The pandemic sparked a surge in NC entrepreneurs. It’s still going strong

April Kelly of Greenville chose to feed her infant daughter a soy-based formula, but when the baby developed an allergic reaction, Kelly, a vegan, whipped up a plant-based formula of her own that a doctor approved.

The baby’s health soon improved. When Kelly told other mothers her story, they said they wished they’d had that formula for their infants.

“That was my aha moment,” Kelly said. She decided to start a business selling plant-based milk for babies and another for toddlers that helps prevent future food allergies.

After several years of development with help from NC State’ University’s Food and Innovation Lab, she launched her first product this year. It’s called Sure!, a name that emphasizes the confidence parents can feel about giving it to their children.

Kelly, 32, is part of a wave of entrepreneurship in North Carolina and the nation. It started amid the disruptions and personal reassessments of the pandemic and has continued. The trend supports President Joe Biden’s efforts to build the economy from the middle out and it counters former President Donald Trump’s claim that the economy is terrible.

In 2019, the year before the pandemic, new business registrations filed with the North Carolina secretary of state reached 100,338. In 2021, registrations jumped to a record 178,291. Last year’s total was 171,657.

The Economist magazine recently reported that the monthly average for new business applications nationally is running 80% higher than the decade before COVID, while Europe has seen only a 20% increase.

Several factors appear to be driving the surge in entrepreneurship. The pandemic’s lockdown periods caused many people to think about what they wanted from work and life. The rise in working from home has created opportunities to try out business ideas. A strong job market has given people confidence that if a new venture doesn’t succeed, they can find another job.

Those factors were part of Ellen Brabo’s decision to start her own business. Brabo, a 30-year-old U.S. Army veteran, was working remotely in Arlington, Va., as a civil contractor with the Department of Defense when she started exploring getting into the hospitality business. On Facebook, she found an historic eastern North Carolina home and converted it into a boutique hotel. Now it’s her new home. The Ell Hotel opened in 2022 in Washington, N.C.

For Brabo, remote work was the key to making the change. She could keep her Washington, D.C. salary while working on her hotel project. “It makes starting a business a lot more manageable,” she said. “If my business wasn’t successful, I still had my salary job.”

Kelly, who worked as an account manager before starting her business, said the pandemic’s disruptions prompted many people to seek more control over their work.

“What I’m hearing from other entrepreneurs is they want to have more ownership of their situation,” she said. “A lot of people got laid off. No one knew what was going to happen. It was time to look for more certainty.”

A increase in business startups, especially small businesses in towns outside of metro areas, strengthens the state’s economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 98% of North Carolina’s businesses have fewer than 19 employees.

Of course, opening a business is one thing. Keeping it open is another. According to the N.C. Secretary of State’s office, approximately one in four new businesses in North Carolina fail after three years, and approximately half shut down after seven.

Jamie Jones, director for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, said that regardless of whether these new ventures succeed or fail, it’s inspiring to see so many willing to try. “It takes a lot of courage for people to go out and start their own business,” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work to bring a new idea to life. So I applaud all those people who are out there taking that first step.”

A good economy breeds such confidence. North Carolinians are reaping the benefits of both.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@