Entrepreneurial Energy: Revisiting the Inaugural CO.STARTERS Cohort in Blackstone, Virginia

Historic Southern Virginia Town Reaping Benefits of Entrepreneurship Training Program

A mural painted on a building in downtown Blackstone

 In April 2021, an entrepreneurial movement started in Blackstone, Virginia.

That spring, nine individuals took part in Southern Virginia’s inaugural CO.STARTERS program, a national entrepreneur training curriculum brought to Southern Virginia by the SOVA Innovation Hub and the Longwood Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and funded by a grant from GO Virginia Region 3. Downtown Blackstone Inc. (DBI) also played a prominent role in setting up the inaugural cohort in Blackstone — a town of approximately 3,300 people located in Nottoway County, Va. — and brought in additional funding through a Community Business Launch (CBL) grant.  

Together, those nine participants took part in the 10-week CO.STARTERS course designed to provide current and future business owners with the tools, knowledge and resources to take their ventures from idea to reality.

More than a year later, Blackstone is reaping the benefits with multiple new businesses setting up shop in and around the historic town. 

“We were really the first in the area to engage with it and use that curriculum,” said Justin Sarafin, executive director of DBI. “I had the luxury of sitting through it and getting a firsthand look at exactly what was being taught. It was great. It really energized those folks in the course.”

The curriculum included instruction on topics from creating a business plan to revenue forecasting, accounting and marketing. Each participant applied the lessons to their own ideas and, by the end of the course, constructed an all-encompassing plan to launch their businesses. 

The culmination of the Blackstone CO.STARTERS program featured a pitch competition where the participants — armed with their newfound business sense and entrepreneurial toolkit — shared their plans with a panel of judges. Winners received prize money to establish their businesses, which was provided through the CBL grant that DBI procured.

“Our winners have gone on to do some great things,” Sarafin said.

RISE Collaborative logo

“You have five established brick-and-mortar businesses. You can point to places that were once unoccupied that are now occupied. It looks good for the town, and these businesses are still operating. That was the start, and now we’re starting to see the longer-term benefits.”

Justin Sarafin

Executive Director, Downtown Blackstone Inc.

Those winners were first-place recipient Jeannie Nelson, who recently moved her Liberty Hollow Sweets chocolaterie to another Blackstone Main Street location, and second-place honoree Carl Bassfield Jr., who went from freelance photographer to owner of his own media company, In-Depth Productions.

Even those who didn’t come away with the grand prize have used the guidance and insight provided by CO.STARTERS to found or grow their own businesses in Blackstone or to fine tune their ideas. Among the newly launched entrepreneurs are artist Ally Barfield, who creates handmade resin products at RV Mom In Pink, and baker Jan Daniel, owner of Taa Daa The Bakery

“I didn’t realize that I had good ideas or that my ideas were valid until I started taking the classes,” Barfield said. “I didn’t know anything about starting a business. The program gave me the tools I needed to make an actual business work. The instructors helped me figure out the financial side of it like pricing products, balancing a checkbook and figuring out taxes.”

All four businesses launched by the initial cohort are still in operation. According to Brandon Hennessey, the director of innovation, research and entrepreneurship at the Longwood SBDC, that’s no small feat.

“The fact that each of those businesses is still in operation speaks not only to the opportunities for entrepreneurship in Southern Virginia, but also to the power that just a bit of guidance can have in helping somebody get started,” he said.

Even as each of those businesses is independently owned and operated, each owner has maintained a strong sense of collaboration with their fellow CO.STARTERS alumni.

“The people in the class were very diverse,” said Bassfield, who has photographed several fellow members of his cohort as part of In-Depth Productions’ client portfolio. “Everybody was doing something completely different, but there were opportunities for everybody to work together and network. You end up keeping in contact with each other and becoming accountability partners.”

Participants in the Blackstone CO.STARTERS cohort pose at the completion of their pitch competition.

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Entrepreneurial collaboration is a tenant woven into the CO.STARTERS curriculum by design. This is further strengthened by the ongoing work of RISE Collaborative, the Longwood SBDC and — specifically for the South Boston cohort — community economic organizations like DBI and the South Boston Chamber of Commerce. That spirit of cooperation is especially important in the small Southern Virginia communities that are the targets of RISE and the Longwood SBDC’s revitalization efforts, says Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at the SOVA Innovation Hub.

“Each of these communities — from Blackstone to Brunswick, Halifax, Farmville, Mecklenburg and beyond — is unique in their economic needs, goals and backgrounds,” Mathena said. “However, they all share a cohesiveness and pride in the success of their communities.

Jan Daniel delivers a pitch for Taa Daa the Bakery at the CO.STARTERS pitch competition.

“The CO.STARTERS program provides the tools and knowledge to help individual entrepreneurs take their passions and share them with the world. Something we’ve seen in every cohort is that the individuals truly cheer each other on, and business building becomes a genuine group effort.”

As further evidence of that communal effort, three Blackstone businesses launched from the inaugural CO.STARTERS — and another, Beyond the Plant, which launched in the follow-up fall 2021 cohort — operate within a quarter-mile of each other on Blackstone’s Main Street. Says Sarafin, the economic revitalization of the town’s Main Street has long been a goal of Blackstone and its inhabitants, and CO.STARTERS is helping make that vision a reality.

“Trying to fill vacancies in the district is huge,” Sarafin said. “It is a major goal of the town’s, and we’re part of the process for helping to make that happen. The Blackstone Business Launch, the grant that funded our CO.STARTERS cohort, DBI and all the town’s efforts to increase tourism — it’s all to increase activity and visitation to our community.”

To view the impact CO.STARTERS can have on a community, one needn’t look any further than Main Street in Blackstone. 

“Now you fast forward, and what came out of the program? You have five established brick-and-mortar businesses. You can point to places that were once unoccupied that are now occupied. It looks good for the town, and these businesses are still operating. That was the start, and now we’re starting to see the longer-term benefits.”