Thom Ruhe is President and CEO of NC IDEA, a Durham-based private foundation committed to supporting entrepreneurial ambition and economic advancement in North Carolina. He is an entrepreneur, investor and mentor, and works with entrepreneurs, governments, universities and NGOs around the world to embrace the entrepreneurial mindset needed to grow vibrant economies.
During his seven-year tenure at the Kauffman Foundation, he directed the Foundation’s programs addressing entrepreneurial education, mentoring, access to capital and fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems. Thom also led Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation, a school dedicated to advancing community-deployed, experiential-based entrepreneurial education.
Thom has served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Entrepreneurship, addressed the United Nations Assembly on Entrepreneurship, lectured at conferences around the world and serves on multiple boards including Innovation Fund America and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.
1. What is in your pockets?
I have nothing in my pockets. The first thing I do when I get into the office is empty my pockets of everything; my wallet, keys and especially my cell phone. The phone in particular is a distraction from what I have to get done. They sit on my desk all day.
2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
NC IDEA is an independent private foundation. We maintain a strategic combination of grants and programs to help all North Carolinians achieve their full entrepreneurial potential. At the end of the day that is our mission and through that, what we do is alleviate the burden of government, and we strengthen the economy and the social fabric by offering a path to economic mobility and economic emancipation for people in the state.
What’s exciting is we just recently concluded for the first time ever both our SEED grant cycle and our MICRO grant cycle concurrently, and that was just a lot of work but it was awesome. We made 21 grants employing about $450,000 via a state-wide competitive process that had us vetting about 300 applications in aggregate working with an incredible core review team that supports our efforts on this. It almost killed us as we have significantly expanded our statewide coverage. We’ve been now in every corner of the state doing info sessions, counseling sessions, and taking applications. But it was really great. Looking back at it to see the volume that’s gone out, I confess to a certain amount of pride on getting that recently accomplished.
3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
My favorite would probably be Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough. It’s a great melting pot of people and they are very friendly to the state’s entrepreneurs. I can’t tell you how delighted I am when I walk in and I see grantees of ours on the shelf—No Evil Foods, MATI, Neomega, and Resistor Brews. When I can go there and get my cup of joe and see these companies that I know very well because they presented to us and were successful in securing a bid from us. I can see it on the shelf. I can see clients interacting with and buying that product. I feel like a proud papa.
4. What keeps you up at night?
What keeps me up at night the most is the lack of big thinking and big efforts in the state when it comes to economic development. There is so much untapped economic potential in this state if we could do more to activate the power of an entrepreneurial mindset in people and then support that mindset with support, resources and capital. I’ve had the good fortune to do this kind of work literally around the world and in partnership with organizations like the World Economic Forum, United Nations, and of course seven years at the Kauffman Foundation. I’ve seen big ideas. I’ve seen big ambition.
We have a chronic problem of small thinking in the state, again specifically towards economic development. There is much greater comfort and acceptance of what I refer to as the old-style smoke-stack chasing. Let’s offer billions of dollars to Amazon. Let’s bribe a company to place an operation in the state with very little thinking about, what if we took some of those resources we were willing to expend and invested in economic farming? Invest it in our own. Let’s grow the next 10 Amazons instead of bribing one to come here.
I’ve often said that the secret to effective economic development, the secret that everyone wants, that people write books about—it’s simply grinding out day-in and day-out with people who are qualified to help, and support with adequate resources, finding people where they are, enabling their entrepreneurial potential, providing them the support services, the access to networks and the access to capital, and then being patient to grind that out and measure results in decades. The silver bullet of economic development is that there is no silver bullet. It’s four yards per carry, if you’ll excuse the bad football metaphor. If you just keep gaining four yards per carry eventually you prevail and you’ll win, and that’s hard to do because it doesn’t coincide with political election cycles where people like to take credit for stuff. It takes funding sources that have to be very strategic in their thought process and patient in their funding priorities.
I’ll give you the case study, Jumpstart in Northeast Ohio. I was one of the founders of that organization. Jumpstart is very similar to NC IDEA with the exception of instead of just making grants they would deploy funding as equity, typically convertible notes. It was funded through a public-private partnership with state money, federal money and foundations. Grinding it out 14 years later they have a $200 million balance sheet and they’re now evergreen. Measured by economists at Cleveland State University, they’ve now had over $2 billion impact to the economy of Northeast Ohio.
5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
My favorite restaurant at the moment is a new restaurant called the House at Gatewood in Hillsborough. It has a great traditional smokehouse carnivore menu with to-die-for brisket, ambiance, and most importantly they also offer delicious oysters.
6. What is next for you or your organization?
We want to educate at least 100,000 people in the state of North Carolina with the entrepreneurial mindset curriculum that’s called the Ice House Entrepreneurship program.
That’s a curriculum that I published and released from Kauffman just before I left. That’s going to be the top-of-our-funnel strategy. We constructed the state-wide network of ecosystem partners. Our goal is to get 500 people in the state certified as facilitators. Let’s get people energized, engaged and activated so that they can realize their full entrepreneurial potential.
This program is being taught on five continents right now and here’s an interesting fact. It’s actually growing faster outside the U.S. than in the U.S., especially in Latin America, so it’s been translated to Spanish and Portuguese. I personally have trained faculty in Colombia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Russia and South Africa. There have been a few schools and community colleges that have been dabbling with it in North Carolina. We’re now going to go mainstream with it in North Carolina.