Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Dr. Chris Prentice of Cape Fear Collective

Dr. Chris Prentice was raised in the world of finance and big corporations. By the age of 12, he had learned the language of making money and business. As a young professional, he followed in his father’s footsteps with a career as a commodities broker and business strategist. His job was to maximize profits for his clients. Over time, Chris expanded his efforts from for-profit to pro bono, nonprofit consulting, and volunteer work. The work was more fun and brought Chris more joy. Seeing that, his wife suggested that he go back to school. With this support, Chris enrolled at North Carolina State University and earned a Ph.D. in Public Administration with a focus on nonprofit management and, more specifically, nonprofit financial management.

Armed with his Ph.D. Chris took a faculty position at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where he later founded and currently directs the Center for Social Impact. He describes this feet-first jump into the academic world researching, publishing, and teaching nonprofit management and cross-sector collaboration as a “no brainer.” Chris was driven to be a hands-on leader and became entrenched in the local nonprofit sector, serving on boards, doing pro bono advising, and occasionally paid consulting.

Throughout the nine years that Chris has been in Wilmington, he has worked to help move the needle when it comes to social impact. The efforts have focused on understanding what the ecosystem looks like, what it needs, and what’s missing to create a healthier and more equitable community. His work at Cape Fear Collective (CFC), a nonprofit organization focused on data science and impact investing, helps build this understanding. Chris has been with the organization since the start and uses his role to serve as a connector of people, ideas, and resources to take action addressing inequality and social injustice.

In this most recent Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Chris and I discuss the value of data to solving complex, interdependent issues while balancing the need for human collaboration to build trust and drive action.


Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?

Chris: Anytime someone asks me what’s the Blue Economy I’ll rely on what the federal government identifies as the industries that comprise it. I use the federal government NAICS codes for ‘Businesses for the Purpose of Collecting, Analyzing, and Publishing Statistical Data Related to the US Business Economy’ then at the codes for sectors like Living Resources, Marine Construction, Marine, Transportation, Offshore and Mineral Resources, Shipping, Boat Building, Tourism, and Recreation. Those sectors identify industries and sub-industries such as fish hatcheries and aquaculture fishing, seafood processing, and seafood markets, and marine transportation within Living Resources. You’ll also find almost everything the port does from deep-sea fishing, freight, marine transportation services, and navigation equipment. Frankly, I was surprised to learn how expansive the coverage is. I always thought the term was pretty narrowly defined but as I’ve come to learn, it’s a significant part of our economy, especially in North Carolina.

Deb: When you analyzed the NAICS codes, did it look like anything was missing? What about inequalities in water quality across communities or connections that are starting to be made between pollution and Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cancer? The Blue Economy could have secondary and tertiary definitions for a community.

Chris: Absolutely. Founding the Center for Social Impact (CSI) and working with the nonprofit Cape Fear Collective gave me the opportunity to go outside my academic bubble to see other aspects of social impact. CSI is an interdisciplinary research center that investigates community-defined research questions to uncover actionable insights for policy and decision-making. As I’ve worked closely with people in nursing, public health, and social work economics, I have heard them talk about the social determinants of health and how you can’t disentangle one piece from the system, stay in that silo and think you’re going to fix a complex problem.

We often try to address what we call ‘wicked problems’ or problems that emerge for multiple reasons. Such problems can’t be addressed by any single intervention or singular approach. For example, if we’re gonna focus on improving third-grade reading by doing something in second grade, we will need to address their living situation, their health, and everything that affects their educational outcomes. 

What Cape Fear Collective has done alongside those trying to solve the secondary issues related to the Blue Economy Is to collect data on literally everything that we can get our hands on from health, environment, infrastructure, housing, transportation, and social systems to think more systematically about the condition. We try to understand what’s causing the condition, then map the assets within our ecosystem to determine where our strengths are and where our deficiencies are in addressing the issues that we’ve identified. We try to determine how we can pivot resources into specific areas to allow us to more effectively address the inequities causing the issues.

Deb:  What I hear you describing is the capability to use big data in a ‘systems of systems’ type of analysis to understand the interdependencies of an issue. If you can find the couple nodes that are critical to solving the issues you can target effort. Is this correct?

