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Accelerating Appalachia - A Soil & Soul Accelerator

Accelerating Appalachia cultivates nature-based businesses in food, clothing, shelter, and wellness to restore people and place.

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Whereas most accelerators support tech-based ventures, Accelerating Appalachia is the first regenerative accelerator of its kind, focused on supporting basic-needs, nature-based businesses in food, clothing, shelter, and wellness to restore the people and place of our region. Central/Southern Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world with over 10,000 species and 1,500 heirloom seeds under cultivation. Yet, for decades we have suffered from an over-reliance on a handful of extractive industries--coal, tobacco, logging, and textiles--that have polluted our land and left us vulnerable to industry collapse, mass unemployment, and poverty. In the midst of the coal collapse, Appalachia’s economy is in a time of transition and a nature-based economy has the potential to pave a brighter future. To accelerate this new economy, we run a 12-month accelerator that includes a 3-month intensive with 12 businesses, and 9 months of one-on-one follow-up mentorship. We prioritize growth-stage businesses led by women and people of color who sell basic-needs products sourced from thousands of local, land-based growers such as farmers, foresters, and botanical harvesters. Through this model we support regional employment and keep hundreds of growers on the land, aiding them with good land use practices for improved soil health and carbon sequestration.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our program serves the women-and-minority-led, small-to-midsize businesses that sprung up in the aftermath of the extractive industries collapse selling regional natural products. These are the community leaders who have taken a risk opening a business so they can stay in their towns and restore their land and people through better business practices.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Accelerating Appalachia is the first accelerator to “accelerate the regenerative economy”. While there are many social-impact accelerators, we’re distinguished for our focus on nature-based businesses led by women and people of color. We prioritize nature-based businesses for their inherent connection to the land. Just one business impacts dozen of growers in their network to keep local, regenerative operations on the land. Furthermore, we accelerate operations led by women and people of color because investors routinely overlook these populations for investment, though they’re often the folks at the forefront of social enterprise. Women-led businesses are 19% more profitable, yet 40% undercapitalized as compared to male-led businesses. This disparity widens dramatically for women-of-color led businesses. Our program aims to change those numbers in our region. No other social impact accelerator comes close to this regenerative model.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Early Adoption: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have begun to expand the pilot for early adoption.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

While there are a handful of accelerators across the south, we are the first to focus on women-and-POC led startups centered on a regenerative economy: one that invests in the resourceful spirit of Appalachia to catalyze a movement of entrepreneurs toward a more sustainable society. You can discover more about our organization here:

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Sara Day is a 6th-generation Kentuckian. Supporting her Appalachia toward a regenerative and inclusive future has been the script of her life. Before founding the program, she ran an economic development program with the Dept. of Commerce for hard hit counties in the aftermath of industry collapse. The program was cut after a wave of tea party candidates were elected. She continued her work by launching Accelerating Appalachia with her unemployment check and a small loan from friends and family.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Our program addresses prosperity of people and planet, which for too long have been impacted by extractive industry. For example, mountaintop removal has leveled over 500 mountain peaks to date, encompassing roughly 1.1 million acres of land. Eastern Kentucky alone accounts for more than half this land, and is also simultaneously home to six of the 10 most impoverished counties in the country. The recent decline in coal means steep job losses. We need a revival in economic prosperity that no longer makes people choose between a healthy planet and good jobs. Our program aims to support the businesses that are aligned with this vision and accelerate them towards a better future.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We don’t pretend that our program, nor any program alone, can fix the massive scope of challenges facing Appalachian businesses and growers, but we do fill a specific niche within a larger movement solving for these challenges. Our program connects growers to affordable financing options, buyers, and investments, and our businesses create equitable, fair wage jobs in an impoverished region. We work with a broad network of mentors and investors to make this happen, including BALLE, Big Path Capital, Renewal Funds, Investors Circle, RSF, KIVA, Slow Money, Community Ventures, Self Help, and other regional banks to support entrepreneurs and growers to find low-interest loans, patient capital, and investment. We also work closely with Appalachia’s close-knit community of farmer-support organizations. Sara Day is on the board of Community Farm Alliance (CFA), and other Appalachian partners include Black Soil, MACED, KCARD, and Grow Appalachia.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

We're located in the largest foodshed in the world with over 10,000 species and 1,500 heirloom seeds under cultivation. In the midst of mass departure of large industry we’re also in a major economic transition and people need jobs. With our rich history and connection to the land, our people are uniquely poised to lead the way toward a just transition and regenerate our communities through better business practices. Accelerating Appalachia cultivates and accelerates these entrepreneurs.

Geographic Focus

The Southeastern United States, with a focus on Appalachia. We hope to scale globally in the future.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We'd like to host our next accelerator intensive at the end of 2018 and we currently support businesses year-round with one-on-one mentorship. With adequate funding, we could have our next accelerator running with seven or eight months. The accelerator will last a year with a three-month intensive and nine months of follow-up.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No
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Attachments (2)


An overview document of our program.

wendell berry recommendation for sara day.pdf

Renown thought leader, author, and father of sustainable agriculture, Wendell Berry, wrote this recommendation for Sara Day and her work with Accelerating Appalachia as part of her application (and subsequent acceptance) to a prestigious fellowship in 2018.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

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Erin Bridges 

I have nothing to really add to your idea but would like to say it is inspirational. Good luck in this challenge but even more so good luck with this incredibly important work.