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A Social Venture

Young entrepreneurs find that Chapel Hill fosters its growing entrepreneurial ecosystem like it approaches most issues – as a community. 

Jacob Bernstein, Thomas Doochin and Taylor Sharp felt nothing but support from the entrepreneurial community in Chapel Hill. The three UNC-Chapel Hill sophomores founded an online social venture called CommuniGift.

The idea for CommuniGift emerged in April and became a venture at the incubator 1789 in late August. The site seeks to simplify the process of online shopping, whether users are buying gifts for their friends and family or a family in need.

“Everywhere we’ve gone there’s been nothing but open arms,” Sharp said. “At every critical moment, someone connects us to the next resource or person we need.”

The startup’s acceptance into 1789 was serendipitous, as it provided the needed space and mentorship critical for the early stage venture.

1789 was created to fill the need for space in Chapel Hill for early stage ideas, said Jim Kitchen, founder of 1789 and entrepreneur-in-residence at Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Kitchen created the incubator to help UNC-CH students and recent alumni grow their ideas before moving to an accelerator, such as Chapel Hill’s Launch. By giving these young entrepreneurs a place to develop a business, Chapel Hill can retain more of the immense talent here after graduation, Kitchen said.

The close collaboration between the University and the town makes it unique in the Research Triangle Park’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Kitchen said.  

Before joining 1789, the CommuniGift team received help from countless other members of the town’s entrepreneurship community. The group met one of its earliest supporters in June.

Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, provided advice and the first of many connections, said Doochin. Cone was receptive to their ideas and eager to help them pursue it further. Her connections opened doors that eventually led to mentors, such as Global Giving founder Dennis Widdle.

Cone’s role at UNC-CH is to serve as a “super connector” among all of the stakeholders in the entrepreneurship community both in and beyond Chapel Hill.

“No matter where you enter, you get connected to everyone else,” Cone said. “Nobody is isolated or disconnected.” However, the power of the Chapel Hill ecosystem lies in its sense of community and connectedness.

“It is one of the few places trying to infuse entrepreneurship into the culture,” she said. “We talk about an entrepreneurial mindset.” This is the culture and mindset the CommuniGift founders said they have found throughout Chapel Hill.

“I went to the bank, and the banker knew entrepreneurs in Durham and wanted to connect us to them,” Doochin said. “Everyone knows someone else in the entrepreneurship community and wants to help.”

The Chapel Hill lifestyle is best reflected in its motto: “The Southern Part of Heaven,” a bold claim that it consistently earns the right to use. 

Chapel Hill and the Triangle are “consistently ranked one of the top five to 10 places to live in the country,” Kitchen said. “We have low living costs, low unemployment, quality jobs, great schools and a great economic climate.” Forbes recognized the Research Triangle as one of the “10 Up and Coming Cities for Entrepreneurs” in September.

By supporting startups like CommuniGift, the town hopes that entrepreneurs will come to establish and grow their businesses here, Kitchen said. Once they see what a great place Chapel Hill is, there is no reason that they wouldn’t want to stay permanently and raise a family.

CommuniGift could be the beginning of a trend in the growth of social ventures that blend UNC-CH’s service mindset with the town’s growing entrepreneurial mindset. Check out CommuniGift today!