West Virginia's Showcase for Entrepreneurs
by James E. CastoPhoto Gallery
Visit a typical mall in AnyTown, U.S.A., and it's easy to lose your sense of place. As you walk along, checking out the stores, it doesn't take long to notice that most of them are the same familiar national retailers that you see virtually everywhere, whether you're in Kansas or Kentucky. But in Charleston, West Virginia, there's a shop with a distinct difference. You won't find one like it anywhere else.Showcase West Virginia is a consignment-based retail shop that features specialty and gourmet foods, arts and crafts, pottery, glass, jewelry, textiles, candles, dried flowers, toys, and a host of other items, all produced by West Virginians. The mall shop "provides a valuable service to customers searching for authenticity, workmanship, and quality," says Pam Curry, executive director of the Center for Economic Options (CEO), a private Charleston-based nonprofit organization that has been helping small-scale West Virginia business owners find markets for their products for nearly 20 years.
Showcase West Virginia is the latest—and most ambitious—project undertaken by CEO, which last year was honored with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise Development. The award, given by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, was one of five made nationwide but the only one that went to an organization in a rural area.
Microenterprises or microbusinesses—generally defined as businesses that employ five or fewer employees—play a significant role in the West Virginia economy. A research study done jointly by CEO and Marshall University cites 1999 statistics showing that microbusinesses employ more than 73,000 West Virginians, or roughly 10 percent of the state's labor force, while producing nearly 13 percent of the goods and services in the state.
"If West Virginia's microbusinesses were classified as a separate industry," says Michael Hicks, assistant professor of economics at Marshall's Elizabeth McDowell Lewis College of Business and director of research at the university's Center for Business and Economic Research, "it would be a larger employer than the coal industry, the manufacturing industry, the financial sector, or public utilities." And microbusinesses clearly are critical to economic growth. Says Hicks: "The higher the proportion of small firms in an economy, the more diverse the economy and the higher the overall growth rate."
Microbusinesses everywhere struggle with issues such as how to price, package, and market their product, but those problems are accentuated in a rural state such as West Virginia. That's where CEO comes in, with its market-access education and training program.
For its first ten years of life, CEO was known as Women and Employment, and initially focused on job-skills training for women. "It didn't take us long," says Curry, "to realize that job-skills training worked only in areas where there were, in fact, jobs." So CEO shifted its strategy to one that encourages people to use their skills and talents as entrepreneurs, in a sense creating their own jobs.
To do that, the center first identified "sector networks"—in other words, groups of people doing similar things. "By creating opportunities for like businesses to come together, they can benefit from economies of scale," explains Marilyn Harrell, CEO research and development manager. "Some people say, 'Well, they're competitors, so they won't talk to each other.' But CEO's not found that to be the case. Instead, people come together and find they can get better deals because they've got better volume. And they can fill bigger orders than one person working alone can do."
In 1992, for example, CEO identified a group of home-based knitters who were, as individuals, struggling economically. By bringing them together as the Appalachian Knitwear Network, CEO enabled the knitters to increase their production and sell to a market that otherwise would have been inaccessible to them. In 1995, CEO spun this program off as an independent nonprofit called Appalachian by Design, which today manages a network of approximately 50 home-based knitters. Similarly, CEO put together the Appalachian Flower Network and set about helping rural flower businesses market to corporate, retail, and wholesale buyers.
In 1996, 1997, and 1998, CEO co-sponsored with the West Virginia Small Business Development Center three consecutive Appalachian Small Businesses Expos at the Charleston Civic Center. Those were followed in 1999 by the People's Marketplace, which attracted more than 70 buyers from retail, wholesale, and catalogue outlets to scout and shop 60 rural West Virginia microbusinesses. In 2000, CEO produced a printed catalogue featuring the products and services of the People's Marketplace participants. The catalogue was distributed to more than 800 targeted buyers nationally.
Also in 2000, the center sponsored "Money in the Mountains: Sustainable Options for Microbusinesses," a conference that focused on growing businesses using West Virginia's forest resources in a sustainable, ecologically sound way. More than 200 microbusiness owners, landowners, and community leaders participated in the two-day event.
In the fall of 2000, one of CEO's clients was offered an opportunity to rent a small space (480 square feet) at the Charleston Town Center Mall for the three-month holiday season. Unwilling to take such a big step on her own, she approached CEO and proposed that it take advantage of the mall's offer. The result was the Showcase West Virginia retail store.
"One microbusiness working alone would have a hard time being successful in a shop at the mall," says Curry. "We were able to bring the opportunity to access the holiday market to more than 50 businesses."
Originally, Showcase West Virginia was conceived of strictly as a three-month proposition. It was scheduled to close December 31, 2000. However, the response to the shop was so enthusiastic, both from the shopping public and the participating microbusinesses, that a week before the shop's scheduled close, CEO decided to keep its doors open.
"We know that being entrepreneurial means taking risks now and then," says Curry. "We went into Showcase West Virginia knowing little about consignment-based retail operations, but we learned quickly."
By March 2001, Showcase West Virginia was stocked with products from 100 microbusinesses, and it was becoming clear that the shop needed to expand. In May CEO moved the shop into a 2,900-square-foot space. Today the store features products from roughly 200 small-scale manufacturers and artists.
"The beauty of Showcase West Virginia is that it helps people diversify their markets," says Ashley Summitt, CEO's program officer for retail operations. "Since it's consignment-based, people use Showcase as a test market for their products, and to introduce new product lines." CEO encourages its clients selling through the Showcase West Virginia store to participate in tastings and demonstrations in order to receive customer feedback. CEO also provides clients with business training and ongoing technical assistance.
Through the West Virginia Development Office, the Appalachian Regional Commission has provided funding that, when linked with private investment and foundation funding, will enable CEO to provide specialized marketing training for microbusiness owners; publish a microbusiness "yellow pages" for West Virginia; continue a program of taking successful entrepreneurs to national craft and trade shows; and continue the operation of Showcase West Virginia, along with possibly expanding the shop to locations elsewhere in the state.
"Showcase West Virginia is more than a store," says Curry. "It mirrors our commitment to helping people grow their businesses to whatever level they choose."
Because CEO splits the proceeds from items sold at the shop with the producers, it has, says Curry, "moved beyond its past role as an advocacy organization and technical assistance provider and has been pulled by its program into the marketplace right alongside its microbusiness clients. We are now a business partner and fellow entrepreneur—assuming the similar risks and seeking similar rewards." CEO is now working to develop additional "social-purpose" enterprises to complement the retail store, generate income to help underwrite program expenses, and create greater market access for West Virginia's small-scale entrepreneurs.
The Showcase West Virginia retail store gets high praise from those who sell there, such as Brenda Casabona, purveyor of DeFluri's Fine Chocolates in Martinsburg. Casabona says that what sets Showcase West Virginia apart "is that CEO makes us, and the other businesses that it assists, work in a real-market framework.
"They provide us with tools to help us succeed," says Casabona, "but they make us realize that our products and companies must compete in the real world. We all have what we consider great ideas and great products. They make us realistically assess our products and then help us make our products and our businesses competitive in the marketplace. The Center for Economic Options really helps us to help ourselves."
The Center for Economic Options is online at www.centerforeconoptions.org.
James E. Casto is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.