RISE29 empowers students, businesses in eastern North Carolina

Entering its third year, RISE29, East Carolina University’s student entrepreneurship program, is finding its footing.

Tasked with creating a new generation of entrepreneurial leaders in the university’s 29-county service area, the program has morphed and changed from an innovative idea into a thriving program that helps businesses across eastern North Carolina.

With more than 200 student participants, 45 clients served and 22,000 hours of field work, the program is doing more than just preparing the state’s next great business leaders – it’s amplifying their voices.

“One of the values I hold close to my heart is serving those who have helped me,” said Emily Cross, a rising senior marketing major who interned with a distillery in Beaufort County. “I’m from a small town and spent a lot of my younger years volunteering and participating in local events. It felt wonderful working with a company that strives to give back to the town it calls home.”

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As consumers continue to align their support with brands and businesses that mirror their values, RISE29 is doing the same. The program partners students with regional companies that mirror ECU’s principles of service, resiliency and integrity.

That strategy has paid off for both the students and businesses, as RISE29 interns put their ideas into action to help grow the region’s economy.

“I was really able to feel the community that comes along with eastern North Carolina,” said Dana Shefet, a Cary native and member of the ECU Honors College who graduated this spring. “Having the sense that we were uplifting one another and working together as a team to help with a regional need was something that was very valuable to me.”

Cross and Shefet interned together at The Hackney Distillery in Washington. The pair worked on a new market analysis with owner Nick Sanders to figure out the best way to expand the distillery’s footprint.

“I was excited to work with The Hackney Distillery and its 1000 Piers Gin because the industry was something I was unfamiliar with,” Cross said. “I love learning new things, and I didn’t know a lot about gin or the spirits industry at all. This internship was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about running a business, and also to learn about how small businesses affect their local economies.”

The Hackney Distillery distills its signature drink, 1000 Piers Gin, on site in Washington. The restaurant and distillery are housed in a restored 1922 downtown bank building.

An Edenton native, Cross understands the vital role small businesses play in the region’s prosperity.

“I applied to RISE29 because I’m from a small town,” she said. “I know how important small businesses are to local economies. I was excited to have the opportunity to help a small business create an established presence, which would then feed back into the economic improvement of the town.”

Shefet, who will attend the Brody School of Medicine this fall, said the program took a chance on her.

“I’m a public health major with no business or entrepreneurial experience,” Shefet said. “I was very fortunate that RISE29 took a chance on me as an intern to expand my horizons into a field I did not have formal training in.”

While learning about the distillery industry was exciting, it didn’t come without its challenges. The pair found that differing alcohol laws between states and being a one-person operation proved difficult in expansion plans.

However, the team overcame those barriers, and the distillery has plans to expand its gin brands in Fayetteville and Asheville, and to pitch to distributors in Florida, South Carolina and Virginia.

“In class, we learn about how to work with clients and organizations, but it’s all hypothetical,” Cross said. “Through this internship, our interaction was real. We had an actual client whose livelihood depends on the success of the business.

“Being a RISE29 intern has certainly prepared me for the future by giving me real-world experience in working with a client and their business, as well as conducting market research for future use.”

The RISE29 internship team explored new stores and restaurants that could serve The Hackney Distillery’s signature drink, 1000 Piers Gin.

Shefet is thrilled to imagine the future impact of The Hackney Distillery and the rest of RISE29’s clients on eastern North Carolina.

“Working with The Hackney Distillery was an absolute pleasure,” she said. “I am excited for the future of the distillery. I hope the efforts that we made this semester allow the gin to expand and reach its full potential.”

After graduation, Cross plans to remain in the region and put into action the values RISE29 and ECU model.

“I want to stay in eastern North Carolina and work to promote the tourism opportunities and natural beauty these small towns have to offer,” Cross said. “I’m a small-town girl at heart, and I know there is nowhere I would be happier than in eastern North Carolina.”

RISE29 is funded through a $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation. It currently operates in Beaufort, Hyde, Martin and Pitt counties.