Driving Durham’s Success: Insights From Black Women in Business

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Dive into the experiences of four community leaders as they share perspectives on their own accomplishments as well as what they see for Durham’s future

By Anna-Rhesa Versola

About a year ago, Durham found itself in a noteworthy moment when five Black women occupied top offices for mayor, city manager, city attorney, county manager and police chief, not to mention the innumerable roles Black women fill in many more departments within both city and county government. This year, in honor of Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, we checked in with Black women business leaders and gathered their reflections on what contributed most to their success as well as get their take on how to go about advancing Durham’s economic progress and high-level workforce.

We spoke with Karen LeVert, founder and managing partner of LeVert Ventures; Hylton Daniel design + construction owner Alicia Hylton-Daniel; Kimberly Hewitt, vice president and institutional equity and chief diversity officer at Duke University; and Diversity & HR Solutions President Gracie Johnson-Lopez.

Each of the four women named specific mentors and role models in their lives integral to their personal and professional development. They talked about the importance of optimism and the need to collaborate and form partnerships among educational institutions, government agencies and large corporations alongside smaller enterprises. A couple of women called on local leaders to formally commit to entrepreneurship. And at least two women voiced strong support to be courageous enough to hold difficult conversations about pervasive biases that skew ways we conduct business in our everyday lives. They all said they feel fortunate to live in a city that values diversity, equity and inclusion.

Compared to the rest of the nation, the broader Durham-Chapel Hill community is among the top 10 metro areas for Black womenowned employer firms, according to a report published in 2023 by the Brookings Institution. The 2023 Wells Fargo impact report on women-owned business states that Black women own more than 2 million businesses nationwide, representing 14.8% of all women-owned businesses and generating more than $98 billion in revenue.

Gina Rozier, director of marketing and communication for Downtown Durham Inc., said 314 street-level businesses – mostly retail shops, restaurants, bars or personal service companies – are in the city’s center, and DDI knows of 26 that are owned by Black women, like Gineen Cargo of Gavin Christianson Bridal, Linda Shropshire of Ella West Gallery and Rashanda Mason of The Slush.

As Durham continues to rise from the pandemic’s impact, the region is expected to see rapid continued growth and change. Hewitt, Hylton-Daniel, Johnson-Lopez and LeVert shared their insights on what it takes for Black women to succeed in this economic environment, both as an individual and as a community.

Importance of Mentorship

LeVert said there are not many Black female venture capitalists like her but credits her parents and grandparents for instilling confidence and a belief that she could achieve any goal.

“I marvel at that because they did not have that opportunity,” LeVert said. Her grandmother, who was born in 1904, didn’t have advantages to pursue her own desires, but she urged LeVert to follow her own passions.

“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” LeVert said. “I saw a woman with a briefcase when I was a little girl. And my mom tells me that I [asked], ‘What is that? Who is she? What is she doing?’ And my mom said, ‘That’s a businesswoman.’ I get goosebumps when I think about that now, because I saw that businesswoman, a woman carrying a briefcase. That’s what I want to do one of these days, I want to be carrying a briefcase.”

Hylton-Daniel said she was 7 years old when her family moved from Jamaica to New York. She eventually settled in North Carolina and has been here for more than 25 years. She also didn’t see many Black women as role models in her chosen industry of design and construction. “There was not a lot of representation,” Hylton-Daniel said. So, she relied instead on two male architects – Steve Idol and Barry Hill. “Mentorwise, I would say I worked with architects who I had a good rapport with, who had a lot of faith [in me and who] gave me a lot of trust in working on a project so I could learn as well. And, I asked really good questions.”

Duke University’s Hewitt said her first boss was one of many other women leaders who made a lasting impact on her professional development. “Early on in my career, a woman hired me to work in-house for a public school district,” she said. “She was a throw-you-in-the-deep-end kind of person, which I think really helped me build some confidence.”

Johnson-Lopez said she has a long list of Black female mentors and role models “who saw my potential when I couldn’t see it myself.

“[They] challenged me beyond my own comfort level, and they consistently provided me with a model of what could be and a reminder that the road to success is not easy.”

Making Predictions

LeVert said the best predictor of the future is recent past performance. She’s seen a major transformation across Durham since she arrived in North Carolina in 1996. “It’s a place people are clamoring to live in,” she said, noting that the city has the advantage of being part of Research Triangle Park in addition to a vibrant downtown. “From a business perspective, the people, entrepreneurial vibe and diversity that’s here bodes well for continuing on a positive trajectory.”

Alicia Hylton-Daniel
“I hope that Durham is the model city,” said Alicia Hylton-Daniel. “The people I know are just so proud and so happy to be here that when we see one another, most of the conversation is about our love for the city.” Photo by John Michael Simpson

Hylton-Daniel said she feels welcome in Durham’s smart and culturally diverse environment. But, as a designer and builder, she worries about the impact of rising costs of living that fuels gentrification. “We were a city of segregation,” she said. “Our neighborhoods were very different here in Durham. A neighborhood like Walltown was not built to the same standards, or with the same resources, as its next-door neighbor, Trinity Heights. … That’s a layered conversation, for many reasons.”

