Small Business Life Support

by Aug 7, 2023North Brunswick, People

Heather McWhorter, director at UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, loves helping local dreamers and changemakers succeed.

The entrepreneurial spirit is rooted in the heart of Heather McWhorter, current director at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

“I love to support entrepreneurs,” she says. “This was an accidental career path that I just fell in love with because I love helping other people and I love helping individuals succeed and communities succeed.”

McWhorter had her first brush with entrepreneurship while on maternity leave with her middle child, a daughter who is now 23 years old and working on her PhD in archeology before she travels to Tanzania for a dig.

Leland NC Heather McWhorter

Before McWhorter started her job at the CIE in July 2022, she worked at Penn State University, supporting programs like the Penn State Global Entrepreneurship Week, Happy Valley LaunchBox, Invent Penn State and The Investment.

Originally from Wheeling, West Virginia, she lived in Happy Valley for 30 years. She earned several degrees from Penn State: a B.S. in chemical engineering, an M.S. in energy and mineral engineering, and a Professional Engineer (PE) license in environmental engineering. And she did not always work for Penn State; she was also traveling as a military contractor for a while and still remains licensed as an environmental engineer in Pennsylvania, with a focus on chemical engineering and energy and mineral engineering.

“Again, I just really love helping the entrepreneurs and to me, I see a lot of parallels between engineers and entrepreneurs because we both take an idea or a concept and build something from nothing,” McWhorter says. “So, while it might not seem similar, it actually is.”

UNCW’s CIE is a catalyst for programs, services and events to promote and support entrepreneurship and the creation of innovative new ventures in southeastern North Carolina.

Located south of the main campus at 803 S. College Road, the center serves as an extension of the school, partnering with public and private organizations to bolster regional economic development and the growth of innovation-based businesses. It’s a healthy ecosystem of UNCW students, faculty, staff and alumni plus entrepreneurs and youth throughout the community and region.

“We’re really a community-focused center that’s all about elevating entrepreneurship and innovation and helping our entrepreneurs succeed in a variety of ways,” McWhorter says. “First, we’re an ecosystem builder, which means that we work with everyone to facilitate something called the coalition.”

She explains that there are 15 organizations that support entrepreneurs and small businesses in the region in just about any field, from education, health and IT technologies to coastal and marine sciences, digital arts and media production and more. They collaborate monthly to make sure no one slips through the cracks — something that is unique to southeastern North Carolina and which they pride themselves on.  “Where we’re focusing right now, based on the landscape of other entrepreneurial providers, are emerging startups — the high-impact startups that are venture backable,” McWhorter says.

The CIE hosts a co-working space comprised of about 20 offices for startups and small businesses to work and network. It also serves as an event space for community organizations and charities in the area. Another service provided by the CIE is its mentor program.

Heather McWhorter

“I have almost 150 mentors who volunteer their time,” McWhorter says. “When you think about the dynamics of our region, there are many past CEOs, past startup founders, who have retired to the area — and they kind of retire here young and then realize that maybe there’s more to life than playing golf and going to the beach every day. I have been blessed with this knowledge and experience, our new entrepreneurs have been blessed with this, and we have this incredible mentoring network that works with our entrepreneurs.”

McWhorter says she moved from Pennsylvania to Leland, where she is on the Leland Economic Development Committee, six years ago and couldn’t be happier.

“I have vacationed in North Carolina my whole life since I was a wee baby, but usually in the Outer Banks,” she says. “But once my parents sold their beach home in Kitty Hawk, I started vacationing in Sunset Beach, which I can now drive to from my home. I feel like I’m on vacation all the time. I love Leland! I love its potential and I love the direction that it is going and that it has a strategic plan now.”

McWhorter’s three successful grown children are scattered up and down the East Coast from Texas to Florida to Pennsylvania. She jokes that she has replaced her human children with fur babies.

“I’m a big dog lover,” she says. “I actually have four dogs, which is ridiculous, but I love my dogs.”  She also loves sunrises. “I am at the beach at sunrise,” she says. “My hobby the last couple of years has been sunrise photography, so I just grab my camera and go in the morning to see what I can find.”

Want to know more?
UNCW Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
803 S. College Road, Wilmington
(910) 962-2206

In September CEI will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with a special event that was still in the planning phase at press time. For updates and more information on the CEI at UNCW, visit

Photography by Megan Deitz