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2023 SOAR Summit gives Appalachians a chance to network

Soar attendees
SOAR youtube
Soar attendees

Hundreds of people gathered in southeastern Kentucky for the annual Shaping our Appalachian Region conference. This event brings together minds to help improve life in one of the most impoverished regions of the country.

Corbin, Kentucky was this year’s location for the 2023 Soar summit. The annual networking event is a who’s who of local projects, small business, and industry from across the state. The event was held at the Corbin Arena this year, the town’s restaurants and businesses extended hours to accommodate the influx of visitors to the two-day event.

Inside the arena, a stage is set for a host of speakers from Congressman Hal Rogers to Governor Andy Basher, to a panel of entrepreneurs and experts devoted to the like cause of Kentucky’s economic future.

Wednesday afternoon, after the keynote speakers have adjourned and lunch is served from a local catering service, there was coffee and cookies, also locally made. With a full stomach and a full mind, the crowd began to mingle, trading business cards, feedback, and their unique ideas. Like Mark Halbert.

“I am the creator and founder of Slope Master innovation, remote control slope mower.”

He stands next to his invention, it’s wide and low and has rubber tracks in place of wheels. He gave me his card and I asked him what inspired his invention.

“I had a hill that bout killed me, so I figured it out, it keeps you out of danger, it takes all the liability away.”

Mark said this isn’t his first time at a SOAR conference.

“This is my third time, what keeps me coming back are the people, we’re building Kentucky.”

SOAR is a non-profit whose main objective is to help East Kentucky fill the economic gap left by the declining coal industry. Events like the summit, here in Corbin, give those with big ideas the resources and connections to make those ideas a reality. Like those of Pineville High School junior, Camryn Builder.

“The best things about it…. Make connections here at SOAR summit,” Builder said.

Representatives from more than 90 projects, advocacy groups and educational programs attended this year’s summit. Ronnie Collins is with the Digital Equity Office SOAR.

“The people here want to make the community better…. To help their community, and you get to… showing up to try to help.”

Among the events notable speakers, including TJ Rayhill, the mind behind Blue Grass Crickets, whose idea won the 2023 startup pitch contest. Each year SOAR gives Kentuckians the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to a group of professionals and experts who then award the top ideas with prize money to fund their projects. I asked TJ what that process was like, and what his plans are now.

“I applied in May…. getting ready, so pitch day arrives….so for this year that was me. So, when I’m looking at being an entrepreneur …. I told my partner, that’s my business. Now as we currently farm… just like the granola you had today.”

 One simply has to ask what it tastes like.

“So today we ground them into flour… it’s good! Experience the crunch, buy some product”

Events like the SOAR conference hope to keep eastern Kentucky, and all of central Appalachia hopping.


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Crystal Joined WEKU as Special Projects Reporter in April 2022. She has a background in independent media, she has worked in newsprint, film, and radio with indie artists and small businesses across Eastern Kentucky for more than 20 years.
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