By Leslie Boney
AYDEN (September 7, 2023) – Taylor Walden didn’t come to East Carolina University expecting to become an entrepreneur. Her family wanted her to go into health care, maybe nursing, and come back home to Winston-Salem after graduation.
But early in her freshman year, people in her dorm started asking her to hand-letter invitations for them. She needed extra spending money, so she took a chance and spent $300 on a computer tool that would enable her to design and print custom invitations and monograms.
Word got out, and by the end of her freshman year, she was known across campus as “the sticker girl.”
Walden’s project might have stopped there at another school, but ECU has been putting a major effort behind encouraging student entrepreneurship. RISE29, a program specifically focused on promoting entrepreneurship in 29 rural counties in Eastern North Carolina, has helped start 23 new businesses (11 student-led), creating 114 new jobs. Some 198 students have served internships in small businesses in eastern parts of the state.
Since 2018, the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge, sponsored by the Miller School of Entrepreneurship at ECU, has given away more than $700,000 in prizes, making it the richest university entrepreneurship pitch competition in North Carolina. Walden’s fiancé (and now husband, Nick) convinced her to enter during her sophomore year. She won.
With that victory, and another in a pitch competition sponsored by Pitt County Economic Development, she was hooked. She switched her major from interior design to business, took the $18,500 in winnings, and founded a business, Simple & Sentimental, which creates personalized gifts.
“The money was really nice, but the support I got from the faculty and staff connected to the program at ECU was even more important,” says Walden. “Those mentors have helped me at every stage, through the ups and downs, helped me understand ‘here’s how you do it,’ just been incredibly helpful.”
It also helps that Walden has a good sense of what kinds of products will sell. Early on she created a personalized “bridesmaid proposal” box, anticipating a now-hot market. She discovered Navy personnel and dependents value ship-related clothing and gifts. And her company was one of the first to create pandemic-related gifts.
Her creativity and her commitment to reinvest some of the profits into community nonprofits is getting noticed. She was recognized in 2021 as one of Forbes’ “Next 1000,” recognizing the next generation of entrepreneurs nationally, and received a “Trailblazers” award from Business North Carolina.
Walden, now 25, is busy these days launching a second company, Radiate Prints, that will produce customized apparel and products to help companies promote their brands. She runs the two businesses, with a total of 12 employees, out of a 7,500-square foot manufacturing building in Ayden, 11 miles north of the ECU campus.
And she’s staying in Eastern North Carolina, close to the people who taught her and supported her, her mentors and the ECU family. She also wants to “pay it forward” – she now sponsors one of the prizes and is a judge for the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge.
“We’re in Eastern North Carolina to stay,” she says. “We love the people; we love the community and ECU. We want to promote local jobs, pay livable wages, create a great product and help this region.”