By Steve Novotney
The future of Wheeling lies with the kids.
No matter how many of today’s adults are brainstorming and creating pathways for new businesses in the downtown district and throughout the city’s 15 square miles, those with the holey jeans and the tightly gripped cell phones hold the key, insisted West Liberty University’s Dr. Carrie White.
White is the chair of the university’s Department of Marketing and Management, and she also operates the Center for Entrepreneurship, a division of the Gary E. West College of Business.
“It’s all about what catches the young people’s attention,” White said. “It’s all about getting today’s students interested in what is going on here and what opportunities they have when it’s time for them to make the decision about where they will live their lives after school.
“That’s the key. That’s what will make the most difference here in Wheeling and in the Upper Ohio Valley,” she said. “Everyone should know that retaining our young people is a vital part of the puzzle.”
White teaches several classes on West Liberty’s hilltop campus, and while working with potential entrepreneurs, she insists on a, “first step to final step,” mode of operation.
“I constantly find myself reining in my students because they have a mindset that allows them to always be thinking of the next great idea,” she said. “They want to constantly create, so a part my job is to teach them how to follow through.
“I also have a lot of students whose wish is to do something for the good of our society, so they are looking at ways to improve recycling and green initiatives. Some may believe that’s crazy, but sometimes it’s the crazy ideas that work out the best.”
But where? And when? And how?
White reported good news, and she offered bad news, too.
“The students I have who are not from this area really like this area. They tell me that it’s a pretty cool place,” she said. “But the students I have who are from this area can’t wait to leave this area. They want to experience something new, and I think that’s pretty normal.
“Most of my students would love to stay in this area. They really would,” White continued. “There is a statewide business competition, and every single one of my students entered this past year. A lot of them have said they would love to start their business in Wheeling, especially in the downtown because they’ve started to see the progress.”
Progress? Current events? College students paying attention to something else other than sports scores, fashion trends, and their fellow co-eds?
When did this phenomenon begin?
“It’s happening now because the students in college are paying attention, and they see what’s happening,” White said. “They see Mason-Dixon Barbecue. They see Happy Goat Yoga. They see Wheeling Brewing, and they see the Vagabond Kitchen. When they see those new businesses, they think to themselves, ‘If they can do it, I can do it, too.’
“I think for a lot of years it was automatic for students at our local colleges and universities to shop for a new location because of the limited opportunities that existed here,” she said. “But I’ve noticed that’s been changing for the past couple of years, and I think that’s because they want a chance to stay here.”
White graduated from Wintersville High School in 1985 and chose to stay close to home by attending Franciscan University in nearby Steubenville. After acquiring both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she left the valley for Pittsburgh and the Duquesne Law School. Upon her 1996 graduation and passing the Pennsylvania Bar Exam, she accepted a position with the Thompson, Rhodes & Cowie firm and worked on cases involving insurance defense.
White lasted nine months.
“I didn’t like it at all,” she admitted. “The education was fantastic, and it helps so much with what I am doing today. I encourage people all the time that if they have the time, they should learn the law.”
She resigned from her position and followed her gut. White started working as the fitness director at the YWCA and entered the business world as the owner of an event-planning company. Soon after that, White opened her own fitness studio.
“I more enjoyed what I was doing before becoming an attorney, and that was running fitness clubs. I liked being in the gym. I liked working with athletes,” she said. “So that’s what I decided to do. I got out of law and went into business myself.”
While working in Pittsburgh as a fitness studio owner, she met her husband, Craig, who is now the general manager of Grand Vue Park in Marshall County. The couple’s first official date took place on Sept. 11, 2001, after clearing out a fitness club at which both were employed.
The two were married by a justice of the peace in Washington, Pa., on Nov. 26, 2002. Both Craig and Carrie were on their respective lunch hours, of course.
“We both had a lot going on at that time, but we also knew we wanted to be married,” White said. “So we made it work. And here we are 12 years later.”
White and her husband then made the decision in 2004 to move out of the Pittsburgh metro area and to the rural community of West Alexander, Pa. Not long after the boxes were emptied and the house was in order, an opportunity arrived in the form of a phone call.
“Something my dad always said to me was that I should be a professor, and I had always shrugged it off,” she explained. “But then the instructor who was leaving West Liberty called me and told me he was making a move. I thought about it and then went in and interviewed for it.
“When I was hired, I was hired as the department chair, and that’s something I had never done before. In fact, I had only taught as an adjunct instructor before accepting that position,” White explained. “It was challenging, but I love going to work every single day. When that’s the case, you know you have found something special.”
Her duties also include presenting a pair of “Pitch Contests,” each year. The events are held in March and September and feature presented ideas by her West Liberty students and other members of the Upper Ohio Valley community. The winning participant is awarded $2,500.
Thus far, White has staged four “Pitch Contests” and a few new businesses in the local area are examples of its success.
“(West Liberty University) President Robin Capehart wrote a book about entrepreneurship, and he wanted us to focus on it at West Liberty, so when he said he wanted something established within the College of Business, I immediately said I wanted to do it,” White explained.
“I was already running a summer program that focused on entrepreneurism, so it would become an extension of that work,” she said. “That started two years ago, and we developed the curriculum and got it started.”
Neue Ideas, a branding firm located in downtown Wheeling, Mason Dixon Barbecue, an eatery serving lunches and dinners near the golf course in Grand Vue Park, and North Wheeling’s Happy Goat Yoga are all former winners. Sunshine Recycling, the first “Pitch” winning idea, opened, but then closed after several months of operation.
“That’s business and that’s what happens in business,” White said. “There are a lot of very successful people in the business community who have had failures, but they have learned from them and have gone on to have a lot of success.
“These events are an opportunity for them to get out in front of the community, and out in front of potential investors. It gives them a chance to get the word out as far as what they want to do, and if they win they get a few bucks to get them started,” she continued. “We can educate them, but what are they going to do with that education once they graduate? You can’t tell someone to go out and start a business and not give them any resources to use.
“I want them to leave West Liberty with something that will enable them to get started out there in the real world. That’s why we came up with the ‘Pitch Contest,’ so they would have the chance to present their ideas and give them an opportunity to raise some of the start-up costs.”
White, who also acquired her doctorate degree in education, thoroughly enjoys her role at West Liberty University and in the local community, and she appreciates the current level of enthusiasm within the Wheeling community, but she also hopes those engaged now understand the same lesson she offers her students – “first step to final step.”
“About 15 years ago I was on the economic development council in Mount Washington near Pittsburgh, and Mount Washington was not a pretty place for the people who lived there. But they had a plan at that time,” she said. “I went back there recently because I had a friend move into that area, and it’s now beautiful with a bunch of new businesses. But it did take 15 years.
“We are so into the mentality that everything has to happen right away,” White said. “We want our food right away. We want everything right away, but that’s not how this happens. We have to be patient. Everything we want to happen might not take place while we are here, but if we start keeping our young people, then it will happen eventually.”
It is happening. She sees it, White said, in a plethora of differing forms. Not only are her students offered opportunities like what is available when competing in the semi-annual “Pitch Contests,” but many young people are now interacting with local governments and organizations to initiate long-overdue reforms.
“I believe we are starting to keep a lot of our young people because when I attend the meetings, I am usually one of the oldest people there, and I’m only 47 years old,” she said. “And I love it because that means the younger generations are getting involved instead of packing their bags for somewhere else.
“And that’s why the kids are the key.”