In January, the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce hosted their monthly mixer in the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a thriving business development organization that may prove essential to the city’s financial future.
Before attendees shared cocktails and business concepts, president and CEO Michael Burcham used his introduction to emphasize a key problem that plagues the economic climate in Middle Tennessee. Of the 154 candidates that have sought the organization’s help since its inception, few minorities are in the mix, and none are identified as gay or lesbian.
In a conversation shortly after the event, Burcham revisits that moment and expresses a motivation to stir the GLBT community into action.
"I think members of our community are so used to hitting the ceiling in the churches, in the universities, in businesses," says Burcham, a current faculty member at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. "But now with all of these angel investors and the economy being so depressed, there’s an opportunity there for them and for everyone. Things are opening up."
The goal, then, is to uncover opportunities to speak with these potential business leaders.
"My question is ‘How do we have that conversation with the community?’ Burcham admits. "Part of it is, I haven’t seen a lot of active participation (by the GLBT community) in some of the places I’ve gotten to speak. Our goal is to bridge the gap between the GLBT community and the rest of the community."
The Entrepreneur Center, launched as a Web site in September 2009 by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Technology Council, provides a place for training, relationships and resources to cultivate economic development and serve as a catalyst in the city’s business endeavors. Quite simply, the burgeoning organization helps potential business leaders achieve everything they ever dreamed of in a professional setting.
The Board of Directors elected Burcham into his current role last May, and his passion has been honed by years of professional experience. A former health care executive, Burcham is a fierce advocate of taking control of your professional destiny. ("I thrive on starting and creating businesses," he says.) For those distressed by their daily grind, he preaches the power of creativity.
His fellow contributors, the center’s five-person staff, are fluent in a number of industry fields. Potential clients present a wide range of business ideas—bicycle repair, handbags and photography, among them—and are encouraged to explore any pursuit. The organization, though, focuses on four prime industries: technology, social enterprise, and digital media & entertainment.
"I know your odds of success are greater in those fields," Burcham says. "Those all have an enormous pent-up demand. Those are the industries that have the most success in Nashville and they’re what the city is known for."
By fostering an environment of inclusiveness, Burcham is hopeful that he will develop a more well-rounded roster of clients. All aspiring entrepreneurs are treated to the same rigorous process.
"If you’re not prepared, then you won’t last long here," Burcham admits. "This is a very intensive program. If you’re ready to do the work, I can get you out in front of so many people in the community."
Upon graduation, fledgling business leaders are further supported by the organization. The Entrepreneurship Center hosts monthly mixers for alumni to interact with each other, along with a few educational events each month to further enhance the business acumen of their clients. An on-site research lab contains informational materials, with a catalog of business and professional resources within the Nashville area.
A number of members choose to maintain their full-time jobs due to financial need, devoting their nights to tightening their business plans. The mere thought of steering their own career spurs enthusiasm within his protegees.
"Planning to start a new business reignites the American dream and the feeling that they can do anything," Burcham says. "It’s incredible how the human psyche can survive if they have something to work on and look forward to."
Business owners can expect to see their idle time dwindle as soon as they open their doors. If they can handle those heavy demands, the payoff is powerful.
"If you have the energy and you’re willing to invest the time, it will happen," Burcham says. "Entrepreneurship is a learned art form. Money is not the reason that people can’t do it. If you’re willing to devote 10-12 hours a day, then we’ll find a way to get you the money. It’s a matter of perseverance and passion."
The new year has brought good news to the burgeoning enterprise. Nashville Entrepreneur Center recently announced its partnership with the Nashville Music Council, and in 2011 a new location will open at Rolling Mill Hill near downtown. The site will feature space where startup companies can occupy for up to a year.