Robinson Crusoe in Appalachia
Defoe wrote his work of fiction based on the real-life ordeal of seaman Alexander Selkirk, who endured four years and four months by himself on an out-of-the-way island in the Pacific after being marooned by a privateering captain. That Selkirk survived was a testament to his physical courage, moral uprightness, and indomitable will. At first, he believed that within a few weeks or perhaps months of his being put off, he was bound to be rescued by a passing ship. But as weeks turned into months that turned to years, Selkirk came to an awful realization: No one was coming to save him. And that whatever was finally to happen, his day-to-day survival would depend on his resourcefulness alone.
In many ways, Selkirk—a tough and determined, intelligent but (sometimes) too-independent-minded Scot—was the forbear of our loyal and hardy Appalachian folk. Out of the way from much of what transpires in coastal metropolitan centers, our folk have always gone stubbornly about their own business, living and laboring in less-populated rural, industrial and mining places that define our scenic, mountainous territory. There’s a love of this place that outsiders sometimes overlook: Hard-working and resourceful folk who could otherwise make careers outside of the region choose to stay—or after moving away, return—for reasons of community, family, and lifestyle. The result, as we’ve argued before, is that talented employees can be found in many places across the region. Our belief is that with increased education and training matched to 21st century innovation, employers in advanced technology should expect to find a deepening pool of skilled and willing labor here. Because technology nowadays is easily transferrable, often without regard for place, Appalachia can be a destination for companies seeking to relocate away from higher-cost, less desirable business environments.
But just as it did for Robinson Crusoe/Alexander Selkirk, the prevailing situation ought to shape the mindset of entrepreneurs and angel investors in historically insular Appalachia. Think: No one is coming to save us. If we want to build a new economy around advanced technologies in place of our former resource- and manufacturing-based economy, it will be mainly up to those here in the region to get it going. Which is not to say that outsiders such as the federal government, money center financiers, or inbound global corporations won’t have a stake; only, as with relying on supply ships that sail on an uncertain schedule, we should conduct our business with a mind to survive and thrive in case the much-awaited outside assistance fails to appear.
Those who live in the islands are too often dependent on the regular arrival of the packet boat or ferry for all their provisions. The islanders are invariably set back when inbound relief doesn’t show up. Waiting on the docks, they lose precious hope if what they’ve expected isn’t delivered. Hope is a powerful, motivating force. People who accept the vagaries of island living do so because they keep up hope that the next boat arriving will bring them good news. “Impact” investors that put money to work in Appalachia in the form of equity investments, debt, or grants understand that providing capital to form or fuel early-stage businesses is a tool for providing hope. It would be foolish for investors to try to stimulate the area’s economy with false hope by squandering money on imprudent schemes just because those were “local” deals. But rational investment, especially from Appalachian-based investors, gives hope in excess of its mere dollar value. Hope spreads when locals can refer to a new or growing company that has added employees or bolstered the area’s economic diversity and resilience. Hope becomes contagious when residents can boast that such-and-such a growing company was backed by “local money.”
We in Appalachia trouble over the “opioid crisis”—as do those in other parts of the country that have struggled with the scourge of drug abuse. We worry about dysfunction in families and in our communities; we lament the decline of older industries and the devastation created by loss of jobs and loss of hope. We complain about events in the past and recent instances where our resources and people were exploited. Yet we have inside the boundaries of Appalachia today a means to improve our own economic situation, and to stimulate hope through entrepreneurship and investing in area businesses. Don’t believe? Check for yourself by digging online through FDIC data as to the amount of money on deposit across our region (https://www.fdic.gov/bank/statistical/). There’s enough private capital that can be put to work funding investible deals so that we don’t need to concern ourselves entirely with chasing outside dollars. If a chest of money from someplace beyond washes up on our shore…certainly, we’ll make use of what Fortune has provided. But rather than our forever combing the beach for such relief as may (or may not) drift in with the tide, let’s imagine ourselves as modern-day Robinson Crusoes: Let’s do all we must to attract would-be rescuers on the horizon; meanwhile, we can admonish ourselves: No one is coming to save us. And we take up our entrepreneurial outlook every day until it’s no longer a ship coming in that we wait for…but our own ship going out with advanced technology goods and materials marked “Made in Appalachia, USA,” destined for markets across the country and around the world.
For more reading on the subject:

This is published under the Appalachian Regional Commission POWER Grant, PW-1835-M

Copyright Appalachian Investors Alliance, Inc. 2018
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