Providing Inclusive Opportunities in Durham’s Innovative Economy

Providing Inclusive Opportunities in Durham’s Innovative Economy

Amid the fast growth, multiple organizations are working to ensure that our city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is as demographically representative as possible

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Breaking ground for the Durham Innovation District. Photo by Jonathan Drake

Helping fuel Durham’s booming innovation economy are entrepreneurial hubs like American Underground, iNvictus Office Center, ReCity and Duke University’s new Innovation & Entrepreneurship Bullpen, as well as a growing number of high-growth, high-impact enterprises. Adding to this growth is the 15-acre Durham Innovation District already underway just west of downtown with an expected 1 million square feet of lab and office space for life science companies as well as 300,000 square feet of residential units.T his growth is, however, not without risks. Just down Main Street is northeast central Durham – a majority minority community that has a centrally located, under-developed commercial corridor and an emerging entrepreneurial community. The city invested $4 million in street improvements in the Angier-Driver corridor, but without an intentional plan to stabilize home ownership; invest in education opportunities; accelerate and strengthen local minority ownership and small business activity; and (critically) ensure community buy-in and participation, there is a significant risk of gentrification, displacement and local frustration as downtown grows.

Durham (like the rest of North Carolina) has alarmingly low rates of social mobility and high rates of economic insecurity. According to a recent report from Durham-based economic development nonprofit MDC, if you are born in the bottom economic quintile in Durham there is a 40% chance you will stay there and only a 5% chance of getting into the top quintile.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to provide greater economic opportunity for all our citizens. The East Durham Children’s Initiative is a collective impact approach dedicated to breaking cycles of poverty for families through comprehensive education and social service strategies. Made in Durham is a relatively new effort to help more than 4,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 – who are not in school or work – with access to job training and livable wage jobs.

To help grow the number of local minority-owned businesses in East Durham, a number of nonprofits have come together including Community Partnerships Inc., the Helius Foundation, North Carolina Central University’s Small Business and Technology Development Center and Durham Tech’s Small Business Center to provide technical assistance and support to small businesses in east Durham. This includes a micro-loan fund recently underwritten by Duke.

In support of these endeavors, Durham is now part of a nationwide, multi-city learning collaborative with New Orleans, Cleveland and Detroit focused on inclusive innovation called Forward Cities – with a specific mandate to grow the number of locally owned minority enterprises. American Underground has also put diversity and inclusion at the center of their growth plan, and 48% of their member companies are now minority/female led (a 30% increase from last year). They’ve also partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs to help launch the first Google Exchange for Black Founders and a CODE2040 – to foster a pipeline of next-generation black and Latino tech talent.

Durham’s history of African-American-led commerce – including Black Wall Street and flourishing neighborhoods of color like Hayti (until it was decimated by “urban renewal” in the 1950s) – should help inspire a dynamic sense of possibility for our city in which prosperity is shared, our innovation economy is truly inclusive and we become a model for other cities in the South and the nation. It is up to all of us to help make this vision a reality.