top of page

Creating and Sustaining Entrepreneurial Ecosystems in Rural Virginia 



Moderator:  Shannon R. Blevins, Director of Economic Development, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise


Shannon Blevins serves as the Director of Economic Development for The University of Virginia’s College at Wise.    As a Southwest Virginia native with broad experience working with new and expanding businesses, Shannon leads the College’s economic outreach efforts.  In doing so, she works to create opportunities for government, non-profit organizations, businesses, and higher education to work together to further the progress of the region. 


As part of her role, Shannon also supports UVa-Wise’s two offsite locations - the Southwest Virginia Technology Development Center (SVTDC) located in Lebanon, Virginia and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon (SWHEC).  The SVTDC works with the region’s emerging information technology sector and other businesses to provide customized training and technical/professional development programs.  UVa-Wise has been a partner institution offering undergraduate degree programs in the SWHEC since it was established.

Most recently, Shannon, along with fellow Appalachian Prosperity Project leaders, facilitated regional efforts to develop the Blueprint for Entrepreneurial Growth and Economic Prosperity in Southwest Virginia as well as the Blueprint for Attracting and Sustaining Advanced Manufacturing in Southwest Virginia.  She has also served on the Governor’s Rural Job Council.


Prior to joining the UVa-Wise team, Shannon served as a senior project manager with the Virginia Department of Business Assistance (VDBA).  She joined VDBA’s Abingdon office in 2002 and for the last two years of her time with the department, Shannon served at the pleasure of the Governor in a special assignment.  Her role was to coordinate state, regional and local efforts in support of the CGI and Northrop Grumman operations in Russell County.


She is an accomplished instructor, consultant and former director of customer service/operations with twelve years of experience in private industry.  Ms. Blevins has extensive experience working with leading organizations in southwestern Virginia.  She holds a master’s degree in Business Management and Organizational Development from Averett University in Danville, a B.A. in Business and Public Administration from The University of Virginia’s College at Wise and a Certificate in Leadership Development through Darden Executive Education.  She lives in Wise County, Virginia with her husband, Dennis and two children, Connor and McKenna.


Christopher I. Cook, Executive Director, VAFAIRS


Christopher I. Cook, is the Assistant Director of Rural Development for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.  He acts as the Executive Director for the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability. He is as an agricultural enterprise development advisor with a broad range of planning, business creation and development skills, as well as strategic expertise.


Mr. Cook has twenty five years agricultural experience including organizing and developing farmer-owned start-up businesses, with a strong background in facilitating agricultural value added entitles through strategic planning. He has completed numerous feasibility studies and business plans in many areas of the agricultural industry including wine production, renewable fuels and meat processing in Virginia. His work experience covers two continents. He farmed in the United Kingdom and was Managing Director of a 1,000-acre farm producing beef and small grains.


His education includes a post baccalaureate certificate in accounting, the Certified Economic Development Financial Professional designation from the National Development Council, KY, and a Masters Business Administration from the College of William & Mary.



Jim Flowers, Executive Director, VT KnoweldgeWorks


Jim is a veteran of over four decades of service as a senior executive and consultant to technology based companies, most recently as architect and Executive Director of the VT KnowledgeWorks entrepreneurship support program at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg, Virginia. 


Under Jim’s leadership, VT KnowledgeWorks has established itself as the Commonwealth’s institutional leader in programs to support creative entrepreneurship as a driver of economic development, and is well known for innovative outreach programs. The VT KnowledgeWorks Global Partnership Week attracts students and faculty from all over the world each August.  And the emerging VT KnowledgeWorks Entrepreneurship Alliance will unite business growth programs all over Virginia in a mutually supportive, best practices cooperative.

Jim currently serves on the boards of the Virginia Community Economic Network and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, and previously served on the Board of the Virginia Business Incubation Association, including three years as its President. He received his BA from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and his MBA from the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.



Larry Simpson, President / CEO, The Alvarez Group





Larry has over 30 years as a business leader having served as an entrepreneur, executive, investor, and Board member. As an executive, Larry has led emerging technology companies with top level personnel from start-up as a founder to exits, restart of VC backed company, turn-around of a division of a public owned company, participated in IPO, secondary offering, merger & acquisitions, and venture raises. He has served as an executive and on the Board of Directors of private, public, and nonprofit organizations.  Currently serves on the Board of Symbionyx and HeMemics.


Larry is a graduate of U. S. Naval Academy; married with four children and three grandchildren.



bottom of page