Brandon Dennison was standing outside a greenhouse between the railroad tracks at the city limits of Huntington, West Virginia, and the former garment factory that his nonprofit has redeveloped. “When we first moved in, we’d hear the coal trains go by five times a day—now a day will go by and we won’t hear one at all,” he said.
Dennison is the chief executive officer of Coalfield Development, a nonprofit with a mission of diversifying the economy of southern West Virginia through employment-based social enterprises, community-based redevelopment, and the personal and academic development of unemployed people. He was touring a group of University of Virginia and UVA Wise students through the West Edge Factory, 20,000 feet of leasable space for businesses, art studios, and events. Three of Coalfield Development’s employment-based social enterprises are already operating in West Edge: SustainU Clothing; Saw’s Edge Woodshop; and Refresh Appalachia, a nonprofit that trains local food "agripreneurs" in the greenhouses there.
UVA and UVA Wise students toured the agricultural training facilities of Refresh Appalachia in Huntington, West Virginia.
The students were there as part of an immersive January Term course, “Impact Investing in Action: Appalachia,” which was the result of a gift from Richard (McIntire ’78) and Donna Tadler (Ed ’79) to the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s Social Entrepreneurship at UVA (SE@UVA) initiative. Impact investing aims to create positive social and environmental change along with financial returns. Richard Tadler, a private equity investor, had read about economic development projects that University students and graduates were supporting overseas. He recognized how the same combination of entrepreneurial leadership and investment could create opportunities closer to home, in a changing Appalachia.
The course was co-designed by Christine Mahoney, professor of public policy and politics at the Batten School and director of SE@UVA. For 10 days in early January, the 15 participants traveled through Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia, touring sites such as the Sugar Hill Brewing Company, Hemphill Community Center, and Williamson Health & Wellness Center. “The Tadlers gave funding for these students to travel to Appalachia. All of them have reported having a transformational experience,” said Mahoney. “You really need to get into the region and get into the communities to understand how some of these economic rebirths have happened.”
You really need to get into the region and get into the communities to understand how some of these economic rebirths have happened.
- Christine Mahoney
Lead instructor Stephanie Randolph—a program and grants officer for Invest Appalachia and the Cassiopeia Foundation—led discussions with project founders and investors on themes that included environmental conservation and its ties to recreational tourism; renewable energy development and land reclamation; and investment in social determinants of health. To prepare for the trip, students were assigned readings on impact investing and blended finance. They were also required to listen to one of three podcasts produced in Appalachia, read a local newspaper, and reflect on stereotypes about rural Americans in relation to what they heard and read.
Meeting entrepreneurs with deep connections to their Appalachian communities and seeing firsthand the opportunities these entrepreneurs are creating for their neighbors resonated with third-year student Caroline Bunch. “Coalfield Development epitomizes the creativity and flexibility necessary for entrepreneurs to have in order to successfully diversify local economies in the Appalachian region,” she said. “Because of the work of Brandon and his partners, unemployment rates have decreased, employees have been educated, affordable housing has been provided, and farmers have been able to sell products. Crime rates have even decreased around the West Edge Factory.”
The Tadlers gave funding for these students to travel to Appalachia. All have reported having a transformational experience.
- Christine Mahoney
Following the J-Term course, Bunch secured a job as a remote research assistant with one of the impact investors that presented to the class, Appalachian Investors Alliance (AIA). Her responsibilities include investment due diligence, narrative writing, and grant research. Bunch will return to Appalachia to intern with AIA this summer as a Tadler Fellow in Impact Investing, a competitive fellowship opportunity also supported by the Tadlers’ gift.
Participants in the J-Term class saw an Appalachia of abundance, rich in creative problem-solvers creating economic opportunities that will sustain their families, their communities, and the beautiful landscape of the area. Because of the Tadlers’ support, these leaders in social entrepreneurship who UVA is training today will look west to invest in the region tomorrow.