DURHAM, N.C. — The American Underground, a campus for entrepreneurs here, established a bold goal at the start of 2015: To build the most diverse start-up hub in the country inside of two years.
This statement raised some eyebrows but, after nearly a year of experimentation and hard work, Durham is building not only a thriving start-up scene but a richly diverse one.
Nationally, only about 1% of start-up founders are black and 8% are female, according to CB Insights. But as a result of carefully considered decisions made at the American Underground, 15% of companies here are led by African Americans and 29% by women. These figures are up from the beginning of 2014 when we reported 5% of American Underground companies were led by African-Americans and 7% by women.
While we’re still in our early stages, the issue is of national importance because research increasingly shows that diverse work forces, brainstorming teams and leadership systems help to generate higher revenue and rates of return for companies compared to their homogeneous counterparts. Developing more diverse entrepreneurial ecosystems also creates more opportunity for people of different backgrounds to succeed.
Working with CODE2040, an organization committed to building a more diverse technology economy, our premise was simple: By committing to the development of an inclusive start-up ecosystem on the ground floor in an up-and-coming startup community like Durham, we might achieve results that improve on similar efforts being made in more established hubs — such as Silicon Valley — with a history of homogeneity.
While we’re far from finished, our success so far suggests four important pathways to developing a more diverse startup community: prioritization, leadership, partnerships and exposure.
MAKE DIVERSITY A PRIORITY
Diversity can easily become a talking point without substance. It isn’t an easy issue. Social and economic boundaries are formidable. That’s exactly why it’s key to make diversity a priority. After establishing our goal, we reached out to the established entrepreneurial community — primarily white — to build the case. This process helped pave the way for our more direct approaches to the issue.
CODE2040 funded an entrepreneur-in-residence at the American Underground to build relationships between the hub and local black and Latino communities and to open the doors like never before. We then organized a community-based hackathon — a staple event of start-up hubs that are usually overwhelmingly made up of white males. With African-American and Latino leaders running the show and tapping into their networks, the hackathon ended up being 70% minority.
The American Underground teamed with Durham’s historically black North Carolina Central University to host “Black Wall Street: Homecoming,” both a celebration of our city’s rich history of African-American entrepreneurship and a showcase of new opportunities for innovation and funding now taking shape through our entrepreneurial ecosystem. We tuned in to Durham’s musical heritage by sponsoring a technology component of the city’s popular Art of Cool jazz festival. The point is to knit together previously disconnected threads of the community.
All of this has meant exposing more people — especially youth — to the possibility of a bright, welcoming future in the innovation economy. To incite lasting, sustainable change, we need to target the people who will be decision makers and entrepreneurs 10 years from now. It’s a journey that continues through an initiative that wraps together all the elements above: Exposure2040. Through this multi-pronged program, we aim to give 2,040 people access to the American Underground and its resources for the very first time.
A year after establishing diversity as a top priority, we’re learning lessons and making real progress. But in keeping with the start-up ethos of never being satisfied, that isn’t enough. Next year, we’ll raise the bar. We hope you will, too.
Talib Graves-Manns is entrepreneur in residence at the American Underground in partnership with CODE2040. A serial entrepreneur, he has co-founded a few ventures including RainbowMe, Point AB and Life On Autopilot. Adam Klein is the chief strategist of the American Underground, a campus for entrepreneurs based in Durham, NC and home to 225 start-up companies.
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1YnuQxN