Chris: That’s exactly what we were doing. CFC created a community data platform. It’s a data lake that exists within the AWS environment. We’ve put a SQL server on it so that we can write tables and extract information. We can call real-time information from basically every source that you can think of, including federal-level CDC and Census Bureau and state-level information. We have agreements with local anchor institutions that give us their proprietary information de-identified at the population level. We can investigate it and layer it on top of other data to find insights. We all know data can be biased, so it’s important to get that lived experience. It is important to talk to people and ask them if the data and insights match their lived experience. If it doesn’t, we ask them to tell us what they are experiencing.

Deb: Can you use this capability to ask “what if” questions to make decisions for the community? For example, the growth of the Port of Wilmington may require additional dredging at the entry point to let in bigger ships. There may be a cascading effect throughout the community because of the interdependencies with water sources, the environment, workforce, and economics for Wilmington. Can you investigate the balance of making decisions for today and for the future?

Chris: We’ve done a few things on a smaller scale with our anchor institutions and now we are interested in growing our capability to do this at a bigger scale. Part of the point in capturing data is so we can do scenario planning about “what if we do this” and “what if we don’t do this” — can we quantify the impact? Not just the economic impact, but the environmental impact and the social impact of doing or not doing something. We need to learn to crawl before we can walk, and then run. We are working on getting the necessary data and making sure that we’ve buttoned things up so we can defend the decisions we’ve made and the models we’ve developed.

Deb: Is the Blue Economy a useful concept for major entities in the Wilmington area to start guiding their direction for a common envisioned future?

Chris: As a concept, the Blue Economy is nebulous. Definitions vary to such a great extent that they may prohibit people from engaging because they’re not really sure where they fit. More folks would be at the table if they had a clearer understanding of what it actually is for Wilmington. Conducting asset mapping to understand what our ecosystem looks like is important for developing that definition and for actioning off anything in the future. So often in social science, we look at things like the economy and environment from a deficit perspective when trying to determine what we should do. 

I’m in the camp that believes the information is out there. You just got to go get it. Start from an asset perspective and don’t guess. Use data to drive your decision-making direction. We also need to remember failure is okay. It should be embraced. It teaches you something.

I speak from the nonprofit perspective. There’s a ton of energy in the nonprofit space to be entrepreneurial in a socially responsible and environmentally conscious way. I’m currently teaching undergraduate and graduate students that have a million ideas a day. If there was a stronger definition of what the Blue Economy is, there would be more opportunities for them to get engaged and develop new programs for existing nonprofits to leverage the resources we have and have that positive impact that also produces an economic benefit. I think we have assets and resources; we don’t have any concerted or organized direction. 

The University of North Carolina Wilmington Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is interested in developing an asset map for the Blue Economy in Wilmington. The purpose is to get our hands around what it is and what we have currently. It’s a good place to start to understand what resources we currently have at our disposal. We can explore if we have a kind of a regional growth cluster identified within the Blue Economy that makes sense to define ourselves around and lean into. If not, that’s okay, but it’d be useful to know what we have as we develop the notion of what a Blue Economy is for our area.

Deb: When you think about 15 – 20 years from now, what does it look like for your children in the Wilmington area?

Chris: I’ve seen quite a bit of growth within Wilmington and New Hanover County in the short time I have been here. A recent report by the economists on campus showed that Wilmington has grown in different industries over the last 20 years. It has also grown in population but not as much individual diversity. I’m hopeful 15 – 20 years out, Wilmington can and will be an even better place to live. I’ve had opportunities to leave the area to take what might be considered a better position at more prestigious places. But I have opted to stay because I’m so encouraged by some of the pieces that I’m seeing. There’s a “coalition of the willing” in a lot of different spaces in this city. 

We’re the right size with the right kinds of for-profit, nonprofit, and public institutions wanting to get involved in positive ways. We can collectively effect positive change in the community for those among us who need the help. I don’t have any vision for what the Blue Economy might be like in 15 years because I’m still learning what it could be, but I do have a sense of things with respect to social impact. Might this be a better place to live for everyone, with a more inclusive economy, fewer barriers to upward mobility, and a greater social safety net that takes care of its people? We’ve got the right pieces in place to do something bold. It’s too exciting of an opportunity to be a part of for me to consider going to other more prestigious places.

Deb: If the ‘coalition of the willing’ were to come together tomorrow, what would be the top one or two things that they should do right away?

Chris: Talk more. We have so many great individual efforts going on. But with outmoded charters, we’re missing the synergies from combining those interests because we each get mired in our own personal and organizational needs. It’s keeping us from thinking progressively and entrepreneurially about how we might work together to get things done and address big problems. As you get older, life teaches lessons and you aspire to do smaller things. We begin to believe, “I can’t do that because it failed when I tried in the past” and we start staying in our own lanes. But when there are enough people that are willing to start having bigger conversations about what we might do together, change can happen. 

