West Virginia entrepreneur shares hopes for the future of the state

Nov. 5 – Fairmont – When you think of entrepreneurial endeavors, you usually think of the business, not the people.

That needs to change for West Virginia to keep pace with its regional peers, according to Brandon Dennison, president and CEO of Huntington-based Coalfield Development.

Dennison Friday night at the Robert H. Mullohan took the stage at the annual meeting of the Road Country Angel Network, a network of entrepreneurs across West Virginia who invest in businesses and share ideas among peers.

Dennison was the keynote speaker and focused on his work in what he calls social enterprise, a hybrid approach that combines business ventures with social rehabilitation.

Dennison is behind the Coal Development Project, which invests in these social enterprises. He grew up in West Virginia and studied social entrepreneurship at West Virginia University.

“Grow up [in West Virginia] “I’m very disappointed to see so many public programs — which we know are well-intentioned –,” Dennison said. A deeper impact.”

His first social enterprise was with the Rural Housing Authority in Wayne County. He realized that a major problem in the communities there were abandoned and burned buildings, a statewide problem.

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His solution was a business that demolished these buildings and then resold or reused the materials. Usually in demolition, the materials are just sent to landfills and left to rot, but Dennison found a buyer in New York who bought the materials for use in bars and restaurants.

The program had two aspects – it helped communities get rid of damaged buildings and employed only local people who were unemployed at the time. Building on this initial idea, Dennison now goes so far as to offer these employees the opportunity to study at local universities after their time working in these programs.

“There’s an environmental consequence where we’re getting rid of these hazards and keeping materials out of landfills, and there’s a social consequence where we’re employing people who are facing barriers,” Dennison said. “

Using the first investment as a model, Dennison and Coalfield Development are helping to initiate similar programs that strive for economic impact as well as social rehabilitation impact. Many people recruited by these programs exit substance use disorder treatment and need to be rehabilitated into the community.

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West Virginia lags far behind its peers in terms of economic development and opportunity, he said. Dennison pointed to a new study from the University of Notre Dame School of Business that compares West Virginia to its neighbors like Kentucky and Ohio.

The results he shared were remarkable. Since 2010, West Virginia has seen about $128 million in venture capital investment, compared to $2.2 billion in Kentucky. The numbers were equally poor in new business investments and investment dollars per citizen.

“We have a long way to go. If you’re in a race and you’re 10 minutes behind the leader, you can’t go as fast as the leader to get back, you have to go faster.” Dennison said. “I think social entrepreneurship plays a role in how we do that.”

The members of the country’s Angel of Roads network were surprised to hear these findings. Much of what Dennison had to say was aimed at investors on Friday afternoon’s conference call.

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Judy Moore, director of CRAN’s parent organization, Beckley-based WV Hive, said CRAN and Hive are currently working with Coalfield Development to create a pipeline for investors and business owners trying to improve the situation.

CRAN’s funding options and the Coalfield Seed Fund program potentially come together as a package for start-up businesses, ticking all the boxes in both categories. What Moore found most exciting, however, is how important the social rehabilitation aspect is to the government and its workforce.

“It’s a huge community component,” Moore said. “In West Virginia we’re struggling with a lot of recovery issues, whether it’s physical abuse or substance abuse. These programs like Coalfield’s focus on people in recovery and The impact is incredible.” So, we want to create jobs that are suitable for people who want to work.”

Contact David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at [email protected]

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