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Connecting the 'cool people'

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12/27/2012 - Connecting the 'cool people'
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

Pam Lewis has a passion to raise the profile of Asheville as the place to start new businesses.

From networking at South-by-Southwest in Austin to organizing Startup Weekend Asheville to hosting the region's first N.C. Entrepreneurs Conference, 2012 proved a busy year for Lewis, director of entrepreneurship for the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County.

Lewis describes her job "to bring cool people together" in the mountains.

"Asheville is not just a place with cool buildings and nice scenery," Lewis said. "We have people who are passionate and committed."

Lewis moved from the AdvantageWest economic development agency in 2011 to head the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce's new focus on small, start-up businesses and knowledge-based entrepreneurs.

"Pam's worth her weight in gold to use when it comes to connecting to entrepreneurs and helping to set the scene," said Ben Teague, the EDC executive director and a senior vice president at the chamber.

SXSW, the massive conference for entrepreneurs and innovators held annually in Austin, Texas, saw the launch of Venture Asheville, the campaign to brand Asheville as a magnet for entrepreneurs. Lewis led a contingent of Asheville leaders and innovators to the weeklong conference, networking with innovators from around the nation and the world.

"We actually got more notoriety back home," Lewis recalled. She's fielded calls from economic developers in Chattanooga, Tenn., Athens, Ga., and Columbia, S.C., all interested in how Asheville has raised its profile.

August saw the frenetic 54-hour competition of Startup Weekend Asheville as some 50 would-be entrepreneurs dreamed up eight new businesses in a competition at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. The event is meant to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to try new ideas and hone their business skills.

Asheville hosted its first N.C. Entrepreneurial Summit in September at the U.S. Cellular Center, drawing innovators from across the state, building on the city's growing buzz as a start-up hotbed.

"Pam mixes both old and new approaches to grow the local economy. One day she's helping recruit a new company to the area, the next she's working on events like Ignite Asheville and Startup Weekend to foster a culture of ideas and innovation in Western North Carolina," said Trevor Lohrbeer, an Asheville entrepreneur who has worked closely with Lewis.

Another major piece of the entrepreneurial puzzle falls into place in 2013 with the summer launch of Asheville's Technology Accelerator. The downtown facility will host 10 companies for a 12-week program geared at getting new businesses out into the marketplace and hiring more employees.

"The Accelerator is going to be the flagship for our entrepreneurial ecosystem," Lewis said. "It has to be in the downtown in close proximity to the National Climatic Data Center. Hopefully, we can draw in students from UNC Asheville with an entrepreneurial bent."

That passion serves the larger community, said Jonathan Feldman, the information technology director for the city of Asheville, who attended SXSW as well as Startup Weekend.

"Pam is so passionate about entrepreneurship here in Asheville that you would think that she was an activist instead of this being her job," Feldman said.

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