National Entrepreneur Center
2018 Business Leaders of the Year | Economic Development
Echoes of eager shoppers reverberate along the waxed floors of Orlando Fashion Square mall, where a staged traffic light and road signs in the middle of an aisle direct aspiring minds to an economic development machine. It’s no coincidence that the National Entrepreneur Center sits at the intersection of innovation and business.Through the vision of NEC President and CEO Jerry Ross, the organization grew into a flourishing network of nonprofits, chambers, and corporate and government leaders who collaborate to nurture ideas. Their mission is to accelerate startups, small businesses and second-stage ventures in Central Florida.
The NEC serves as a hub for business creation while functioning as a nonprofit. World-renowned for its economic development model, the NEC has a direct economic impact in Orlando with ripple effects of its work throughout the state. Between the 12 groups that comprise the executive board and create the long-term strategy for the NEC and the 14 organizations that live at the center and support the mission every day, Ross has to maintain a unifying vision for the powerhouse.
His vast experience as an entrepreneur, and his family life, prepared him for such a role. One of 11 children, he learned at a young age how to collaborate, work hard and delegate. He uses those skills every day to serve the NEC’s partners and clients.
Ross approaches the job with humility and gratitude. “It’s hard for any one person to be honored as a leader in this organization, because that one person represents the hard work of many others,” he said.
Under his leadership, the NEC has helped more than 100,000 businesses through coaching and training and facilitated more than $150 million in small business loans.
“The fact that Orlando has led the nation in job creation in the past two years is not an accident,” he said. “That’s 15 years of work by our community.”
Using his predisposition for creative problem-solving, Ross had started and operated many successful businesses before accepting the role as the CEO of the NEC in 2007. “Seems like I’ve been preparing for this job all my life,” he said. Ross established and sold an eclectic array of companies ranging from a local business magazine to Sky-Tracker Florida, which provided the xenon searchlights seen at Walt Disney World and lighting for various motion pictures.
“I have always loved being an entrepreneur, of having to figure things out,” he said. “I sold my first business when I graduated from high school. I sold my next business when I graduated from college.”
As every entrepreneur does, Ross encountered struggles and failed businesses along his journey. In 1989, he fell on hard times and found himself sweeping the floors of an empty arena after a Rod Stewart concert to pay rent. Within one year, he had started another business and was back on his feet.
“The birth and death of businesses is what fuels a dynamic economy,” Ross said. “Communities need businesses that are starting and growing and starting and failing, because sometimes, like in my case, that failure was the lesson I needed to learn for the success of the next business. That dynamism generates churn, jobs and innovation.”
“Failure is not permanent. Failure is only temporary. When I fast-forward to my job here, and I see those anxious looks coming in the front door, I recognize them because I’ve seen them in the mirror before. That’s something that keeps me grounded because I know what sacrifices are required to create a successful business. But learning those hard lessons in times of struggle made me a much better manager and leader.”