for going above and beyond in providing significant support, time and service to small businesses in the center’s service area as well as in support of the Small Business Center Network mission at the state level.

This year, there are two winners: Brandy Bell of Carteret Community College and April Priester of Coastal Carolina Community College.

  • Brandy Bell serves as Small Business Center Director at Carteret Community College. Known for her phenomenal leadership of the most vibrant and busiest of SBCN Committees, she serves as the Chair of Professional Development and Credentialing. In this leadership role, Brandy shines due to her innovation and action-oriented execution of endless details to build successful professional development conferences for her colleagues.  When meeting with the conference planning committee Brandy’s organization of every facet of the event is seamless and efficient, saving time, money, and effort. When the committee faced an unusually challenging timeline, Brandy’s proactive approach helped the committee advance the planning process, reduce the number of meetings needed to conduct the planning, and create strong content and meaningful workshops, which resulted in outstanding evaluations from the conference participants. Brandy is also a role model for her colleagues as an outstanding Center Director. Her skills in event planning have garnered outstanding participation by local small businesses for a number of business expos, including the Small Business Saturday event she conducts each year. 
  • April Priester is the SBC Director at Coastal Carolina Community College and Chair of the Programming Committee, providing leadership to support the seminar and training services of the SBCN.  April is also an active member of the SBCN Policy and Procedures Committee.  April is recognized for providing extensive and sustained support to the entire SBCN through her efforts to initiate, streamline and improve SBCN policies, procedures and programs.  She has provided mentorship to her colleagues, shared best practices, and initiated improvements to the annual report process, economic impact survey, and any number of the operational procedures of the SBCN.  April’s high standards and desire for excellence is demonstrated in her daily work, whether she is supporting a client, guiding them to business success, or offering her expertise and passion to elevate the entire SBCN.  When April is asked to step up and provide leadership she never hesitates. But, just as often she volunteers, without being asked, to take on a special project because of her desire for continuous improvement.

Rookie of the Year: Directors that have been in their position for two years or less are eligible to receive this award.  

  • Jack Dugan of Beaufort County Community College was selected for this recognition as a result of his innovation and dedication in creating meaningful programming and outreach in his first year as SBC Director at Beaufort County Community College.  After recognizing a clear need for modest seed funding to help new startup businesses get off the ground, Dugan created the Seed & Sow Startup Contest.  Qualifying participants engage in training and counseling activities, create a formal business plan and pitch deck and remain an SBC counseling client post start-up.  Dugan raised $23,500 to support the project. Dugan doubled the number of clients and significantly increased the number of counseling hours, training events and training attendees.

Innovation Award — Programs and Seminars: 

  • McDowell Technical Community College’s Small Business Center is recognized for Innovation in Programs and Seminars.  The SBC worked with the Marion Business Association, the City of Marion, the McDowell Chamber of Commerce to create the Growing Entrepreneurs Marion or GEM program.  The collaboration began as an intentional way of reducing the decline in local entrepreneurs and small business start-ups.  GEM uses the REAL curriculum, providing eight sessions of business start-up training, culminating in the completion of a business plan for each participant.  Participants who complete the program can apply for grant funding to support rent and utilities in their business location.  According the SBC Director, Terry Valentino, the program has leveraged over $5.5 million in downtown and community investment, created over 240 jobs, 21 new businesses in Downtown Marion and nine businesses in the City of Marion and four businesses in McDowell County, outside of the Downtown district. Nine businesses purchased property in Downtown and invested in building renovations and façade improvements.  Further, the program was expanded to be offered in partnership with Central Unido Latino-Americano (CULA), which resulted in six Latino small business start-ups and 8 jobs created.  The program has also been replicated in Goldsboro and Sanford, NC. 

