Gregory Fairchild
Gregory Fairchild has helped would-be entrepreneurs realise that there are still opportunities in the region © FT
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In recent years the vigour with which leading business schools have embarked on high-profile global projects can mean that local initiatives appear overlooked. However, the potential for schools to work with their local communities is demonstrated by the University of Virginia’s Darden School.

Under the energetic guidance of Gregory Fairchild, an associate professor of business administration at Darden, the Initiative for Business in Society is helping economically depressed communities in Virginia to resuscitate their fortunes through entrepreneurship. While Virginia – home to 8m people – is a relatively high-income state, it has many pockets of relative economic deprivation.

“In parts of the state, where the plants that have employed generations have closed, many people have simply lost hope,” says Prof Fairchild, an academic director of IBiS. It is in addressing this downbeat outlook that the professor locates the initiative’s mission. “Our challenge is to change people’s perceptions of what is possible in their communities.”

IBiS has relationships with five areas, selected by Darden for their distinctive identities and their broad representation of Virginia. Each has relatively low income and employment and low but growing levels of self-employment.

The leaders of each community are working with IBiS. Each area is losing young people to larger cities and suffers from low rates of job creation. Prof Fairchild, whose research has focused on business strategy and community development, argues that traditional efforts to attract the investment of large companies may ultimately be counterproductive as this fosters a culture of job dependency on one employer. Instead, he highlights the opportunity for communities to nurture a cadre of business leaders who together can secure their economic future.

“Instead of trying to ‘land a whale’, these areas would be better served by ‘breeding dolphins’,” says Prof Fairchild.

Aside from creating a diverse portfolio of job-creating companies, encouraging young people to launch their own companies could also stem the tide of migration.

“I encourage [young people] to understand that they have the opportunity to shape the future of their communities through entrepreneurship,” he adds.

In the southern city of Danville, whose large textile mill closed in 2006, the unemployment rate is about 11.1 per cent, almost twice the statewide figure of 5.7 per cent. Last year Darden launched a course targeted at Danville’s aspiring and existing entrepreneurs. Judged a success, the five-day programme has been formalised in a non-credit Certificate in Entrepreneurship costing $1,000, to be offered across Virginia in partnership with the UVA School of Continuing and Professional Services.

A different pilot programme has been launched in Franklin, whose employment almost halved when its paper mill closed in 2010. The initiative seeks to contribute to an economic revival through establishing a non-profit loan fund for struggling companies and entrepreneurs. The aim is to raise $250,000 from Darden alumni.

Another initiative is the annual Tayloe Murphy Resilience Awards. Launched in 2010, they recognise five Virginian companies that have continued to invest in their communities. “By bringing attention to thriving businesses in struggling areas, we can illustrate to would-be entrepreneurs that there are opportunities,” says Prof Fairchild. Previous finalists and winners include manufacturers and vineyards.

The Blue Crab Bay Company’s award in 2011 recognised more than 25 years of navigating headwinds on Virginia’s geographically isolated Eastern Shore. Pamela Barefoot’s company, which produces speciality foods, employs 20 people.

As part of the award she had a week-long executive course in strategic sales management at Darden. Ms Barefoot relished the experience and returned to Chesapeake Bay with enthusiasm to apply her new knowledge.

“We’ve learnt from scratch how to build a company but the course has shown me how we need to develop our sales processes,” she says.

Recognising the award’s appeal, Prof Fairchild does not dismiss the possibility of expanding IBiS’s work to nearby states. But he insists that any expansion would not dilute existing work. “We are a Virginian school and our commitment to communities here defines our identity.”

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