Chances are when you hear the words “accelerator program” or “entrepreneurship,” the first thing that comes to mind is not “Appalachia.” But that’s something Sara Day Evans, founding director of Accelerating Appalachia, hopes to change.
Evans is a geologist who has been living and working in Appalachian communities for most of her life. She spent her early childhood in North Carolina, Kentucky and southwest Virginia. “Growing up there really influenced my connection to nature,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in geology since I was a kid collecting rocks and fossils and shark teeth.” At 19, Evans traveled to the Grand Canyon, where she solidified her decision to study geology in college.
Evans joined a water protection group in Missouri while working toward her degree. And after graduation, she spent 13 years working for the state of Kentucky to help build their groundwater and waste management programs. But that’s when her interests took an unexpected turn.
“I was really drawn to local economies,” Evans says, “especially after working across Appalachia for so long. A lot of what I was doing was managing a program to clean up and institute recycling and waste reduction. But what about the economy?” she asks, “ Why are the environment and the economy viewed as separate?”
When she moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 2006, Evans finally witnessed the connection she had been seeking between local economies and the environment. “I started seeing small businesses in the sectors of food, farming, forest products, fiber,” she says, “And I was so inspired by their work. And they were working with the biodiversity and agrobiodiversity of the region.”
Evans continued her work with the state of North Carolina for four years. However, after a government turnover in 2010, the program she worked for was cut and she was left unemployed. It was during this transitional period that Evans began to explore the realm of social enterprise.
“I had friends in the entrepreneurial world who told me, ‘You work like an entrepreneur anyway, you should be exploring this,’” she recalls, “There were people in the Asheville region who were working globally on social enterprise, and they really helped introduce me to that world.”
Evans started a consulting firm called Prosperity Collective, but within six months, another idea for a nonprofit organization began to take form. After a lot of research—and with the help of her colleagues Jennifer Flynn, Kimberly Hunter and Dayna Reggero—Evans created Accelerating Appalachia, the first nature-based business accelerator of its kind.
Accelerating Appalachia is an accelerator program for seed-stage businesses in nature-based industries such as farming, food, clean energy, textiles and more. The program’s intensive curriculum instructs entrepreneurs in subjects like financial planning, value proposition improvement, supply chain development and advisement on capital raising options.
“We’re focusing on businesses that support farming and other regenerative land practices, practices that farmers use that actually help to restore and regenerate the soil,” Evans says. “Regenerative agriculture is blowing up, because data is starting to come back about how much the right kind of agriculture practices can sequester carbon and have a huge impact.”
Despite the fact that Accelerating Appalachia focuses on nature-based enterprises like farming, Evans says over 75% of participating enterprises are either women-led or co-led.This is because, “Women-led enterprises are very profitable but way under-capitalized.” But Evans adds that Accelerating Appalachia’s diversity goes far beyond gender. “We seek to not just accelerate women-led businesses, but also minority and indigenous populations,” she explains.
Regardless, Accelerating Appalachia remains committed to one thing: creating harmony between economy and environment. “Our focus is to create a few good jobs because that’s important for our economy,” Evans says, “and then build that connection to regenerative agriculture.”