Entrepreneurial ecosystem springs to life

Ryan Bregier has a simple explanation for why he became an entrepreneur: “I can’t help myself.”

It’s how his mind works. When an idea pops into his head, it’s stuck there until he gives in to the urge to test it and find out how far he can make it fly.

He started his first start-up when he was a junior in high school and another when he was studying abroad in China as a Carolina student majoring in international studies.

This insatiable urge led him to enroll in the Minor in Entrepreneurship course led by Buck Goldstein, Carolina’s entrepreneur in residence.

The course, in a sense, gave Bregier a driver’s license for the road he felt destined to follow. When he graduated in 2010, he ruled out the idea of going to work for a big-name company. He wanted to start a company and make a name for himself. His first move was to leave Chapel Hill.

“I moved to Durham because I felt there was more of an entrepreneurial community there and wanted to be around people who could give me advice and moral support,” he said.

Then, last spring, Bregier attended a networking event for entrepreneurs and investors and bumped into Nick Thomas, a Carolina grad who founded a company called Film Lab.

“Nick told me about this new space for start-ups that had just opened up on Franklin Street called 1789,” Bregier said, “and then he introduced me to this guy named Jim Kitchen.”

Summer vacation inspiration

Kitchen entered Carolina in 1982 with many of the same international interests as Bregier. It was the height of the Cold War, which inspired him to major in Russian studies and political science so he could get a job in the State Department.

That plan came to an abrupt end his senior year when he took Carolina’s only course in entrepreneurship, which at the time was taught by former venture capitalist Bernice Jones.

“I was the only non-business student in the entire class, and on the first day of class, when I introduced myself as a political science major, everyone laughed,” Kitchen said. “I laughed, too, because it really was funny.”

Then, the only people interested in entrepreneurship were business students, he said.

Every week, Jones had students write on a piece of paper an idea for a new business – and soon learned that the lone fish out of water could swim. Go work for the government if you want, Jones told Kitchen, but some of your ideas could work.

And that is what led Kitchen to start a travel company on Franklin Street before he graduated in 1986. The company, which offered group tours geared toward people ages 18 to 35, succeeded because of its ability to create a perceived value for customers that outweighed the costs, Kitchen said.

The inspiration for the company came from his parents who turned summer vacation into an adventure. Both teachers, they would pack up their five children in the station wagon at the start of summer and take off from their home in Florida to Washington State. As the youngest, Kitchen got stuck in the jump seat looking out the rear window.

“Our destination was always this 10-acre ranch that overlooked Mount Rainier, which was my parents’ little piece of paradise,” he said.

On the trip home, Kitchen’s father left it up to his son to figure out the route and the stops they would take along the way. That is how Kitchen got to see 48 states from the back window of the family station wagon and learned the skills for plotting travel itineraries down the road.

Even as his travel agency grew, Kitchen’s life followed a familiar childhood pattern. Every summer, he took off work to “walk the world.” He made it to 75 countries before he came upon a remote village in Nicaragua where he made the discovery that influenced the rest of his life.

During his time there, he lived in a tiny grass hut with a young couple with a small child. He heard the father get up before dawn to toil in the sugar cane fields, saw him return home after dark and sat with him at a table with barely enough food for everyone.

Kitchen felt an overwhelming urge to do something, yet realized there was nothing within his power that could make a lasting difference for the family.

“That experience was just a little glimpse into the poverty and desperation that millions of people experience around the world, but it motivated me to transition from being an entrepreneur to somebody who was inspired to serve, to do, to teach, to be a voice to the voiceless in my own community,” Kitchen said.

He returned to Chapel Hill, sold his business and began devoting his money and talents to local philanthropy. Then, in 2009, Kitchen met Ted Zoller at a local deli shop.

Building on a vision

They traded notes. Kitchen found out that Zoller, a Kenan-Flagler Business School faculty member, was teaching the same Introduction to Entrepreneurship course he took 23 years before.

Zoller heard about Kitchen starting his company based on a class assignment, and Kitchen learned about Zoller’s “Launching the Venture” program that since 1999 has helped more than 60 undergraduates, grad students and faculty members develop start-ups.

The conversation continued. One thing led to another, and for the past four years, Kitchen has been teaching the intro course.

“Jim and I share a passion for supporting students who really want to make the transition to entrepreneurship and would like to put their ideas to work,” Zoller said. “We also share a passion for a more rigorous style of entrepreneurship where we give students real-life experience with the market and the realities of how our economy is organized.”

Today, the two men find themselves at the center of a network of Carolina faculty and administrators – along with many of their former students – in an effort that has spilled off campus into downtown Chapel Hill.

In February 2013, Launch Chapel Hill, a business accelerator partially funded by the University, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County, opened on Rosemary Street for more established businesses seeking investors.

Three months later, 1789 opened on the second floor of Four Corners on East Franklin Street and welcomed 12 ventures in nascent stages of development with free office space, mentorship, workshops, networking opportunities and connections to investors. Unlike Launch Chapel Hill, this incubator for younger businesses was privately funded by Kitchen.

Together, 1789 and Launch Chapel Hill have about 7,000 square feet, but that is not enough to accommodate the 17 companies at Launch and 40 at 1789, Kitchen told the Board of Trustees’ Innovation and Impact Committee recently as he sought to enlist their support to create more space.

“We have 100 ventures that are being started on campus right now,” Kitchen said. “When these students graduate, guess where they are going? They are going somewhere else unless we have a compelling reason to keep them here.”

Kitchen, Zoller and others, including Judith Cone, now interim director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, continue to fit the pieces together for a still-evolving vision they believe has the potential to redefine town-gown relations, reinvigorate downtown Chapel Hill and create “an ecosystem for entrepreneurship” that gives graduates more reason to stick around.

Or, in Bregier’s case, to come back.

Hypestarter, Bregier’s latest start-up, was among 12 companies in the inaugural class that moved into 1789 nearly a year ago. Recently, Hypestarter was accepted as one of eight companies to move into Launch Chapel Hill as the companies there begin to move out with investor support.

Bregier sees it as part of a learning continuum not unlike moving up to the next grade in school. “It started with meeting Jim and really hitting it off,” Bregier said. “He became a mentor as well as a close personal friend.”

Last fall, Kitchen invited Bregier to be a teaching assistant in the entrepreneurship course at Kenan-Flager Business School. And he eagerly accepted Kitchen’s invitation to serve as one of 1789’s entrepreneurs in residence after his company moves out.

“I was so inspired by the help Jim has given me that I was more than happy to get to know these young entrepreneurs and share some of the tough lessons that I have learned,” Bregier said. “It’s the opposite of a zero-sum game. It’s a beautiful cycle of looking out for everyone and wanting to see everyone succeed.”

Kitchen agrees. “If we do this the right way, my hope is that people will come here and say, ‘Wow. What is happening here is truly remarkable,’” he said.

“The vision is not just to help our students, but to have a lasting impact in our community.”

By Gary Moss, University Gazette

April 4, 2014.