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    New Memphis Institute preaches entrepreneurial evangelism

    James Dowd - The Commercial Appeal -

    Although it's theoretically conceivable, it's also pretty unlikely that any of the more than 200 attendees at Wednesday's Celebrate What's Right symposium left the event without feeling at least a little pumped up about the thriving local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

    Presented by the New Memphis Institute, the interactive forum featured several emerging entrepreneurs, a state consultant for economic development and one of the city's internationally renowned success stories — AutoZone founder J.R. "Pitt" Hyde — in a program that promised a foretaste of the city's "Next Golden Age of Entrepreneurship."

    According to panelists, that age is now.

    "It's exciting and amazing today to see how quickly companies can progress from ideas to realities because of advances in technology," Hyde said. "Launching a startup is still an arduous undertaking, but there are more resources available in Memphis now than ever before to nurture these enterprises and help guide them toward success."

    Fittingly, Wednesday's discussion offered a perfect lead-in for Global Entrepreneurship Week, which kicks off on Monday. With a nod to the rich tradition of entrepreneurship in Memphis — larger-than-life examples of Clarence Saunders, Kemmons Wilson and Fred Smith — participants reaffirmed the city's growing reputation as a community that attracts and supports entrepreneurs.

    "Star Wars got me interested in technology — yeah, I'm that kid — and I had an entrepreneurial drive from a young age," said Charleson Bell, president of BioNanovations. "After coming to Memphis to be in the Zeroto510 program I started to believe that entrepreneurship is possible and now I know that dreams can become realities."

    As a result of its successful first year, the ZeroTo510 program and others such as Seed Hatchery are being examined beyond Shelby County.

    "The energy and excitement in Memphis and the way that public and private organizations are coming together here to cultivate entrepreneurship is being looked at very closely by Gov. Haslam," said Joann Massey, who works with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. "There are innovative ways of investing in and supporting entrepreneurship here that are very different from what's going on in other parts of the state. Great things are happening here."

    Because of local programs such as Seed Hatchery and ZeroTo510, new waves of entrepreneurs are being drawn to Memphis, said panelist Mike Hoffmeyer, a participant in an volunteer for both initiatives. And once those first-generation entrepreneurs discover how robust the Memphis entrepreneurial community is, and how accessible the support systems are, they're hooked.

    "There are healthy entrepreneurial communities in places like Silicon Valley and in Boston, but those communities can also be very elitist in a way. Memphis isn't," said Hoffmeyer, co-founder and CEO of eCommerce startup Paytopia. "That attitude is even apparent in other areas of our state, but in Memphis most people are interested in building a community without being scared of competition."

    Panelist Ben Tempel, CEO of Nanophthalmics and a ZeroTo510 participant, agreed.

    "I've lived in Atlanta and have a lot of business contacts there, but the fact is that in Memphis people and organizations come together more. Doors open a lot easier here."

    Despite the increasing visibility of the local entrepreneurial community and a growing tolerance for risk, obstacles remain, participants agreed.

    Access to capital continues to lag and investors here still aren't as eager to fund local startups as they are in other parts of the country. That culture is changing, but remains well behind entrepreneurial hot spots in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

    But forums like the Celebrate What's Right series are helping change that, said New Memphis Institute president Nancy Coffee.

    "Now more than ever Memphis needs fresh talent," Coffee said. "Attracting and retaining that talent by supporting entrepreneurship will help us transform our city."