James Freeman of Pembroke has joined UNC Pembroke’s Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship (TFCE) as its first Entrepreneur in Residence, according to an announcement fromDr. Mike Menefee and Dr. Carmen Calabrese.
Freeman made his mark in local business circles for the start-up of Mighty J’s, a Pembroke sports bar. In 2007 with the ink not yet dry on his diploma and a recession looming, Freeman and business partner, Jason Kennedy turned an idea into a business with help from the Thomas Center and the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC).
For the Thomas Center, Freeman will work with students and other entrepreneurs. “The position allows the TFCE to attract a volunteer from the area to come in and help with projects,” said TFCE director Dr. Calabrese. “He will assist with our clients and engage in recruiting students for the entrepreneurship programs.”
“James is the type of person we had hoped to attract to this position,” said Dr. Menefee, who, as the Thomas Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship, directs UNCP’s entrepreneurship programs. “He has a good educational background, entrepreneurship experience as a business owner, and a vast knowledge of UNCP and Robeson County.
“This will also be a great learning experience for James as he starts his doctoral program in entrepreneurship,” he said. “He is currently working with several faculty members and me on a Kettering Foundation project to grow entrepreneurship in Robeson County.”
At 32 with two children, Freeman’s life has changed since the fast-paced days in the restaurant business. He sold Mighty J’s last fall and took a job as general manager of Lumberton’s ABC Board. He is poised to begin a Ph.D. program in business management with Capella University.
In a recent interview, Freeman remains passionate about the Mighty J’s experience. For getting his restaurant dream off the ground, he credits Beth Wilkerson of the SBTDC and Phyllis Queen, who retired recently as a business consultant with the Thomas Center.
“We were fresh out of undergraduate school and thinking big dollars,” he said. “Without their help, we would not have made it.”
“We picked the worst time to get financing,” Freeman continued. “We were on the phone begging from people who had never been to Pembroke and didn’t see the opportunity that we saw for a restaurant like ours.”
They got the loan and with considerable sweat equity invested by the young partners, Might J’s launched. They replaced tile and built fixtures. Freeman said he learned how to install crown molding from a YouTube video.
With the restaurant ready to open, family circumstances were already changing for Freeman. “As we were interviewing our first employees, my wife learned she was pregnant,” he said.
Business was good, and in 2012, Mighty J’s was named Business of the Year at UNCP’s annual Business Visions awards dinner. The only sports bar in a college town, the menu offered food prepared from fresh ingredients and won rave reviews from customers. Thursday nights were a hit with college students.
But the hours were long, and one child was followed by a second. Freeman also found time to earn a master’s degree in public administration from UNCP.
“My family needed me at home,” he said. “I miss the people at Mighty J’s, but with the ABC Board, there is more stability and health insurance. I am gaining valuable management experience.”
Freeman also began volunteering with UNCP’s entrepreneurship programs at workshops and in classes. He enjoyed being back in the classroom and the conversations with students.
“I love teaching and sitting down sharing my story. It’s awesome to listen to the business ideas of the students,” he said. “I want to use my experience to help other people.”
UNCP’s plan to build a Business Incubator in Pembroke is a good one, he said. “The incubator is going to be awesome,” Freeman said. “Ten or 15 years down the road, Pembroke is going to be an awesome place.”
Freeman is still dreaming of business start-ups. “My wife calls me a dreamer,” he said. “But I make dreams a reality. My advice is keep dreaming; everything is possible.”