FAIRMONT — When thinking about entrepreneurial endeavors, the thought is usually on business and not people.
According to Brandon Dennison, president and CEO of Huntington-based Coalfield Development, that needs to change to get West Virginia back in pace with its regional peers.
Dennison took the stage at the Robert H. Mollohan Center Friday night at the annual meeting of the Country Roads Angel Network, a network of entrepreneurs around West Virginia who invest in businesses and share ideas among colleagues.
Dennison was the keynote speaker and focused on his work in what he calls social enterprise, a blended approach that combines business ventures with social rehabilitation.
Dennison is behind the Coalfield Development project, which incubates and invests in these social enterprises. He grew up in West Virginia and studied social entrepreneurship at West Virginia University.
“Growing up [in West Virginia] I had a lot of frustration seeing so many public programs — that we know are well-intentioned — don’t seem to be achieving the outcomes they were designed to achieve,” Dennison said. “Social entrepreneurship struck me as something different that could have a deeper impact.”
His first social enterprise was with the rural housing authority in Wayne County. He noticed that a major problem in the communities there was abandoned and blighted buildings, which is a problem across the state.
His solution was a business that would demolish these buildings, and then resale or reuse the materials. Typically in demolitions the materials are just sent to a landfill and left to rot, but Dennison found a buyer in New York who would purchase the materials for use in bars and restaurants.
The program was twofold — it would help communities get rid of blighted buildings and would only hire local individuals who were unemployed at the time. Building off of that initial idea, Dennison now goes so far as to offer these employees a chance at community college education after their time working in these programs.
“There’s an environmental outcome where we get rid of these hazards and keep the materials out of the landfill and there’s a social outcome where we hire people who face barriers,” Dennison said.
Using that first venture as a model, Dennison and Coalfield Development help kickstart similar programs that strive to make an economic impact as well as a social rehabilitation impact. Many of the individuals hired by these programs are coming out of substance use disorder treatment and are in need of a boost back into society.
West Virginia is far behind its peers in way of economic development and opportunity, he said. Dennison referenced a new study to come out from the Notre Dame University School of Business looking at West Virginia in comparison to its neighbors like Kentucky and Ohio.
The results he shared were striking. Since 2010, West Virginia has experienced an investment of around $128 million in venture capital, while Kentucky has had $2.2 billion. The numbers were just as poor in new business investments, and investment dollars per citizen.
“We’ve got a long ways to go. If you’re in a race and you’re 10 minutes behind the leader, you can’t just go as fast as the leader to catch up, you have to go faster,” Dennison said. “I think social entrepreneurship is a piece in how we do that.”
Members of the Country Roads Angel Network were surprised to hear the findings. Much of what Dennison had to say was aimed at the investors present at the conference Friday afternoon.
Judy Moore, director of CRAN’s parent organization, Beckley-based WV Hive, said CRAN and Hive are already working out partnerships with Coalfield Development to create a pipeline for both investors and business owners who are trying to better the state.
CRAN’s funding options and Coalfield’s seed fund program will potentially be brought together as a package for businesses that are starting out that check all the boxes in both categories. What Moore found most exciting however, is how important the social rehabilitation aspect is for the state and its workforce.
“That social piece is so huge. In West Virginia we’re fighting so many issues related to recovery be it physical or substance use. These programs like what Coalfield has focused on individuals in recovery and that impact is incredible,” Moore said. “It repairs so much of our workforce. So, we want to create jobs that fit the people who are willing to work.”