Building Equity Into Durham’s Startup Scene

American Underground’s office and co-working space in downtown Durham, North Carolina (Credit: American Underground)

Talib Graves-Manns grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, he watched his father build a successful women’s apparel business while his mother managed a local real estate firm. It was no surprise that he went on to earn an MBA and launch a business of his very own.

Last year, Graves-Manns was selected as one of three entrepreneurs from across the U.S. to participate in a business incubator initiative run by CODE2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports black and Latino tech professionals. The yearlong CODE2040 Residency, backed by Google for Entrepreneurs, provided the three with $40,000 each, free co-working space, mentorship from Silicon Valley veterans at Google’s headquarters and resources to create community-building events throughout the year.

“I was spending a lot of time in the Valley, expanding my knowledge as a marketing analytics consultant, and getting deep into the technology behind the work,” Graves-Manns says. “I started developing relationships in the black tech scene and someone told me about the CODE2040 program. I knew it would be a perfect opportunity for me to fund and grow a business without having to leave Durham.”

Founded in 2012, CODE2040 has a student initiative that pairs experts with top minority engineering students and connects them with professional development opportunities and access to internships at major tech companies. The organization launched its multicity entrepreneur residency program as a pilot in March 2015 in Durham, Austin and Chicago.

With Code2040’s support, Graves-Manns set up shop at American Underground — a co-working hub in the basement of a transformed tobacco warehouse on the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. Since opening its doors in 2010, American Underground has become home to more than 227 active startups — 22.4 percent of which are led by minority founders. To date, the hub’s startup community has created 431 jobs.

“The biggest benefit in our partnership with CODE2040 has been in proving the success of what can happen in a small market like Durham,” says Jesica Averhart, director of community partnerships and new business development for the American Tobacco Historic District, which manages American Underground. “We’re not Atlanta, or New York, or the Valley. But by hosting an entrepreneur in residence, we were able to really spotlight and encourage great work around diversity and inclusion that is important for our city.”

American Underground’s co-working space (Credit: American Underground)

During his tenure, Graves-Manns co-launched RainbowMe, an Internet TV concept for kids that’s meant to be entertaining and educational, and features multicultural main characters. The company has raised an additional $36,000, a success Graves-Manns directly attributes to the connections he made during the CODE2040 program.

Another aspect of the residency includes the charge for entrepreneurs and their partner co-working hub to build bridges to technology for minorities in their respective communities.

Last October, Graves-Manns and American Underground launched the Black Wall Street homecoming summit, which paid homage to the city’s thriving black business district in the late 1800s where 125 black-owned financial institutions and shopkeepers reigned in the heart of Durham. The three-day summit included workshops and panel discussions for local black business owners looking to fund and grow their businesses in the city. College students were also invited to participate and meet local and national venture capitalists and investors. There’s an encore in the works for 2016.

Programs like CODE2040 are critical to the growth of diverse entrepreneurship among Durham’s growing black and Latino population. As a rising hub for technology startups, bioscience and engineering, Durham is a prime location for building a business and sourcing adept talent without the high living costs associated with a larger city. Historically, minority populations in the city remain underserved by opportunities and access to funding and business support.

A 2013 disparity report funded by the city of Durham revealed that fewer than 3 percent of all city contracts for construction, goods and services were awarded to minorities and women. The city council is currently working toward revamping initiatives to engage the minority business community. Averhart’s team continues to share best practices with city leaders on ways to create inclusive initiatives to increase funding and support for diverse founders.

“We’re going to see real movement in Durham in the next two to four years as the city identifies the best path forward in the form of coding schools and funding initiatives,” Averhart says. “In our relationship with the city, we’re pushing them to think much more intentionally about how they’re spending their resources. They started to take notice of our work with CODE2040 and as a diverse co-working space, and they are learning from our successes.”

Currently, the city does not track minority entrepreneurs or the types of businesses they start. American Underground, in addition to hosting a CODE2040 entrepreneur for the 2015-2016 year plans to expand its reach of bringing technology into the community to inspire innovation and business development through coding programs for undocumented residents and classes for historically black colleges and universities in the area.

“We need continued access to capital coupled with business accelerator education to help support local entrepreneurs who are worried about paying their rent as they grow their dream,” Graves-Manns says. “CODE2040 gave me the time, space and resources to grow a business and serves as a model that works in Durham.”