Last week, I wrote about the recent New York Times story on Eastern Kentucky. The Times described the region as one of the worst places to live in America and featured a graphic of a Kentucky license plate that read “Help Me.” Of course there’s poverty in our region — like there’s poverty in New York City. But for us, we feel our poverty is always being used to define us. It seems it’s the only thing about us that the media ever covers.
Natives know there’s a different story. They know that there’s a sense of loyalty and passion to place that makes this one of the hardest places to leave in America! There’s also ingenuity. It’s true our economy suffers, but it’s also true that locals aren’t letting that stop them. They’re being creative and entrepreneurial, and they’re growing successful small businesses in the region. They’re not waiting for help, they’re helping themselves.
Rather than wait on the New York Times to tell this story, we’re going to start telling it ourselves. Through words, photos, tweets, social media, and video, we are launching a web effort to tell the tales of entrepreneurs living in eastern Kentucky. We’re starting with one each from the six Eastern Kentucky counties the Times reported as being in the bottom 10: Magoffin, Breathitt, Clay, Leslie, Jackson and Lee County. Our website is located at www.ekyhelpingourselves.com and is alreadyup in beta version; our Facebook page is at facebook.com/ekyhelpingourselves.
Two who are staying in the region and helping themselves are Mike Bryan, of Breathitt County, and Joel Brashear, of Leslie County. These entrepreneurs are making a niche for themselves on paths not always considered in rural areas, and they aren’t waiting for help.
Mike is a software developer in Jackson. He hasn’t always lived in Breathitt County. He once lived in one of America’s most successful urban meccas: Atlanta. Likely, some would make the argument that Atlanta is one of the greatest places to live in America — especially if you’re in the tech arena. But when Mike and his wife decided to start a family, the first place they thought of was Jackson.
Moving from the tech economy of Atlanta to Appalachia meant risk. But entrepreneurship is all about managing risk. Mike hung out a virtual shingle and soon was getting business from across America. He soon found he could make a comfortable living in Eastern Kentucky and meet the needs of his family, too.
Joel Brashear recently launched a television program in his hometown of Hyden. The pilot episode ran on the CWKYT channel in Lexington to an audience of thousands. It’s not a path Joel would have imagined growing up: “When I was younger, all I could think about was getting out of the mountains and off to ‘the city.’ So, when I was offered a scholarship [to Georgetown College] to play football, I signed as fast as possible before they could change their mind. Of course, I was homesick and ready to come home after a week! Thankfully, my parents made me stay through that rough first month. But I never got over being homesick. Not fully.”
After a year in Lexington working as an actor, Joel decided to move home. His path to entrepreneurship wasn’t direct. Initially, he worked for the local TV station, WYMT. There, he gained experience running his own show. Later, he was an English teacher in Hyden. Next, he took a job with his father’s bank, working as the community outreach officer. Last year, Joel decided it was time to combine his business education, TV and acting experience, and writing skills to develop his own TV show. His partner: his mother, Rhonda Brashear. “Our Mountains” celebrates Eastern Kentucky culture. All aspects of Appalachian lifestyle are explored and shared — food, music, storytelling, tourism, etc.
Joel’s and Mike’s paths may be unique, but the approach is one we see more and more across this region. Entrepreneurship is allowing locals to stay in the places they love and create prosperous careers. Stay tuned for more.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network in Morehead. He helps area entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit www.kyinnovation.com.