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WeSpeakWNC is an initiative in the Mountain West Region of North Carolina that launched as a result of the research and planning of the CREATE BRIDGES project. Its purpose is to connect business owners in the retail, hospitality, tourism, and entertainment sectors with each other, with resource providers, and with the regional labor pool.
The inaugural WeSpeakWNC Conference was held on February 27 and 28, 2023 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina. Over 100 small business owners and over 150 students and school staff from the area attended this conference, which featured presentations by NC Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall, Fortune 500 Business Consultant Dr. Ray Blanchard, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Western Carolina University Dr. Annie Wilson, and Social Media Marketing Professional and Marketing Manager at Western Carolina University Jessica Mizzi. Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians welcomed attendees and participated on a regional economic development panel with Russ Harris of the Southwestern Commission, Rich Price of Western Carolina University, and Josh Carpenter of the Mountain West Partnership, moderated by Tiffany Henry, Jackson County Economic Developer. Three students from Western Carolina University reported on their “secret shopper” findings on 130 businesses in the region. The presentation of their findings, a project of a new entrepreneurship class instructed by Drs. Wendy Cagle and Yue Hillon of Western Carolina University, generated a significant number of questions from audience members wanting to improve their customer service skills.
In addition to speaker presentations, the audience also heard testimonials from several local business owners who had used business resources available in the region. Business owners then had the opportunity to visit with these resources, including the Small Business Center at Southwestern Community College, Mountain BizWorks, NCWorks, The Sequoyah Fund, the Southwestern Commission, and Western Carolina University’s Center for Career and Professional Development.
Day 2 of the conference targeted potential employees of this sector and included a Talent Jam pitch event, very popular with both businesses and students alike, as well as a Sector Expo. Close to 40 businesses tabled at the Sector Expo, which was attended by all conference participants and resulted in increased awareness of the region’s business assets as well as several connections being made for possible job opportunities. Following the expo, Harrah’s Executive Chef Carter Alexander thrilled the audience with his culinary skills, while attendees savored the results for lunch.
The conference was very well received with requests from many in the audience for another conference targeting these sectors next year.
Conference Program and Slide Decks
Elaine F. Marshall, NC Secretary of State
In 1996, Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall became the first woman ever elected to a statewide, executive branch office in North Carolina. Voters re-elected her to a seventh term in 2020. A former teacher, small business owner, and private practice attorney,Secretary Marshall was elected to the NC Senate before rising to statewide office.
Under Secretary Marshall’s administration, more than 1.7 million businesses have been formed. She has pioneered e-commerce in government, protected investors and intellectual property owners, and promoted financial capital formation in North Carolina.
Secretary Marshall has been very active in many civic groups in the areas of child welfare, women’s issues, and agriculture and small town economic development. She credits 4-H as an important part of her youth and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from North Carolina 4-H and in 2014 was inducted into the National 4-H Hall of Fame.
She holds a B.S. in Home Economics from the University of Maryland and a law degree from Campbell University. She has received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Campbell University, Lees-McRae College, Meredith College and the Republic of Moldova State University of Medicine. Since becoming Secretary of State, Secretary Marshall has received numerous state and national awards for leadership in technology, government innovation, and women’s leadership.
She is married to Jessie Thomas Bunn.
Dr. Ray Blanchard
Dr. Ray Blanchard is a master international trainer, seminar designer, corporate consultant, and founder of Ray Blanchard Training Systems and Blanchard Consulting Group. He was educated in psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis and received a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in education and counseling psychology.
For the last 50 years, Dr. Blanchard has traveled the world, delivering training and consulting programs to more than 200,000 people with lasting impact for success worldwide and has developed or delivered programs for a host of international companies, including TOMMY BAHAMAS, AT&T, the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia Faculty of Economics and Management, and other companies challenged by change on the global playing field.
Dr. Ray Blanchard is an educator and thought leader with global acclaim as a master trainer. One of the select leaders in the transformation space for decades, he is known for his impeccable reputation as a professional. He now serves on the Board of Directors for the esteemed Transformational Leadership Council.
Using his multi-faceted background in training, counseling, consulting, and curriculum design, Dr. Blanchard is the Master Trainer for Life Design Education and is their Chief Curriculum and Programs Designer.
Dr. Annie Wilson, Western Carolina University
Annie Wilson is a long time local to Western North Carolina and is dedicated to this community and to helping our people flourish. She is an assistant professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and an independent personnel consultant through M&W Consulting. As an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, Annie has expertise in employee retention strategies and is committed to providing data-driven personnel consultation to help regional businesses thrive, small and large. She is excited to share some evidence-based recruitment and retention strategies as well as some de-escalation tactics with regional business owners and employees.
Jessica Mizzi, Western Carolina University
Jessica Mizzi was born and raised in New York to an immigrant family. She has always known the value of hard work and grew up with a passion for anything that allowed her to express her creativity. After earning her BA degree in Creative Writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College in 2017, Jessica began her career at Penguin Random House in NYC as a Content Marketing Assistant. After almost 4 years at Penguin Random House, Jessica transitioned to become a Marketing Manager at Audible.
When COVID-19 changed the world in 2020, Jessica decided to uproot her life and move to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was there that she met the love of her life, her soon-to-be-husband, and together, they moved out west to the mountains that they now call home. Jessica currently works at Western Carolina University as Marketing Manager, overseeing all social media marketing for WCU’s main accounts and paid advertising efforts for the entire university across the state and beyond. She’s also attending Western Carolina University as a part-time MBA student and recently received two globally-recognized marketing certifications from the Digital Marketing Institute and American Marketing Association.
WCU Secret Shoppers
Aaron Gottloeb is a recent WCU graduate from the school of business. He majored in Entrepreneurship and minored in Economics. In the future he will be joining the Peace Corps to teach English and work in Economic Development. He is currently an intern with the Jackson County Office of Economic Development.
Kaitlyn Kennedy, Student, Western Carolina University
Kaitlyn Kennedy is a sophomore at Western Carolina University, and is working towards a BSBA in Innovation, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship. Kaitlyn is also a member of the Brinson Honors college and is completing an honors diploma and a degree in Cultural Awareness from the Degree Plus program. Growing up with a single mother, she plans to use these degrees to develop nonprofits to help community members in need.
Gage Comeaux, Student, Western Carolina University
Gage Comeaux is a senior at WCU who graduates in May of this year. He is majoring in Entrepreneurship and plans to stay in the Sylva area to own and operate a food truck.
Tom Ryan, Supportedly
Tom Ryan has a mission to improve the world through entrepreneurship and has dedicated nearly three decades to developing his vast capabilities in this area. His diverse background as a serial entrepreneur, startup advisor, angel investor, and SME operator makes Tom a force in the world of entrepreneurship.
Tom’s latest project is disrupting the billion-dollar product startup and crowdfunding space as an investor in and Chief Investment Officer of Enventys Partners, a leading product acceleration company. He is also the founder and General Partner of the Start100 Fund, a seed-stage angel investment fund, and co-founder of Supportedly, an organization dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs.
Above all, Tom is dedicated to empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs by helping them turn their visions into realities and sustained value.