Innovation Award – Services and Collaboration: 

  • Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute is recognized for Innovation in Services and Collaboration for a program called Camp Enterprise, a three-day, immersive experience for 10th, 11th and 12th grade high school students to learn Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Business Ethics.  The 3-day bootcamp is the collaborative genius of Impact Rotary Club of the Foothills, The CCC&TI Small Business Center, the Town of Hudson, and Caldwell County Schools.  The program has resulted in a life-changing experience for the participants, where teams of students develop a hypothetical product or innovation and build out the product concept, brand, marketing strategy, and investment strategy. The five-person teams pitch their ideas for the opportunity for each person to win a $500 scholarship to CCC&TI.  Google has donated Chrome laptops and other businesses provide support to the program as well, realizing their investment helps develop future leaders and entrepreneurs. According to ,  
    “The best part of the program is seeing students excited about their future, with the potential to own their own business and giving their confidence a huge boost,” said Carmela Tomlinson, SBC Director at Caldwell.  

Business Success Story – Most Impact:  

  • Haywood Community College’s Small Business Center provided over 50 hours of counseling and training assistance to Ashley and Jesse Gainey, owners of Sticky 8s Southern Asian Fusion, a food truck that serves up smoked pork belly sliders, with Asian slaw, and Korean barbeque sauce.  To help them build their dream business, the Haywood team supported their business planning, funding, and strategy needs, directed them to tax and financial resources, provided guidance to help them properly structure the business, apply for grant funding, opened them up to networking opportunities, and helped them understand business principles and strategies. The business was approved for a $5,000 grant, a $90,000 loan and invested their own equity to create the business and two full-time jobs. 

Business Success Story – Overcoming Challenges:  

  • Fayetteville Technical Community College’s (FTCC) Small Business Center provided support to 5 & 1 Cleaning Solutions, including over 200 hours of training and counseling assistance.  It all started when the five Mitchell sisters — Felicia, Amanda, Whitney, Ashley and Sydney — fled a toxic home life with no driver’s licenses, no cell phones, and only a little bit of money they scraped together.  This was their third escape attempt. When they were routinely underpaid at one of their cleaning jobs, they decided to take their experience and motivation and use it to ignite their passion and fuel their own business.  But, they knew they needed guidance and that’s when they reached out to the FTCC Small Business Center.   
    Throughout the counseling and training process, the Mitchell sisters worked diligently to complete their business planning, hand-in-hand with their SBC business counselors.  They continued to work their jobs while planning and building their own business and were able to leave their employment in early 2023 to devote full-time efforts to their cleaning business.    

Credentialing and Service Awards: Credentialing awards are presented to small business center directors who have achieved the required training milestones in Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 of the credentialing program. The following small-business center directors were recognized with credentialing awards:  

  • Level 1 credentialing awards were presented to Jack Dugan, Beaufort CC; Brad Johnson, Bladen CC; Ben Smith, Blue Ridge CC; Felicia Williams, Gaston College; Phillip Pappas, Central Carolina CC; Suzanne Ross, Johnston CC; Debbie Bruce, Robeson CC; Randy Hunt, Rockingham CC; and Lily Laramie, Western Piedmont CC. 
  • Level 2 credentialing awards were presented to Brad Johnson, Bladen CC; Ben Smith, Blue Ridge CC; Phillip Pappas, Central Carolina CC; Holly Staples, College of The Albemarle; Jonathan Collins, Durham Technical CC; Suzanne Ross, Johnston CC; Terry Valentino, McDowell Technical CC; Debbie Bruce, Robeson CC; and Marne Harris, Southwestern CC. 
  • Level 3 credentialing awards were presented to Brandy Bell, Carteret CC; Ben Smith, Blue Ridge CC; Phillip Pappas, Central Carolina CC; Jonathan Collins, Durham Technical CC; Suzanne Ross, Johnston CC; Terry Valentino, McDowell Technical CC; and Marne Harris, Southwestern CC. 

Service awards recognize the number of years a center director has served the Small Business Center Network.  An award recognizing 10 years of service was presented to Melissa Evans, Wilson CC.  Recognition awards for 5 years of service were presented to Kelly Barber of Halifax Community College and Mark Harden of Surry Community College.  

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