In the early 1900s, downtown Durham’s Parrish Street was a thriving entrepreneurial hub for African American-owned businesses and financial services — so much so that it earned the name ‘Black Wall Street’. Today, with the help of players in the Triangle, North Carolina startup community, that legacy has come back to life.
Raleigh and Durham have been earning recent accolades as one of the country’s emerging technology centers. Behind the scenes, Google for Entrepreneurs tech hub American Underground (AU) is one of the main cheerleaders of this growth. The co-working and incubation space is just a few steps from the legacy of Black Wall Street on W Main St in downtown Durham.
“We didn’t create entrepreneurship in this city; if anything, we learned from the city how to be successful entrepreneurs already here,” says Phillipe Charles, director of communications and member experience at AU. “We have to look at programming and communications and how we’re interfacing with the larger community, always making sure that there’s a landing space that they can come and be a part of some of the things that we’re doing. That’ll always be a challenge.”
According to the 2015-16 AU annual report, $26.7 million were raised by AU-headquartered companies, with 1,000+ jobs created. Of those companies, nearly 30 percent were minority-led. Charles’ main mission is to connect these emerging entrepreneurs within the hub to existing investors and resources that can help them scale their businesses.
“We’re at an exciting point in the city’s history and future. There are a lot of ideas and people coming into the city. What that also means is that people who have been in the city don’t exactly know how to connect with those new resources or avoid being displaced by those newcomers,” says Charles.
Charles came to AU from a network TV background, ready for a change. The risk paid off — he says that in a way, it makes him understand the obstacles of the startup founders he works with daily.
“It was a challenge for me and I was kind of excited by that challenge,” says Charles. “I’ve never been around entrepreneurs like this.”
Now, he’s focusing on getting better at telling the stories of the companies within the walls of the AU, and using their wins to create traction and put the spotlight on the city.
“For a startup, little wins are a big deal, especially for people outside of our space to see what’s going on. Part of the traction we hope to create is in people realizing that exciting things are happening in Durham and at American Underground and that they want to come and be a part of that,” says Charles.
Through speakers, workshops, and even a visit from Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour not too long ago, the AU team is indeed putting the spotlight on their founders. Most recently, they hosted the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange for Black Founders. Founders from Loanable, Zyrobotics, Please Assist Me, DisputeDoc, and more came to learn about preparing for a seed round, discuss the challenges that face underrepresented founders, and build their network.
In the end, Charles and the American Underground team are hoping to build a more inclusive startup community across the surrounding Triangle area as well.
“It’s understanding the dual responsibility of what we’re doing and understanding that it’s important for the city to grow, it’s important for the city to be innovative,” says Charles. “We have to be consciously thinking about how we are engaging the larger community, what opportunities we are creating for them to come into this space and realize that entrepreneurship has been happening in this city before tech got here.”
AU does this by being intentional about diverse programming, with the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange being the first step. Their consumer product bootcamp, incubator opportunities, speaker opportunities, and a new creative program addition for artists are all ways to involve new faces that may not normally walk into a tech-focused co-working space.
“It creates a landing space for people that probably wouldn’t traditionally be in a space like this, especially because this is because this is mostly tech-focused,” says Charles. “We’re positioning them to be leaders and hold events for the greater arts community here so that more people that maybe outside of our reach are able to come here and just see it.”
His advice for emerging founders? “You always have to be learning. If you ever think as an entrepreneur that you’re there, then you’re gonna fail.”