Students support small businesses through Accelerate Rural NC

Two students from East Carolina University’s College of Engineering and Technology found a way to enhance their resumes while helping area small businesses.

Marco Agostini, left, and Cole Dickerson participated in the Accelerate Rural NC program this fall. Agostini, a computer science major, helped with website development, while Dickerson, an engineering major, helped with product development.

Marco Agostini, a computer science major, and Cole Dickerson, an EC Scholar and engineering major, participated in the Accelerate Rural NC (ARNC) program during the fall semester.

The program, which started Sept. 1, is designed to help small businesses gain access to larger markets through e-commerce development, training, new product development assistance, and web and marketing plan development. The 10-week program offers business owners multiple classes with mentors and business experts as well as networking opportunities.

ECU’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship and Crisp Small Business Resource Center in the College of Business administer the program. Funding is through a grant from NC IDEA, an independent, private foundation that aims to foster economic development in North Carolina by supporting entrepreneurs.

As an engineering major, Dickerson was involved with development of product prototypes.

“Whenever a company was trying to build or test something, I was able to help them with that,” Dickerson said. “I’ve been able to 3D print a weight holder to fix a problem with a rotational vinyl printing head, laser engrave custom jelly jars, help formulate makeup, and I’m currently working on manufacturing a line of custom sunglasses I designed earlier in the semester.”

He said he found the program very rewarding.

“I’ve enjoyed the projects I’ve been able to work on,” Dickerson said. “I’ve also enjoyed being involved in the program because this is a pilot program, and if we’re able to show that we helped the participants, then the program will be run again with a larger scope.”

The Miller School’s Dennis Tracz, ARNC director, said the program’s first cohort this fall featured 12 Pitt County businesses.

“Our program helps these companies to grow and expand beyond just the local area,” he said. “These companies will provide careers and jobs in our region, which helps all of us with economic development. This approach to economic development goes well with traditional efforts to attract large companies to the area.”

He said many of the business owners in the first cohort were ECU graduates. Four more 10-week cohorts are scheduled for 2021, and business owners can apply online.

“We believe that our program will help make our area more competitive in providing jobs and improving the quality of life here by expanding digital business opportunities,” Tracz said.

He said ECU students such as Dickerson and Agostini get a lot from the program.

“They are paid. They gain experience using techniques and technologies that will help them in the future for career opportunities,” Tracz said.

That’s one reason Agostini accepted a role as a web developer for the program this fall.

“I was very excited as this seemed like a great way to get some more experience in my field as well as give back during the semester,” he said.

The program offered Agostini the opportunity to work with a variety of businesses, everything from farms to fitness.

“I worked one-on-one with a handful of them to help implement their ideas, give suggestions for improvement and brainstorm new ideas for their websites,” Agostini said. “Many of them had their sites and stores set up through Shopify, which they were somewhat unfamiliar with, so I helped them, on top of their classes, to learn the software.”

He also helped update the ARNC website, making it easier for program participants to access resources.

“It was an amazing feeling being able to help these small businesses and see the results,” Agostini said. “The website is often the first thing people see of a business, so knowing I had made an impact was really special.”

Agostini said the program provided him flexibility that any student would have needed during a challenging semester with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It allowed me to do more work when I had the opportunity, but also take the time to focus on exams and finals,” he said.

And he sees the value in the program.

“I think ARNC is a phenomenal program that supports a crucial part of any community,” Agostini said. “Especially with the recent circumstances, small businesses have been struggling more than ever, so programs like this are incredibly beneficial.”

Information on the program is available online.

— Ken Buday