South Piedmont Community College, ConMet Enter Long-Term Training Agreement; Largest in the College’s History

Photo of representatives from ConMet and South Piedmont Community College.

From left, ConMet HR Manager Niki Aispuro, Senior HR Generalist Jeremy White, South Piedmont Community College Director of Corporate Education & Training Latoya Billings, Business Solutions Administrative Assistant Heather Travland, and Vice President for Business Solutions Chris Rivera.

A new partnership between South Piedmont Community College and ConMet, a global manufacturer of commercial vehicle parts, will lead to new and existing employees to  being trained in computer skills, leadership, continuous improvement, maintenance, safety, and robotics.

The partnership is the largest yet for South Piedmont’s newly formed Business Solutions division, which was created to work alongside area employers to design customized workforce training programs.

Members of the College and ConMet leadership teams gathered last Thursday to celebrate the training agreement.

“We are thrilled to enter into this new relationship with ConMet,” said South Piedmont President Dr. Maria Pharr. “Working together, we’ve identified ConMet’s training needs and developed a customized training program that will not only solve today’s challenges but also support the company’s long-term growth targets. We are proud to partner with ConMet on this investment in our local workforce.”

Established in 1964, ConMet is based in Vancouver, Washington, and has 13 manufacturing facilities, including two in Monroe, North Carolina. ConMet is one of the world’s leading producers of wheel hubs and a variety of plastic and aluminum casting components for the commercial vehicle industry. ConMet’s two Monroe facilities manufacture aluminum wheel ends for  heavy-duty trucks and trailers.

By partnering with South Piedmont, ConMet was able to access state funding available through NCEdge, a service offered by the North Carolina Community College System, to completely cover the cost of the training.

“This agreement typifies the mission of Business Solutions,” said Chris Rivera, vice president of Business Solutions. “We invested the time to understand ConMet’s current and ongoing training challenges, we developed a solution tailored to their needs, and through state funding, we’re providing this training at no cost to ConMet.”

Another benefit of partnering with South Piedmont is that ConMet has a single point of contact for its training needs: Director of Corporate Education & Training, Latoya Billings.

“I’ll be working alongside ConMet throughout this training program, ensuring it exceeds their expectations at every step of the way. Whatever they might need as we work together, South Piedmont is just one phone call away,” Billings said.

“Our team is delighted to start this new chapter in our story with the outstanding support and partnership of South Piedmont Community College.  We look forward to all the growth and development this training will bring to our team members and our business,” stated Jim Keaney, director of operations for the ConMet Monroe facilities.

Formed in 2022, South Piedmont’s Business Solutions division offers customized training, apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities, and includes the South Piedmont Community College Small Business Center.

About ConMet

ConMet, a division of Amsted Industries, is a leading global supplier of wheel hubs, aluminum castings, and structural plastics to original equipment manufacturers and aftermarket channels in the commercial vehicle industry. Founded in 1964, ConMet innovation has been critical in designing, engineering, and manufacturing revolutionary technologies for trucks and trailers. Today, ConMet products are standard equipment on most heavy-duty vehicles in North America and have a growing footprint worldwide.

ConMet is committed to creating products and services that align with critical customer needs. The development of more efficient products, processes, and technology that transform the way customers run and maintain their vehicles is central to ConMet’s vision.


Five Questions with Renee Hode: Growing Our Community, One Entrepreneur at a Time

Photo of Renee Hode

Renee Hode, South Piedmont Community College’s director of small business and entrepreneurship


It takes about four seconds of talking to Renee Hode to realize she truly loves her work.

Her eyes light up as she talks about entrepreneurship, business plans, and accelerator training.  Her voice quickens as she shares local job creation data. Her smile widens as she tells start-up success stories.

It’s this enthusiasm that’s no doubt fueled the growth of South Piedmont Community College’s Small Business Center since Hode’s arrival as director of small business and entrepreneurship in 2021.

Hode oversees the South Piedmont SBC, one of 58 in the state, and serves as regional director for the southwest region of the Small Business Center Network. The South Piedmont SBC, like the state’s other SBCs, provides resources, training, and support to entrepreneurs seeking a strong start and small business owners looking to scale their operations.

