In August 2016, Entrepreneur magazine listed Charlottesville as the country’s 4th-best city to “launch and operate a business.” A few months earlier, the National Venture Capital Association had judged Charlottesville the “fastest-growing venture capital ecosystem” in America. And the Financial Times that same summer placed Darden at #3 on its list of MBAs for entrepreneurship.
Charlottesville provides an ideal case study in what a small city can — and perhaps can’t — do to encourage entrepreneurs. To what extent are these achievements the result of recent policy choices? And to what extent have they emerged from decades of effort to foster high-tech entrepreneurship?
Although attracting small businesses played no role in plans from the 1960s and 1970s to revitalize the downtown area, by 1985 a Chamber of Commerce working group was studying whether the region should develop an incubator for high-technology small businesses. Most of the potential large industry partners nearby, however, seemed to have little interest in helping local entrepreneurship or contracting out research. A consulting firm recommended concentrating on biotechnology and biomedicine in such an incubator, building on UVA’s strengths. But the “social environment supportive to High Tech growth” was lacking, so the working group recommended underwriting “local computer networks and clubs,” and helping “the Venture Capitalist network and acceptance of them into the ‘Good Old Boy’ network.”
By 2003, the Chamber of Commerce could tout the area’s “unusually high number of small and emerging businesses.” In two decades since the 1985 evaluation of the region’s startup culture, a number of collaborative programs had been launched among academia, business, and government to build a high-technology community and skilled workforce.
Looking ahead, future CIT.ee research will focus on historical materials, interviews, and detailed city- and county-level data to assess what has worked to encourage entrepreneurship in Charlottesville.