A new coalition is helping to team-up businesses with the local community for solving problems and increasing diversity outreach
By TERESA A. MCLAMB
North Carolina business owners have a wealth of resources available to them, but until the last year or so, those resources were widely unknown, in part because the Department of Commerce has no funding to market its services. All that changed when a coalition formed to create the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Funding is from the Department of Commerce and private sources. Its board includes individuals from the public and private sectors. Wilmingtonian Jenni Harris manages the twelve-county eastern region for the partnership.
Harris’s typical day is in the car driving to meet with business owners and managers, often in the company of that county’s economic development manager.
The partnership focuses on new business recruitment as well as expansion of existing businesses, international trade, small business formation and the tourism, film and sports industries. It also provides assistance in problem solving.
Harris gives a few examples: “A company had trucks that had to make a very sharp turn when leaving the warehouse. They were having difficulties; axles were breaking. We got DOT to take a look and put an apron in there to solve the problem. Another company had tremendous food waste cost. They package snack food. It was costing about $100,000 per month. We pulled in the Department of Environmental Quality and found a solution that uses refrigerated trucks to go to several companies within a proximity to pick up and recycle waste food. There are tons of stories like that,” she said.
Harris came to the job from her position as community engagement director for UNCW. In that position, she facilitated the university’s increased involvement in local affairs. Her work there led her to involvement in Leadership North Carolina where she serves on the board of directors. That gave her increased exposure to the state as a whole, but her focus remained on the Wilmington area.
The partnership’s needs were for someone who had established relationships with business and government, and already knew much about the area’s needs. “The focus on the larger area intrigued me,” she said. I wanted to know more about the military bases, the global transit park and how they all connected.” She began the job in June 2015.
Her focus is to find businesses that need or want help and connect them to those resources. “I’ll go into a business and I’ll tell them the services the state offers. That wouldn’t have happened prior to the partnership. The state had the services, but you had to know who to call and what to ask.”
“There’s a division that deals just in international trade. If there’s a company anywhere in the state that’s interested in doing business with China or London, they can call us. Ninety-five percent of the market is outside of North Carolina. If they want to grow, we need to look outside of the state.”
She said the state also has a department that deals just with start-up information such as permits, certifications, etc. Called Business Link, it has a toll free number.
On her regular business visits, Harris says she spends a lot of time listening to the businesses’ challenges and goals. One issue that frequently arises is the availability of a qualified labor pool. The solution is often to team the business with the local community college for specialized training. “That’s a great partnership.” It’s that collaboration and connection that she says is her forte.
That ability most likely comes from growing up in a household that was highly involved with school, church and civic activities. Harris and her twin brother were adopted at eight months old by Jerry and Gloria Brown in Rochester, NY. They moved to Wilmington in 1969 when GE transferred Jerry to the company’s nuclear operation in Castle Hayne. “Mom and Dad were always very involved in the PTA, in church. We grew up being part of community efforts. Volunteerism was just part of what we did. We didn’t know any different.” Her first leadership role was as a Diocesan representative from her church youth group.
After graduating from New Hanover High School, Harris was awarded a full scholarship to UNCW from a women’s organization. She was told that she was selected because of her many volunteer activities.
Harris majored in professional and technical writing with a minor in public and media relations. “I always wanted to write for a newspaper. I wanted to be a reporter because I liked hearing people’s stories and hearing their successes.”
Her first job out of UNCW was in Raleigh for an Australian publishing company that had 27 publications. “I learned from the president of that company about collaborative leadership and business organizational leadership. I saw how they incorporated what was happening in the North Carolina paper as opposed to the Pennsylvania paper. Even though they were separate, there were still commonalities, and it was important to pull those commonalities together.”
Missing Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean, Harris returned to Wilmington after three years, and started her own marketing company. After eight years, her biggest client asked her to work for them doing primarily PR. That led to a stint at SAJ Media, where she started the special events division.
Planning for the first Biz Tech Expo in the not-yet-opened Wilmington Convention Center introduced her to the center’s manager who hired her as corporate sales manager, introducing the community, businesses, associations and others to the center as it prepared to open.
One of those who came for a tour was incoming UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller. Miller had led an initiative at his previous university in Kansas to involve the school to a greater degree in all aspects of the community. He wanted to do the same in Wilmington and asked Harris to apply for the community partnership position he was creating. “I was excited because it was my alma mater. I was able to go work there and bring businesses to the table, and to have conversations the chancellor felt we need to have. One result was the opening of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an expansion of the small office in existence. Another was the increase in diversity outreach and events dedicated to make that happen – including one that introduced 670 middle school students to the campus and an opportunity to meet Magic Johnson.
That position, at UNCW, put Harris in place to be a logical choice for regional manager in the Partnership.
Harris remains on the advisory board of the convention center; a facility she believes is a tremendous asset to the community. “I’m really excited about the hotel getting under construction because it’s going to bring in a lot of associations and businesses to the area.”
She also volunteers for Williston PTA where her youngest son attends; founded the UNC system Engagement Council; serves on the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities Commission for Innovation, Commercialization and Economic Prosperity; and is president-elect of Lower Cape Fear YWCA. In her spare time, she paints and recently earned has masters in public administration from NC Central University.
She’s particularly excited about the YWCA’s future. “In the last five years, it has gone from almost shutting its doors to having a small reserve… Now, being on stronger ground, the YWCA is preparing to get back on track with its strong mission to eliminate racism and contribute to the economic advancement of women. I’ve been on the board for 18 months and see the need in the community for the YWCA to take a leading role in encouraging, supporting and contributing to minority entrepreneurship, ‘mommy-preneur’ programs, providing resources, training and services to promote economic prosperity for the citizens of this community. I am most excited about this mission.”
Rochester, NY, raised in Wilmington, NC
Husband Jason Harris (15 years), sons Jake and Andy
BA, University of North Carolina Wilmington; Masters of Administration, NC Central University
Regional Manager – Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina
I’m a nerd. I love reading academic journals.