Hylton-Daniel said she spoke with another designer and highlighted some of the hidden biases within the business community. “When I bought my house, and I needed it renovated before I became a general contractor, I couldn’t get anyone to do the work, but they were doing the work across the street for the white neighbor,” Hylton-Daniel said. “A lot of Black people would prefer to buy new because they don’t have to deal with aspects of construction. There are not many people who look like me. I am one of the few Black people on my block. I feel like that’s a conversation that we’re not having.”

Despite increasing living costs, Johnson-Lopez believes that Durham has a positive forecast for economic development. “I’m both hopeful, and a little fearful,” she said cautiously. “When I think about it, on the one hand, I think our future outlook is just extremely bright with unlimited opportunities. We have a rich cultural vibe, particularly in downtown. We have diverse voices in leadership, but if we don’t have an intentional commitment to responsible growth to ensure that all of our citizens have affordable and safe housing, health care, food and access to education, we will repeat where we’ve been. I’m all for economic development, but not at all cost.”

Reimagining Workforce Solutions

As a diversity and inclusion officer at Duke, Hewitt spends a lot of time helping people find mentors and developing pathways to leadership. “How do you convince someone that it’s really OK to pursue a leadership position, even if you’re Black and you’re a woman?” she asks reflexively. “How do you build a network when you don’t have exposure to the level of people you really do need to build relationships with? Do we need to rethink how we’re doing that so [mentors] are more accessible to people? I think there’s always got to be a willingness on the part of those who are in leadership to do that. That’s a huge part. The journey isn’t going to be short, and it’s ongoing.”

Johnson-Lopez’s consulting company helps businesses and corporate teams develop cultural competencies. She said this kind of work is tough, but necessary for growth and change.

“First of all, we’ve got to be honest about what gets in the way, and who’s sitting around the table making those decisions,” Johnson-Lopez said, noting that having Black people in key leadership roles doesn’t necessarily mean that the city has the diversity needed to represent all of Durham across race, religion, gender, etc. “I really love it when we have a diversity of voices and perspectives and hues around the table willing to have tough conversations and to listen to one another. When we look at where we’ve had success, you had people who were very different, who saw the world differently, who were different politically, maybe even in terms of their faith and spirituality, and economic difference, all of those, but they were willing to come around the table. I travel a lot, and I sit at tables in other regions. I am proud of the conversations Durham is willing to have – they’re not easy.”

Moments of Pride

LeVert, who is a serial entrepreneur, loves to create businesses (five, so far), and said she is happy about Durham’s collaborative spirit. “Sometimes Silicon Valley gets a bad rap for not being inclusive; we don’t have that here,” she said. “I’m most proud of inclusivity, [our] willingness to help one another.”

Hylton-Daniel said she enjoys Durham’s ability to remain true to its values. “My company can survive and thrive, but also I can be seen here,” she said. “[I can be] who I am. [I] can bring all of [myself] to the floor, and I can be very honest and have these conversations.”

In terms of being part of Durham, Hewitt said she’s appreciative of those who came before her to create the city that stands today. “People who’ve been here much longer than I have, have really worked hard to change the culture and change the way people have access to education, and to housing, and to all these things in the community,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of pioneers here who’ve been in the trenches for a long time. And, I know what the history of Durham is, so [its] transformation is just really exciting. It makes me proud to be even a little part of that.”

Johnson-Lopez said she is “proud to be among the melody of voices who are championing diversity, equity and inclusion. “I am most grateful for the supportive business community who are women and people of color, that we can sustain thriving businesses and [find] opportunities. I don’t take for granted the success that we’ve seen as entrepreneurs, because there are unique challenges we face. I believe most of us understand that many times doors have been opened for us. And there have been people in roles who perhaps we didn’t have access to, who opened those doors. And that has contributed largely to many of our successes. So I am proud to be a part of that collective.”

Kimberly Hewitt
“It’s my hope that we [as Black business women] don’t look at one another as competition,” said Kimberly Hewitt. “I’m a rising tide floats all ships [type of person]. Frankly, that’s how we get better. If we look at ourselves as individuals, it’s very tough, but together, what can we do? The sky’s the limit.” Photo by John Michael Simpson

Looking to the Future

“I think the future is bright for Black women, but not without the honest realization that there are still expectations, there are still barriers, there are still biases, not just in Durham, but anywhere in the country,” Johnson-Lopez said. “I don’t anticipate that they will be gone tomorrow; they haven’t gone away in 400 years.”

Hylton-Daniel said she derives hope from the fearlessness of younger people. “I really appreciate the next generation for many reasons,” she said. “They are having uncomfortable conversations and are so honest about racism and anti-LGBTQ [stances], and I love that about them. I’m hoping to see this next generation of local leaders be considerate of and start building for diversity and inclusion.”

Johnson-Lopez concurred, but emphasizes that continuous improvement requires relentless persistence. “I hope they will keep asking hard questions,” Johnson-Lopez said. “I hope they will demand equity and inclusion. I hope they will continue to place people over politics. I hope they focus on greater participation in local politics, and that they preserve and support low-income elderly and disabled people. Finally, I hope that they will never accept poverty. We are complicated. We are courageous. We are challenging. But, you know, in Durham, it’s in our DNA to survive, and to bring people along and to coexist together.”

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