The Story Behind the Explosion of the ‘Startup Capital of the South’

A rapper, a broadcast company, a chamber of commerce, a downtown booster group, a credit union and one of the world’s best known tech companies. This unusual cast of characters is driving Durham, N.C.’s emergence as what CNBC now calls, “the startup capital of the South.”

The fact is, unlikely partners sometimes produce undeniably appealing ideas — whether the ultimate objective is launching a company or re-launching a city.

Durham is a former tobacco and textile boomtown that, like many industrial cities in the 1980s and 90s, fell on hard times. Enter the comeback’s first unlikely player, Capitol Broadcasting Company, which decided to add to its television and radio portfolio a massive and derelict tobacco factory. CBC lovingly turned the old warehouses into office space, which opened the doors to successful companies eager to set up shop near universities such as Duke, NC Central, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill.

But what about the next generation of innovators? CBC eyeballed a storage basement and somehow found it exactly right for the development of the American Underground, a co-working space for entrepreneurs that might otherwise opt for Silicon Valley or Boston.

The American Underground grew into a 250-company campus and reached well beyond the city’s borders to establish a fruitful association as one of the country’s eight Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hubs.

Another way to grab the attention of startups, the Durham Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Durham Inc. stepped in with two defining ideas. The Bull City Startup Stampede brought three dozen early stage startups to Durham with the lure of free temporary space and a network of entrepreneurs ready to help. Soon after, The Smofficelaunched, known as the “world’s smallest office,” eventually placing one startup in the front window of a downtown coffee shop.

While Durham’s offbeat approach was now its calling card, the city’s greatest strength was its diversity.

Ranking among North Carolina’s most racially diverse metros, the Bull City boasts a proud history as a southern capital of black finance. The American Underground teamed with community leaders to launch the Black Wall Street networking series, which, among other programs, is designed to fuel good ideas and make sure Durham’s success includes everyone. As has become our custom, the startup community found an unconventional way to celebrate, tapping Professor Toon, the American Underground’s Rapper in Residence, to deliver via video our 2015 annual report.

Many ambitious cities desire a bursting portfolio of startups. But without broad community support, efforts may die on the vine or flame out when the next hot thing arrives.

In Durham, we’ve found that diverse teams with an array of perspectives and skill sets make for both innovative solutions to immediate challenges and sustained success.


Time to Shine

“You’re never fully dressed without a shine,” is the tune of Nick Nichols, who can be found at Classic Bootblack, his shoeshine stand between Saladelia and the American Tobacco Barber Shop in the Crowe Building of the American Tobacco Campus. “Shoe shinning is a necessity, like cleaning your clothes,” Nick tells me as a customer climbs up into his shoeshine chair.

Read more in Durham Magainze.


Leadership Triangle Bids Fond Farewell to Longtime President Winkie La Force

(Research Triangle) – September 20, 2016 – Winkie La Force, who helped build Leadership Triangle into one of the region’s premiere coaching and engagement platforms for emerging and established business and community leaders, will retire from her role as president in January.

Jesica Averhart, currently community engagement director at The American Underground startup hub, will assume executive director duties by first quarter 2017 after a transition and orientation period.

La Force arrived at Leadership Triangle in 2002 and quickly made her mark. She established an alumni network so that graduates could keep in touch and help bring along new classes. She set and met ambitious fundraising goals. She steadily increased corporate and nonprofit involvement. And she launched the annual Leadership Triangle Awards Gala.

“Winkie is one of our region’s greatest assets and a driving force for the progress we’ve experienced over the past several decades, says Michael Goodmon, vice president of real estate, Capitol Broadcasting Company, and, chair, Leadership Triangle.

“Winkie leaves very big shoes to fill and our board was unanimous that Jes Averhart is the perfect successor to lead this institution into the future. Like Winkie, Jes personifies Leadership Triangle’s values. You won’t find anyone more collaborative, community-minded and action-oriented than Jes.”

Averhart joined the staff of The American Tobacco Campus in 2011 and took on a series of high profile roles. She helped to conceive and launch Mission Post, a corner of the award-winning campus designated as a collaborative space for nonprofits. She helped to organize and execute beloved community events such as the annual tower lighting. In 2014, she moved to the nationally recognized American Underground startup hub where she spearheaded corporate partnerships (with the likes of Google for Entrepreneurs, Fidelity, Coastal Federal Credit Union, Wells Fargo and others) as well as happenings such as Durham’s annual Black Wall Street activities.  

La Force plans to remain active in the Triangle community. Among other adventures, she’ll apply her well-honed leadership skills to exploits involving her roster of four grandchildren.

About Leadership Triangle

Leadership Triangle is a non-profit organization established in 1992 to educate and promote regionalism across the separate communities of the Triangle. It does this through regional and leadership development classes, seminars and awards. We strive to build leadership capacity, cooperation, and networking opportunities across the public, private and civic sector, preserving local uniqueness while acting regionally to deal with issues such as traffic congestion, water quality, housing affordability, open space, school funding, economic and social equity.