Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon's new company Draper James, purveyor of Southern-sass-wear, is the latest star on the Southern startup scene.

Tennesee-bred Witherspoon, 39, launched Draper James online in May 2015. "When I was traveling between Atlanta and Nashville, I started noticing how much was happening culturally in the South with museums, music venues and restaurants. At that same time I was approached by two Northeast brands to represent them. I don't know the Hamptons, but I do know the South," says the Sweet Home Alabama star. " I realized there was a white space to tell that story."

Emotional chord finds funding

Just a few months into her new adventure, she raised $10 million in from Forerunner Ventures.

"Reese's company stood out in that it is less about an item, or even a category, and really about an attitude and a whole way of life," says Forerunner's founder, Kristen Green, who is joining the board at Draper James. She is also invested in Birchbox, Bonobos and Warby Parker.

Witherspoon's commitment to Southern culture is more than skin deep. Her two year old is named Tennessee. When she can, she lives and works in Nashville, which was the setting for her film Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash. The Draper James product line is largely built in the Southeast--its denim comes from Blue Ridge, Georgia, where Witherspoon "met these incredible women . . . who have been making blue jeans all their lives, and they talk like my grandma. They have pride in their work. And they show me how they make these blue jeans from start to finish."

Walking her line

Witherspoon's hits onscreen often revolve around walking a tough line between dreaming and doing. As she shared recently, she started her own production company--Pacific Standard, founded with Bruna Papandrea--after seeing six of her favorite actresses "fighting over a really crappy role in a movie."

She says, "It's great to speak up, but what I really think is you've got to do something." Her production company is now responsible for Wild, her recent hit, and also for box office bacon-maker Gone Girl, as well as holding production rights to several book titles with powerful female leads.

Southern startups with culture pop

"We are seeing a startup renaissance happening throughout the Southeast," says Courtney Corlew, communications director at LaunchTN. The public-private partnership, based in Nashville, helps entrepreneurs, accelerators and investors connect. "Whether born and bred here, or a recent transplant, southern doers and makers are putting this region more on the map as a first choice place to grow a company."

According to a recent poll by Investment Banking South, investors agree. 71% believe that the quality of deals in the Southeast is on par with the rest of the United States.

Local entrepreneur and taste maker Dominique Love, who founded the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, takes it in stride. "I'm often asked why I think the South is so hot right now. Each time, I want to put on a sugar sweet accent and claim, 'Darlin' it has always been hot.' That people are drawn to the South isn't because the region is undergoing some sort of renaissance but rather people are looking at their hectic lives and wanting more of what Southern living has to offer."

Published on: Oct 14, 2015