In your hypothetical ‘coalition of the willing,’ the thing that we’re missing the most is collaborative action. I think Cape Fear Collective is doing a good job of trying to create new avenues for collaborative success. Organizations such as the United Way have historically done that in this community. There’s more that can be done.

I teach cross-sector collaboration. I’ve researched the area and I know how hard it is to do. I’m not going to sell short the difficulties inherent to trying to have synergistic collaborative engagements, especially cross-sector collaborations. There are many reasons why cross-sector collaborations can be expensive, slow, and difficult to do. We come from different cultures and speak different languages. The organizational culture you might find at large local for-profit entities is going to be quite different from what is found in a nonprofit.  But the whole point of collaboration is working together to do something which we cannot do alone singularly.

We’ve got to take action off the talk. We have good inclusive coalitions focusing on various different aspects of life and community. In Wilmington, we come together in a forum and talk a lot. I’m waiting for the follow-up on the talk. That’s always a little messy and might mean someone is not at the table that we’d like to be there because they’re not committing the resources or living up to their commitments to the collaboration. So it’s talk first, but then deliberately and intentionally do collaborative work.

Deb: Does this take one leader that manages the little pockets of support, or can it be done by trusting relationships?

Chris: Literature suggests there are various models for collaboration, each working in various ways. In my experience, there needs to be one person, one network administrative office officer, or entity that is leading the coalition. If you don’t, then you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s hard to hold people accountable if they don’t report to you. There needs to be buy-in to a network structure that would have one single lead. Signing an MOU suggests you’re willing to really put some skin in the game and dedicate actual resources to whatever the collaborative engagement is. The engagement is defined by the group but led by the singular entity. The problem we face in this type of relationship is the power issue. There are ways around this issue, such as creating a nonprofit organization as the network administrative office with governing documents and a board composed of members who bring different perspectives and organizations. 

Deb: What’s your greatest hope for the future?

Chris: My greatest hope for the future is that historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised folks in our community find opportunities to have happy, successful, and prosperous lives. So many folks don’t make it because they don’t have a shot. I wouldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe we can do more together as a community to provide everybody with opportunities to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives and take care of themselves and their loved ones in a manner that makes them proud. We have so many resources at our disposal. We must figure out a way to deploy them effectively and efficiently so that we can all have opportunities. My greatest hope is that we figure it out.

We have so much information and data readily available to help us. We’ve got to figure out how to not just analyze how to target a market and raise shareholder wealth but to use the information to produce real social insight and benefit. Cape Fear Collective has started doing it for Wilmington and for other communities. There’s a win-win, not about redistribution. It’s about approaching for-profit entities and asking, “What does your corporate social responsibility program look like and how can we leverage it to benefit others within the community?” We invite them to work with our nonprofit on a collaborative program that would deploy their resources to help people. Given all the information and the power of computing that we have to find insights, we can figure out the relationship part, figure out how to work with one another, and trust one another to do big work and take risks. We can make something big happen. 

I was raised in finance and I come from a corporate perspective but I never think about that bottom line. The bottom line is real and it matters but we shouldn’t have to look at it as a redistribution. It’s about making the pie bigger and allowing everyone access to that pie.


Chris reminds us as we learn and know better, we do better. Add the courage to take bold, exponential steps, and we begin to see real progress towards solutions to our hardest social issues. There are more voices to be heard and more complexity to understand and address. Today, people and things are creating new knowledge at a rate that wildly surpasses forecasts. Global data share is becoming ever more essential to societies, individuals, and businesses. The ways we can use data are expanding — and will continue to grow as the creation of new data begets the creation of new data. Addressing broader environmental and societal demands will take new, more expansive data sets. The challenge in meeting this requirement is that much of the data about issues like climate change, water management, and social inequality typically exist outside the organization’s normal channels and purview. 

Even with emerging technologies like AI and ML promising to streamline the ingestion and management of data from enormous numbers of sources, it’s up to the organization to provide access to the necessary information and to commit to using the analysis it produces to support its stakeholders. This shift is a significant undertaking that will require leaders to collaborate with experts in fields of study that may never have otherwise been relevant to the corporate intent. It will take a human-centric approach to analysis. It will also take collaboration and the trust of all those involved.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.Get your copy of Convergence here.

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