Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood sits in the heart of the city — a few streets over from the downtown business district and Georgia State; a stone’s throw away from the academic hub of the Atlanta University Center’s complex containing Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University.
However, Downtown and the Westside are still marked by average lower incomes than much of the city — according to the non-profit Westside Future Fund, 32 percent of residents in its area live at or below the poverty line, compared to a citywide rate of about 25 percent. Meanwhile, housing prices are rising; the city’s recently-released Resilient Atlanta report states that more than a quarter of Atlanta’s households spend more than half of their income on housing costs, “with much of this located in low-income, low-access neighborhoods across the region.”
In Castleberry Hill, in a section largely owned or developed by one of Atlanta’s and the country’s most famous real estate names — the late Herman J. Russell — is a building and a team that wants to change those statistics. The Herman J. Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneuship (RCIE) will turn the former headquarters of H.J. Russell & Co. into an entrepreneurship hub for underrepresented individuals.
“When we think about income inequality, about economic immobility, graduation rates, incarceration rates, creating jobs is a piece of how you can solve that, but creating job creators that are entrepreneurial is critical,” says James ‘Jay’ Bailey, CEO and president of RCIE.
Bailey was brought on last month to bring the 48,000 square foot campus, currently largely sheetrock and concrete walls, to life. He is tasked with not only raising and allocating the funds for the building — noting that the Russell family has been “overly generous” about their financial intentions for the project — but also connecting with stakeholders and determining what the programming in the building will look like.
A native Atlantan, Bailey is an entrepreneur himself, largely in real estate and private equity. He also has a social justice background as the former CEO for the southeastern region of Operation HOPE, a global non-profit focused on financial literacy.
Bailey explains that, without the leadership of figures like Russell, who built the largest black-owned construction company in the country from scratch, he wouldn’t have pursued his entrepreneurial leanings.
“I was always an enterprising kind of kid, who made popsicles in the fridge to sell. I had all of this economic energy but I didn’t have a name for it,” says Bailey. “I think Herman Russell’s story is a powerful story of a young man born here with meager beginnings that built a global enterprise that he is able to hand down to the next generations.
“These are the stories that inject people with the belief that things are possible.”
Though Bailey says RCIE will help any underrepresented entrepreneur — female, Latinx, and others — they will focus on the black community that make up the majority of the Westside and south Atlanta neighborhoods.
“We’ve got to start focusing on programs that serve the people that all of these social issues are mostly affecting,” he says. “There’s very few places in the city that are for black entrepreneurs, and I think it’s not just black problem. It’s a people problem, and we’ll be a better city if we do this.”
To achieve his goals, Russell plans to focus on three pillars: inspire, educate, and accelerate. Part of that inspire portion will look like an interactive exhibit showcasing stories of black entrepreneurs.
“That museum component around inspiration is huge — I put it first intentionally. We have a tremendous responsibility to inspire the next generation of doers and innovators by creating a space that espouses a can-do attitude and reflection.”
The education component will provide programming and workshops, and accelerate will center around providing relationships that allow entrepreneurs to scale — leveraging RCIE’s well-connected founders and board to link founders with those that can provide funding, customers or contracts.
As Bailey says, those relationships give funders “license to listen.”
“The H.J. Russell company and family is legendary in the city, and they can bring all their connections to the table — those funders, those VCs, angel investors, banks, to put people through a system where on the other end of that, they’re fundable, they’re scalable,” Bailey explains. “We can be a gateway to those who otherwise wouldn’t get a second look.”
RCIE will likely include a membership option, along with certain free programs. Bailey wants to include an event space for RCIE-hosted and outside events, as well as a co-working area.
Lastly, the Center will host an 8,000-square-foot makerspace and hardware lab, along with an outdoor patio where entrepreneurs can convene.
The next step for Bailey is holding information sessions to find out exactly what the Atlanta community needs and who his target audience is. He does know they’ll cater to entrepreneurs across all industries — technology, real estate, retail and more.
“When you talk about entrepreneurship and growing economies, if we put all of our eggs in the tech basket, I think we could lose,” says Bailey. “When you talk about real estate, commercial real estate, property management, concessions and hospitality — those are things the Russell family does better than anyone in the world.”
“On a large scale we want to be the intersection where hard work and ingenuity meet ideation and high-tech.”
He’s also kicking off a capital campaign this summer to raise the initial funds to build out his current dreams for the Center.
“The Russell family has really stepped up, but we want this to be a shared experience,” he says. In 2016, RCIE also landed a roughly $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce as part of a larger effort to spur economic development planning in “Promise Zones,” neighborhood zones like the Westside that need infrastructural investment.
Bailey is moving fast all around — he says he’d like to begin programming this year and by 2019 see “all these things coming into view.”
“Quite honestly, people need help right now. So I see a possibility, even before we start putting up walls, to start providing access and opportunity.”
Featured photo by Cliff Robbins