Teams Help Launch a SEED Fund for Social Entrepreneurs in Appalachia

Five people, two men and three women, stand outside in the countryside talking.

Last year, law student Dylan Van Sky (JD ’24) set torts and constitutional law aside to spend a week on the ground in West Virginia learning an entirely new set of skills and expanding his perspective. Van Sky was part of the 2022 Frontlines in America team supporting local partner Coalfield Development in launching a seed fund to help entrepreneurs scale up businesses with a social impact component.

Their first day on the ground, Coalfield gave the team a tour of an abandoned factory in Huntington, West Virginia, that the organization was renovating to become a hub for the businesses it supported. Van Sky remembers, “They’d put work into revitalizing the space and you could feel the potential. The building embodied what was happening in the state. There are a ton of barriers to success, and many issues to face, but with the gumption, grit, and grace that Coalfield emphasizes in their model anything is possible.” 

The team had traveled to West Virginia as part of Frontlines in America, a semester-long course developed and taught by Assistant Teaching Professor Kelly Rubey. Using a trauma-informed learning approach in the classroom, the course offers graduate students in business and law opportunities to make a lasting difference Stateside. 

Frontlines in America is part of the larger Meyer Business on the Frontlines Program. Every year it sends around 12 teams of graduate students and experienced volunteer alumni advisors to support local partners in marginalized communities in building businesses that solve for some of the world’s biggest challenges.  

Rubey has seen firsthand the impact on Notre Dame students of spending time in Appalachia. “It can wake up the social advocate in students and make them more engaged citizens and business leaders who understand what is really happening in this country,” she said. 

The experience impacted Van Sky’s world outlook so profoundly that he stayed on as a teaching assistant to pass the torch to the 2023 Frontlines in America West Virginia team. Together with Coalfield, the 2023 team of five students and two advisors co-designed recommendations for how the organization could most effectively select the recipients of its first round of $250,000 in SEED funding from a pool of 37 strong applicants. 

That’s early stage funding, mentoring, and networking desperately needed in the Mountain State. 

Nurturing Gritty Entrepreneurs with Critical Seed Funding 

If you totaled up the past decades’ worth of venture capital funding in West Virginia, it would be the equivalent of just one year’s worth of funding in states outside Appalachia. Once a booming frontier state, after the coal industry exited in the early 2000s, a gaping hole was left in the economy–and remains there today. Consequently, the workforce participation rate is just 55%, which is  the lowest of all 50 states. Many West Virginians have had to leave their homes for other states to find gainful employment — a perpetual cycle of brain drain. 

 “It’s jarring to see on paper the severe lack of investment going into the startup community in Appalachia,” Rubey said. “There has been no real investment in other businesses to help jumpstart the growth of the economy.” 

In place of the dignity and stability that steady employment provides, the opioid crisis has run rampant, with the Center for Disease Control reporting that the number of fatal overdoses in the state has nearly tripled in the past decade. 

Josephine Emanuelli (MBA ‘24), who was part of the 2023 team, saw this firsthand and considered how poverty doesn’t always look like what you might expect. “It can look like someone who is clean and has a job but has to buy groceries at Dollar General and is living in the same holler their family has lived for 100 years, but who wants to do something different.” Emanuelli and her teammates were passionate about interviewing West Virginian entrepreneurs so that they could help Coalfield offer the mentoring and funds needed to give as many folks as possible the chance to chart their own paths. 

Coalfield’s SEED Fund Manager, Chris Yura (ND ‘03), who played football for Notre Dame, has collaborated with four Frontlines teams since the partnership launched in 2020. Each team passes the torch to the next so that Coalfield receives continuous support without losing institutional memory.

A native West Virginian, Yura's career path included a stint as a successful Ford Agency model in New York City before moving back home as the founder of SustainU, a social enterprise in the fashion industry. Now at Coalfield, the entrepreneur is helping to plant a wider social entrepreneurship community. 

“The quality of Notre Dame students participating in the program is stellar,” said Yura. “We would need substantial resources to hire a consultancy to come into our organization to help with problem-solving and producing data. You’re getting that for free with Frontlines. The value to us and the Coalfield network is incredible.” 

Founded in 2010, Coalfield’s model initially acquired West Virginian businesses and helped scale them to create more jobs, attracting over $100 million in investment to the region. 

Beginning in 2022, the organization opted to move to a SEED fund model where it would instead jumpstart new businesses, help others scale and support gritty entrepreneurs. The Frontlines 2022 team researched potential SEED Fund financing models including endowments, grants, and loans and how they could be sustainable. They interviewed Coalfield’s current partners — businesses that the organization had acquired and managed — to understand how they had been supported and what was needed to scale. 

On the ground, Van Sky and his cohort researched and interviewed 9 unique entrepreneurs to understand the barriers they experience toward scaling their businesses and how Coalfield could support their growth. 

A conversation with the founder of Greenbrier Dairy, Trey Yates, stuck out in his mind. Yates was attempting to revive his third-generation family dairy, but he needed a loan for an expensive piece of equipment to scale. Family and friends didn’t have the capital to help, and the bank, wary of risk, offered a debilitating 300% collateral and financing for a loan. Additionally, Yates had lost three employees in the space of a year to fatal opioid overdoses. 

Van Sky realized, “There is just a lack of money, and with it, a real hesitancy to take on the financial risk of starting a business.” 

After talking with Yates and other business owners, Van Sky and his team concluded from their research that “the economy in this state was missing a lot of that early financing that can get companies off the ground.” 

Their recommendation to Coalfield was to hold a SEED Fund Challenge to attract business owners to apply for funding and also give them a better understanding of the wider entrepreneur community and how to serve as a mentoring and networking hub. 

With Van Sky returning as a teaching assistant, the 2023 Frontlines West Virginia team built on those recommendations. They developed a scorecard for assessing the applications, interviewed 25 finalists, conducted the diligence required to understand each business plan and offered recommendations for 10 finalists. They also built a strategy to increase awareness across the state for the next rounds of seed funding, and recommended that Coalfield launch a networking platform with mentoring opportunities to strengthen community amongst Appalachian social entrepreneurs who often don’t know of one another due to geographic challenges and lack of infrastructure. 

Yura said, “We now have 37 organizations that could be paired with Coalfield or other partners,  and introduced them to each other to create a wider support network.” In the long term, Coalfield aims to help generate investment in the state’s economy so that West Virginians don’t have to leave the state that brings them so much pride. That abandoned warehouse in Huntington that showed so much potential to Van Sky in 2022? It now houses a solar panel installation hub for Solar Holler, Mountain Mindful t-shirt printing and woodworking, and a food hub for Refresh Appalachia.

“At the end of the day, where some folks see despair in Appalachia, others see opportunity,” Yura said.