NC IDEA’s Grant Programs Support Local Entrepreneurs 

All of the Fall 2023 SEED grant recipients gather for a photo at NC IDEA's annual Ecosystem Summit last fall. Photo courtesy of NC IDEA.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

By Maya Waid

Amy Bastian has always felt a need to do work that makes a positive impact in her community. It’s what drew her to The Nature Conservancy and kept her there for seven years. In 2018, Bastian realized she wanted to be closer to her work, – she wanted to see the impact of what she was doing. 

That’s when she found NC IDEA.

NC IDEA is a private foundation whose mission is to provide entrepreneurs funding for their companies across the state. In Bastian’s role as senior director at NC IDEA, she oversees the two primary grant programs for entrepreneurs; the SEED and MICRO grants. 

Although Bastian’s job comes with many responsibilities, her primary role is to review applications to the grants and determine who NC IDEA should invest their funds in during the biannual process. 

“This is a business competition so there’s aspects of a business that should be clear, regardless of industry,” Bastian said. “One of the most challenging things is knowing we don’t have perfect information. We have an application that gives us a lot of information, but there’s no crystal ball in this process.”

The SEED program – the bigger of the two grants – awards $50,000 to 5-7 early stage companies in each application cycle to support their growing business. In 2023, Nate Branscomb, the co-founder and CEO of BCombs was awarded the grant. 

Despite the fact that it was Branscomb’s first time receiving the SEED grant, he had previously been awarded the MICRO grant in the 2022 cycle. Both grant processes were extensive for Branscomb who had to submit multiple responses, make it through several interview rounds and advocate for his business. 

“When I applied, I thought ‘let me put my best foot forward,’” Branscomb said.  “Let me get feedback so that in future iterations I know more. When I got to the next round, I was like ‘Oh, shoot.’ Oh, shoot. When I finally found that I won, shoot, I was over the moon.”

BCombs focuses on providing automation, engagement and impact for youth mentoring organizations by helping them save time and increase impact. The SEED grant has had a significant impact on Branscomb as a black business owner.

“As an entrepreneur, having non dilutive funding, especially in an economy in a market like we’re currently in, is not easy,” Branscomb said. “As hard as it is to raise funds, it’s even harder for people that look like me to raise and that’s absent from the fact that I have 20 years of corporate experience.”

For Bastian, when she reviews the applications she looks for commitment. Above all else, Bastian wants to see that the applicants are excited about their goal and passionate about achieving it. 

When Bastian reviewed Branscomb’s application for the SEED grant, it was evident that he was committed to his mission and recognized areas where he could still improve. 

“I think it was his coachability and taking feedback,” Bastian said. “It was clear that he was committed to moving this business forward and understanding that he didn’t have everything figured out and he can use [SEED] to kind of develop the company.”

Outside of just the grant programs, Branscomb appreciates the way Thom Ruhe – NC IDEA’S President and CEO – has the “courage to speak out even if it’s not a popular thing” and stand with Branscomb as a minority business owner. 

“The people at NC IDEA are, to me, some of the best people and not necessarily because of their resume but because of their authenticity and because they care,” Branscomb said. 

Ruhe echoed Branscomb’s sentiment about the work environment at NC IDEA. Ruhe believes that the strong foundation of people is what allows NC IDEA to be so effective in the community. 

“[The most rewarding part of my job] is working with an incredible team of colleagues, helping founders pursue their entrepreneurial dreams,” Ruhe said. “Is there anything more satisfying than helping others achieve their full potential and economic independence? I’ve got one of the best jobs in the state.”

After the grant is awarded, Bastain and her colleagues stay in touch with Branscomb and other grantees through follow up meetings, check-ins and providing additional support in whatever way they can. 

With the cushion of funding from NC IDEA, Branscomb has the flexibility to focus on leadership positions on boards he serves on and “slow down to focus on all things except for my two beautiful children and wife.”

Moving forward, the mission of NC IDEA will remain the same and grant programs will continue to run but Bastian is looking forward to seeing how the company will continue to grow and meet the needs of the community. 

“I think NC IDEA will again have the same mission in a year or two or three,” Bastian said. “But I think the way we approach our work will continue to evolve, and that’s what’s and be more impactful.”

In the future, Ruhe is most looking forward to continuing to expand the NC IDEA network and helping connect companies to increase their impact on North Carolina communities. 

“I am looking forward to the day when other organizations, with resources, discover the potential we’ve been curating for years,” Ruhe said. “[I] want them to jump in with us, and other great partners, to keep the momentum going.”