CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the 2008 financial meltdown hit Charlotte, many saw the city as a teetering house of cards - an economy so tangled in banking and big business that it would falter.
Terry Cox, however, saw opportunity, a chance for leaders to temper the Fortune 500 hustle and rediscover what built the city in the first place: entrepreneurship.
“A lot of people got laid off and started their own ventures,” says Cox, founder and CEO of Business Innovation Growth (a.k.a. BIG), a nonprofit that works with high-growth start-ups in the Charlotte area. “A lot of people now are thinking that’s probably the way we’re going to transform our way out of this challenged global economy.”
Entrepreneurship has grown in Charlotte. Two years ago, Cox said she knew of only a handful of high-growth local startups. Now, she counts more than 200.
Many leaders of these start-ups - from the first round of raising funds to the final stages of capital development - turn to Cox and BIG for mentorship, resources and access to Cox’s extensive nationwide network.
Cox began building that network at 25 when she became the first franchisee of Gorin’s Homemade Ice Cream and Sandwiches, which started in Atlanta and is now a chain.
Cox went on to run two more Gorin’s, including one in Athens, Ga., and another in Savannah, where she was one of the city’s only female entrepreneurs at the time, she says.
At 31, Cox sold her franchises and moved to San Francisco where she worked in institutional asset management for Barclays Global Investors, now BlackRock.
She founded BIG in Charlotte in 2006 with the support of 13 entrepreneurs who committed to use their businesses to create economic value for the region. The group gained traction during the economic crisis.
Cox, 54, now single-handedly works with more than 100 companies.
What start-ups desperately need is visibility and the capital that comes with it, Cox says. And while Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community has seen exponential growth, it’s still not on the map for venture-capitalist firms who look to places like San Francisco; Austin, Texas; New York; Washington D.C. and Research Triangle Park.
“Right now, the venture capitalists basically come through Charlotte by plane and don’t stop here,” Cox says.
But that could change in 2013, starting with the Southeast Venture Conference on March 13-14, which Cox worked to recruit.
The event will showcase the most promising emerging technology firms in the Southeast, while offering exposure to the region’s top venture capitalists and private-equity investors.
Before the location of this year’s conference was decided, Cox pitched her idea to TechMedia, the event presenter. Why Charlotte? they asked.
“I said ‘We have so much potential,’ ” Cox recalls.
To prove it, she raised $100,000 in sponsorship money from the Charlotte entrepreneurial community. And TechMedia decided to give Charlotte a shot.
Cox’s bold move could prove to be a linchpin for the Queen’s City’s entrepreneurial community, which remains flush with ideas and low on capital.
“You want these companies to do well, sell their company and spend that money in the region … reinvest in their backyard,” says Cox. “That’s how it really grows.”
Cox also is bringing “FailCon” to Charlotte in 2013, a popular one-day conference that teaches entrepreneurs to study and embrace their failures, using them to better hone their next venture. The conference, which started in San Francisco, travels internationally, but in the U.S., rarely ventures out of Silicon Valley.
The conference would be yet another big win for the local start-up community, which operates in a city with a risk-averse business culture.
“Across the country we’re a little behind. Now that we’ve got this momentum, we’re really going to capitalize on it,” says Cox. “I think our window is next year. It’s the year we really need to get Charlotte on the map.”
Time in Charlotte: Cox left San Francisco for Charlotte in 2003 to lead the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council. She left the MEC to found BIG.
Family: Married, no children. Cox’s husband, Penn, owns a local renewable energy company, Roll Cast Energy.
Background: Cox graduated from the University of Georgia, and lived in Atlanta, working as a Certified Public Accountant, which she hated. At 25, she helped the owner of Gorin’s Homemade Ice Cream and Sandwiches franchise his business and became the store’s first franchisee. At the height of Gorin’s success, there were about 50 franchises.
Why she will make news: Cox successfully recruited the 2013 Southeast Venture Conference to Charlotte, giving the city’s growing entrepreneurial community visibility and access to some of the region’s top venture capitalists and private-equity funders.
What people say about her: “Terry has been one of the pioneers for the modern entrepreneurship movement in Charlotte,” says Dan Roselli, co-founder of Packard Place, a hub for entrepreneurs and start-ups. “She has been...a stable influence as the Charlotte entrepreneurship ecosystem has gotten its legs underneath it. A lot of the success and progress you see today in the entrepreneurship community comes because of the effort and ground work Terry has laid over the last 10 years.”