Executive Director & Board Chair, Blue Ridge Food Ventures
Life and work just led Smithson Mills in the direction of nonprofits. The executive director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures (BRFV) has worked on a contract basis for many nonprofits over the years. “My main interest in nonprofits has been their capacity to execute social entrepreneurship programs,” he says. “Specifically, I am focused on nonprofits that provide services and infrastructure to small-scale businesses, like business incubators, shared-use food processing facilities, and farm-based shared production and processing infrastructure.”
He was born and raised in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989, then spent three years living in Taiwan and studying Chinese.
“Helping small food businesses succeed and grow is very rewarding,” says Mills. “I am a big fan of small-scale capitalism.”
“My first experience in this (nonprofit) arena was helping to establish a pasteurizer loan program for goat cheese producers. This was a program where small goat dairies could borrow a pasteurizer for a year in order to meet regulatory requirements to sell cheese legally. At the end of the year, the dairies were able to buy their own pasteurizers. The loaned pasteurizer would then be made available for another dairy. The idea that nonprofits could work to empower private entrepreneurs, and in turn impact a lot of people in a positive manner, got me hooked on this line of work.”
The mission of Blue Ridge Food Ventures is to provide technical assistance and training for limited resource individuals engaged in value-added food and agricultural manufacturing. About 50 small businesses use their services every year. Current and former clients include Buchi Kombucha, Imladris Farm Jams and Jellies, Lusty Monk Mustard, No Evil Foods, Roots Hummus, Smiling Hara Tempeh, and Smokin’ J’s Fiery Foods.
“Helping small food businesses succeed and grow is very rewarding,” says Mills. “I am a big fan of small-scale capitalism. Businesses using our services generate at least $3.5 million in annual revenues from products they make in the facility, and that translates into jobs and wealth creation at the local level. It is also very rewarding to see this program continue to succeed in its mission after more than 12 years of operations.”
He notes that managing the expectations and needs of many small businesses that rely on Blue Ridge Food Ventures to manufacture their products is often challenging.
“We often have three or more businesses in the facility at the same time, and we try to meet each one’s needs for specific equipment and space so they can run their businesses successfully,” says Mills. “The second most challenging issue is managing the program so that it is as close to 100% self-sufficient as possible. We constantly have to make tough decisions on how to spend revenues so that the program is fulfilling its mission without operating in the red.”
Mills enjoys the company of his family and friends. “Enjoying all the things that our area has to offer, from incredible natural beauty to music and art to good food and beer, all add up to make a very decent quality of life,” he says. “When I have the time, I really enjoy traveling.”
He credits his dad, a former farmer and retired Superior Court judge, for teaching him the value of hard work and the importance of treating people with respect: “Not to care too much about what other people think as long as I feel I am doing the right thing.”
Mills advises not to worry about things too much. “Just focus on the tasks at hand, do them as well as you can, and the future will take care of itself.”
To provide technical assistance and training for limited resource individuals engaged in value-added food and agricultural manufacturing.
Number served annually
We have about 50 small businesses using our services every year.
how do you get funding?
Most funding comes from use fees paid by our clients. Last year we were 100% self-sufficient from earned revenues. At the same time, we wouldn’t be here today without generous support from the Community Foundation of WNC, the NC Tobacco Trust Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, and NC Golden LEAF.
Year nonprofit was founded?
BRFV opened as a program of AdvantageWest in 2005. In July of 2017 it became a standalone nonprofit.
BRFV is an 11,500-sq.- ft. facility located at the Enka Campus of A-B Tech. The facility consists of four production rooms, dry and cold storage, and offices. We own about a million dollars’ worth of food processing equipment if purchased new.
List of board members with titles
Treasurer & BRFV Client Services Manager: Michael McDonald
Secretary: Amanda Vickers
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