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$1.4 million federal grant will be used to boost Appalachian region

Business education for high school students, including ethics, entrepreneurship and other topics, will be the focal point of the "StartItUp Appalachia" project, which seeks to accelerate development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region.

The University of North Georgia (UNG) has been awarded a $1,450,719 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to provide workforce development in six counties in northeast Georgia. The counties are Dawson, Fannin, Forsyth, Gilmer, Hall and Lumpkin.

"This three-year grant is expected to have an immediate impact on career opportunities for the high school students in these counties, and provide a foundation that will boost the economic development of the region for decades to come," said Bobbi Larson, director of community engagement and economic development at UNG.

The grant will fund the "StartItUp Appalachia" project, which seeks to accelerate the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region that was described as "primitive and ineffective" in a recent study by the Georgia Tech Enterprise Institute.

"The persistent lack of local career opportunities leaves rural communities plagued by 'brain drain' as their most talented youth seek opportunities in other places," Dr. Ruben Boling, director of UNG's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said. "This stifles the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem to supply and retain new entrants into local businesses."

The project uses three approaches to boost entrepreneurism in the region: youth entrepreneurship education; training for educators, economic development and industry professionals; and development of the local and regional ecosystem. The program will expand existing UNG programs offered to area high school students such as the entrepreneurship competition InnovateUNG and Building Ethical Employability workshops.

"As a public university and the primary higher education provider in the north Georgia region, UNG is well-positioned to lead collaboration among school districts, employers, and economic development partners," Larson said. "We already have been facilitating partnerships widely in the region through the Regional Education and Economic Development (REED) Initiative.”

Community economic development plans across the region reference a need to foster entrepreneurship and both employers and educators note that students will benefit by developing professional skills.  

"This program aligns well with the goals of the university, school systems, industry and economic development partners," Larson said. "Through the grant, UNG seeks to build capacity for schools that don't have the people or the knowledge to provide this kind of instruction. We're also working to build relationships that make it easier for these programs to continue into the future."

"We're very excited about the grant's potential to build a foundation for workforce development that could act as a catalyst for long-term economic development in the region," Sandy Ott, director of UNG's Blue Ridge Campus, said. "Increased business opportunities, employment rate, income per capita, median household income, and other key economic indicators all could rise with the establishment of a sustainable workforce development model in these communities."

The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) is another partner who will help UNG gauge the success of the programs and activities created through the StartItUp Appalachia grant.

"IEL is pleased to partner with the University of North Georgia on the StartItUp Appalachia grant that will advance high school students' exposure and connections to local and regional entrepreneurial networks and employment opportunities," said Mark Watson, director of transition at IEL. "IEL brings years of experience growing youth workforce development and mentoring programs, network building, and data-informed practices. We look forward to a multiyear collaboration."

The three-year grant is part of $29 million in funding the U.S. Department of Labor announced this fall through the Workforce Opportunities for Rural Communities program, in partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority. UNG is one of 27 recipients in the 13-state Appalachian region. Grant recipients will work with industry and community partners to promote new, sustainable job opportunities and long-term economic vitality.

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