Truist Foundation awards grant to The Hill Institute’s GVL Starts to support startup ventures

GVL Starts is the signature program of The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Furman University.

It started as a casual meeting over coffee just as COVID-19 made its debut. Anthony Herrera, chief innovation officer and executive director of The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Furman University, asked Merle Johnson, City of Greenville’s director of economic and community development, “What’s your biggest challenge?” His answer: “Pipeline of new startups.”

That conversation set the stage for the development of Furman’s The Hill Institute’s signature program, GVL Starts. The eight-week experience equips aspiring entrepreneurs and founders to move from idea to launch by connecting them with like-minded entrepreneurs and imparting the skills they need to fund and grow their ventures.

A collaboration among the city, Greenville Local Development Corporation, Furman’s The Hill Institute, the South Carolina Department of Commerce, South Carolina Research Authority, and VentureSouth, GVL Starts has earned the backing of Truist Foundation, which recently awarded $75,000 to the early-stage venture accelerator.

“GVL Starts aligns with Truist Foundation’s mission to work with organizations that strengthen the entrepreneurial spirit and enable small businesses,” said Mike Brenan, South Carolina regional president for Truist. “Through our partnership, Greenville and Upstate entrepreneurs will be able to build the skill sets and networks necessary to launch and build successful companies. It’s also another way we fulfill Truist’s purpose to inspire and build better lives and communities.”

“Furman and The Hill Institute are honored to contribute our expertise to GVL Starts and to help entrepreneurs turn their dreams into realities. We are grateful to Truist Foundation for supporting our efforts and recognizing that a thriving, inclusive entrepreneurial climate is critical for Greenville’s and the Upstate’s continued success,” Furman President Elizabeth Davis said.

Since 2021, dozens of entrepreneurs have benefitted from the platform, with another 28-member GVL Starts cohort kicking off Aug. 25.

By the numbers, GVL Starts has:

• Helped 53 entrepreneurs ramp up existing startups or explore ways to bring ideas to market. The group aims to accelerate 100 new ventures annually over the next five years.
• Accelerated 38 ventures and launched eight.
• Attracted a diverse and historically underserved set of entrepreneurs with more than 50 percent women and more than 50 percent representing Hispanic or Black businesses.
• Awarded $30,000 in startup grants to businesses ranging from restaurants to early stage high tech companies.
• Raised more than $100,000 in follow-on capital.
• Amassed nearly 30 partners to bolster the program, providing coaching, co-working space, venture capital, legal assistance and more.

Eric Cooperman of Bottle Titan came to GVL Starts with a novel concept for a device that reduces spoilage in the high-end beverage industry. GVL Starts helped him secure funding to prototype the device and assist with legal matters.

LaShonn Edmunds, creator of Cairs Shoes, availed herself to GVL Starts to gain access to capital and get an audience with the right investors. “As an African American woman, I had limited access to the ‘Who’s Who’ in my city,” Edmunds said. “GVL Starts gave me opportunities to meet these people, expand my network and get exposure for my business.”

“The team at The Hill Institute is encouraged that the powerful combination of Furman University, civic partners like the City of Greenville, and corporate partners like Truist Foundation is proving to be a winning model for creating economic vibrancy – in this case, through the GVL Starts program,” Herrera said. “The Hill Institute at Furman believes support provided by Truist Foundation will inspire other organizations to join the cause in supporting the successful launch of new ventures in our community.”

Applications and need-based scholarships for the spring 2023 GVL Starts cohort are available. For more information, contact Bryan Davis at Or contact Truist at

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