In Hode’s two years with the College, South Piedmont’s SBC has seen remarkable growth in a number of metrics. A couple examples:

  • For the period of 2014-2020, the South Piedmont SBC averaged 34 clients counseled and 90 hours of counseling time annually. In 2022, those numbers jumped to 91 clients and 293 hours.
  • With 1,024 attendees of its various workshops and training programs last fiscal year, the South Piedmont SBC now ranks sixth among all 58 SBCs in the state for attendance. Moreover, Hode is quick to add, the increase in attendees has been achieved efficiently. “We’re growing the average number of participants per training offering. We’re keeping our costs to deliver training steady while increasing our impact,” she said.

Hode, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in economics from Monmouth University, shared more about her passion for helping entrepreneurs, her own career, and her vision for the future of South Piedmont’s SBC. 

You work with entrepreneurs. Have you ever been an entrepreneur yourself?

Yes, I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I started running businesses when I was a kid. I used to grocery shop for elderly neighbors. It grew to the point where I hired other kids in the neighborhood to help me deliver the groceries. You could say I was Instacart before Instacart. I played softball growing up in New Jersey, and I had the chance to attend some trainings and camps with Olympic athletes. I took what I learned and started a nonprofit in my hometown to boost the competitiveness of our local softball league. Later on, a business partner and I started an online commerce boutique. 

Why is entrepreneurship something you feel so passionately about?

It’s a new and different day every day. I love seeing the wheels turn in entrepreneurs’ heads. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. I’m an idea person myself. I love working with people to think outside the box and solve problems. Whether a business is just starting or growing, every business has different opportunities, pain points and challenges before them. I get to help them reach their goals, and part of that is helping entrepreneurs and business owners to self-actualize, to help them build their confidence, realize they can do it, and support them as they keep pushing forward.

There are 58 small business centers in North Carolina. How is South Piedmont’s SBC different?

They’re all different in their own ways. What might be popular here may not be of any interest in another part of the state. For instance, our SBCs on the coast offer a lot of training on aquaculture for the fishing businesses located there, but of course, we don’t have that need as much here in Union and Anson counties. Part of my job is to constantly assess the needs of our local business community, look at things through the lens of an entrepreneur or small business owner, and offer programming designed to solve local problems. Locally, we have a large number of small businesses, but many of them have reached a plateau. They’ve survived startup, but they don’t know how to keep growing. Part of our focus has been on creating programming to meet that need in our community.

What are examples of trainings you’ve helped create and what needs are they addressing?

Next month, we’re starting a brand-new program called Trucking Pro. In part because of all the manufacturing in our area, there is a lot of interest in trucking and logistics. The Trucking Pro program will teach attendees to start and operate their own trucking company. We’ve had about 50 applications come in for that program, and we’re selecting 24 participants, so there’s definitely a need. Another example is the Level Up Business Accelerator program, which we’ve run two cohorts of so far. The Level Up program speaks to that need I described earlier to help small businesses grow. In the Level Up program, we train participants and pair them with consultants to help them develop and implement three-year growth plans for their businesses.

What impact are you seeing in our community from the growth of South Piedmont’s SBC?

We are seeing more individuals stepping forward with ideas seeking to the leap into small business ownership and more existing businesses seeking support to grow their operations. This past fiscal year, 74 jobs were created as a result of micro businesses receiving assistance from the SBC. With more than half of those jobs as a direct outcome from the Level Up Business Accelerator program, mentioned earlier. We are helping businesses thrive and enabling them to create opportunities for others in our community whether that is a new job or a valued product or service to support local needs. 

Learn more about South Piedmont’s Small Business Center and upcoming trainings here.


53 Ideas Winners Include Hair Styling Product, Food Truck, and Nonprofit Event Management Service

Photo of the winners of the pitch competition holding large checks.

The winners of this year’s 53 Ideas Pitch Competition include, from left, Shane Fraser and David Casper, Tequia Williams, and Jo’Von Wright.

The winners of this year’s 53 Ideas Pitch Competition include a product to help women of color more easily style their hair, a food truck that sells breakfast tacos, and a service to help nonprofits reach more donors.

“Each of our winners are on a mission to solve a unique problem in our community. We’re thrilled they chose to further develop their business plans through the 53 Ideas Pitch Competition, and we’re excited to see what comes next for each of them,” said Director of Entrepreneurship and Small Business at South Piedmont Community College Renee Hode.

“Congratulations to our winners and all our participants.”

The 53 Ideas Pitch Competition is a regional entrepreneurship competition hosted by South Piedmont that allows business owners and entrepreneurs to pitch their big idea in a 53-second video. The top 53 submissions are then given training and support as they develop their business pitches.   

