What this former tobacco town is doing right.

For two years in a row, Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day has been won by a startup based in Durham, N.C.. Durham, one point in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, has been drawing a lot of attention lately in entrepreneurial circles. See ID8 Nation’s coverage of the Triangle here. We asked Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Adam Klein of the American Underground, the city’s entrepreneurial hub, to explain the secrets to the city’s success.

Rising Downtowns Need Bridges As Much As Skyscrapers
By Mayor Bill Bell & Adam Klein

Entrepreneurship is putting downtown Durham on the map in a whole new way. In fact, there may be no city center in the entire United States more attuned to the bouncy energy and upbeat rhythms of entrepreneurship than ours.

Some may contest this assertion. And we confess to not conducting a per capita study. But in the story that unfolds below, you’ll see how history, strategy and serendipity combined to transform our downtown. And you may find nuggets relevant to ALL ambitious communities.

Let’s start with why a downtown matters. It’s simple: a city’s downtown is its focal point, a critical mass of people and places that can serve as a crossroads for a community’s economic and cultural life. A downtown defines a city as a living room defines a home.

Like many downtowns, Durham’s first Golden Age came largely because of a single booming industry — in our case, tobacco. While soaring historic structures still remind us of all that, the era of the one-horse metro has mostly passed.

The key to a successful downtown in the modern era isn’t the skyline, as inspiringly iconic as they can be. Rather, it’s the experience of individuals. Person by person, the crossroads proves and cements its value and relevance.

During the past few decades, many downtowns have struggled to remain relevant as suburbs and office parks gained prominence. In Durham, we’ve addressed this challenge by building bridges — not physical bridges, but connections between people and groups, often entrepreneurs.

To connect these dots, consider the bridges traveled by Tatiana Birgisson. A busy student at Duke University, Tatiana found herself looking for a daily pick-me-up. Her search revealed a gap in the energy drink market: the world seemed to lack a caffeinated beverage exclusively brewed with healthy ingredients.

So she cooked up a recipe involving black tea leaves, fruit and a pasta pot. The homebrew was a hit with students, some of whom connected her with Duke’s entrepreneurial gurus. That led her to the American Underground, a Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub located on downtown Durham’s nearby Main Street.

Through the American Underground, Tatiana joined a coaching program for female entrepreneurs called Soar. Today, Tatiana’s company, MATI Energy, has notched sales in the six figures. And through another American Underground connection, she won the opportunity to fly to Silicon Valley to pitch investors at the annual Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day. The 25-year-old won the competition, the second year in a row it’s been won by a Durham-based company.

Bridges feature prominently in Tatiana’s story:

• Duke has been a friendly neighbor to downtown Durham for decades, and a pioneer in fostering entrepreneurship among students.

• The American Underground sprang from a public-private partnership that turned a derelict cigarette factory in downtown Durham — the American Tobacco Campus — into a home for innovative businesses and a launchpad for startups. It now boasts an ecosystem of around 200 companies.

• The American Underground’s talent pipeline and appealing urban setting attracted the interest of not only budding business people, but Google for Entrepreneurs. Its emphasis on diversity — as befits a downtown melting pot — meant Tatiana felt welcome.

In addition to these big, overarching bridges, downtown Durham is host to more intimate connections. On Main Street, for example, the Beyu Caffe hums night and day with meetings. Professors and dreamers, startup founders and seasoned mentors create a constant clamor fueled by locally sourced coffee and pastries.

The Beyu’s main dish, though, is a palpable pride of place — the kind of pride that bustling downtowns engender like nothing else. This excitement builds on itself and ends up attracting still more Tatianas. In the intimacy and intensity of a downtown individuals bond, ideas travel and the bridges open to new horizons. People now not only want to go to work in downtown Durham, but go home there, too.

We still have much to do here, no doubt. But we’re eager to share what’s worked for us so far:

• Education: Universities and community colleges are bursting with talented people and promising ideas. Don’t let them get away.

• Partnerships: The private and public sectors have worked together in Durham to revitalize key areas. The aforementioned American Tobacco Campus is well established, and the Durham Innovation District (aka Durham.ID) — which includes wet labs — is well on its way.

• Entrepreneurship: The American Underground’s 2014 annual report counted 323 jobs created by its startups and estimated they had spent more than $675,000 in and around the city center. The hub also supports two programs designed to nurture diversity: SOAR (geared toward women) and Google’s CODE2040 Entrepreneur in Residence (geared toward African Americans and Latino/as).

• Pride: This is a downtown’s secret sauce. Do everything you can, tap every form of social and traditional media to celebrate what makes your community different and special.

North Carolina’s historic Bull City has a new swagger. When TIME Magazine columnist Joe Klein visited, he noted, “there’s a jauntiness and an optimism to the place.” A place that just a decade earlier wasn’t at all certain of a bright future. We still have challenges to overcome. But we’re working on them. Bridge by bridge.

Bill Bell has been mayor of Durham since 2001. Adam Klein is chief strategist at the American Underground.


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