Each contestant completes 12 hours of business training covering business model development, customer discovery, finance, and pitching. There are also opportunities to network and learn from other entrepreneurs. The entire process culminates in one final pitch day where 10 finalists make one last pitch for the prize funding, hoping for a shot at the grand prize of $10,000 for their business.

This year’s winners include:

1st place, $10,000  — Jexsii. Founded by Charlotte resident Tequia Williams, a nurse who long struggled with styling her tightly curled hair, Jexsii will offer a signature product called Jagid that combines a wide-toothed comb with a scalp cleanser and massager. The result is a product that has made it easier than ever for Williams to achieve her desired styles without damaging her hair. Williams has been researching and developing her product since 2014. Her prize winnings will allow her to begin production and move closer to bringing Jagid to market.

Last year, Williams placed in the top 10 at the 53 Ideas Pitch Competition.

“It’s really a story of resiliency,” she said. “Over the past year, I’ve grown a lot and become more confident in myself. The competition helped me lay out my financial projections better, narrow down my target demographic, and enhance my pitch deck. I was able to pitch more boldly and just flow better in the moment. It’s an incredible feeling.”

2nd place, $5,000 — Just Jo’s. This delicious start-up is run by Jo’Von Wright, a Charlotte resident who seeks to offer the Charlotte metro area a new option for fast, inexpensive Mexican food. Her food truck will sell nutritious breakfast tacos. Wright’s makes her business all the more unique by naming each taco on her menu after an inspirational woman in her life and donating a portion of her tips to feeding the homeless and hungry. Wright will use her winnings to cover set-up costs, including food supplies and marketing materials.

“This competition was beneficial to making Just Jo’s steps closer to a reality, and I am so thankful for the opportunity,” Wright said.

3rd place, $2,500   PlanTELLGive. The brainchild of Union County-based entrepreneurs Shane Fraser and David Casper, PlanTELLGive will help nonprofits better coordinate, publicize, and manage their events. PlanTELLGive’s services include a calendar to help nonprofits schedule their events without overlapping one another, intuitive event planning software, and event management services.

“The structured process of the competition helped us take our concept and move toward a realistic business plan. The feedback from the second round helped us to answer questions about our business while becoming more invested in this new way to maximize community impact,” Casper said.

To learn more about the 53 Ideas Pitch Competition, visit 53ideas.com.


South Piedmont Work-Based Learning Student: “I Built My Network, Built My Resume and Got a Job”

Photo of Ryan Petty

Ryan Petty’s Work-Based Learning assignment turned into a part-time job at the college.

South Piedmont Community College student Ryan Petty’s Work-Based Learning assignment just turned into his first job in information technology — right here on campus.

Work-Based Learning, which falls under the College’s newly created Business Solutions division, allows students to earn academic credit by working for an employer in a position directly related to their field of study.

Petty grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and became interested in computers and all things tech while in high school.

“Throughout high school, I worked with the IT department at my high school. I helped teachers and staff members with their equipment. I really enjoyed the hands-on side of it. I like helping people solve their technology problems,” Petty said. 

After high school, Petty and his grandmother relocated to Indian Trail to be closer to family, and Petty enrolled at South Piedmont. He completed his Associate in Arts in 2016. Last year, he returned to South Piedmont to earn his Information Systems Certificate. The program includes an elective Work-Based Learning component, which especially appealed to Petty. Although not a requirement, Ryan chose to take Work-Based Learning to enhance his academic experience.

Petty will complete his certificate this spring, but it’s already proved a wise investment. After five months in his Work-Based Learning assignment with the College’s IT department, South Piedmont hired him as a paid part-time employee.

He now works several days a week as a desktop support technician, responding to help desk requests from employees throughout the college. On any given day, he can be found performing routine maintenance, setting up new machines, or installing updates.

“I love the mental challenge of troubleshooting problems and trying to figure out what happened,” Petty said.

Petty highly recommends Work-Based Learning to his fellow students.

“I got hands-on knowledge and experience, the kinds of things you can’t get from a book or a lab. I got a feel for the working environment and the particularities of the job,” he said.

“Students should definitely do Work-Based Learning. I built my network, built my resume, and got a job.”

Petty hopes to work in tech support for several years and then seek a job either in systems administration or cybersecurity.

Learn more about Work-Based Learning at spcc.edu/work-based-learning.

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