The Durham Chamber of Commerce held its first Economic Development Summit Wednesday at the Millennium Hotel. The event consisted of two sister sessions: the first a panel discussion of entrepreneurship in the Durham region, the second a keynote analysis of where Durham needs to go to reach its venture capitalist goals. Bob Pickens, CED’s director of entrepreneurship, moderated the panel. Panelists included Christopher Gergen, Rachel Weeks and Aaron Houghton. A little about the three:
Chris Gergen – a professor at Duke University, a founding partner of Life Entrepreneurs, LLC, and a co-author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Gergen also spearheads the ‘Bull City Forward’ initiative.
–> Why his business is interesting: Gergen considers himself a “cultural entrepreneur”, a term he gleaned from a bar conversation in Chile with a fellow entrepreneur who had just founded his own university. Essentially, a cultural entrepreneur is one who begins a business with future-driven social goals in mind. Pursuing the Triple Bottom Line: people, profits, and planet—is now integral to sustainability and growth as a business, he says. In order to retain the region’s up-and-coming talent, it’s no longer solely about financial matters.
Rachel Weeks –a Duke grad and owner/founder of School House Ethical Fashion, an alternative collegiate apparel brand that stresses compensating international suppliers well to ensure a free but fair clothing market.
–> Why her business is interesting: Weeks’s vision is to break away from an industry dominated by the oligopoly and exploitative practices of brands like Nike and Champion. Not only do her clothes vary in style and design from the athletic tag mold, but she has committed to paying her Sri Lanka-based employees a much more comfortable “living wage” than the aforementioned titans. She launched her product with a Duke line and has since expanded to a host of different colleges and universities.
Aaron Houghton – the co-founder and Board Chairman/CIO of iContact, who began the company at age 22. Houghton also serves as CEO to North Carolina-based technology start-up Preation.
–> Why his business is interesting: Houghton graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a BS in Computer Science and did not waste any time in getting his feet wet in the start-up world. He and co-founder/CEO Ryan Allis started iContact the same year (Houghton 22 at the time; Allis 19!). iContact manages email marketing, newsletter distribution, and RSS feeds for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Formerly he ran StartupWithMe.com, a service which allowed start-ups, VC’s, and entrepreneurs to match and connect with potentially compatible co-investors and innovators to better ensure success. His businesses also donate to regional charities and non-profits each year to strengthen the community.
All three spoke about their personal success stories—and challenges (Houghton and Allis spent a year living in their office above a Qdoba eating frozen hot dogs), but also about where they see room for improvement in Durham’s entrepreneurial community. “Locale conditions matter,” said Gergen. “Durham is an ideal location to build out an entrepreneurial ecosystem because it’s small enough to make a difference in as an entrepreneur. If Durham can position itself as the epicenter of economic development—much like RTP did 50 years ago—we will be enormously successful.” But, he pointed out that the region still lacks adequate collective support to achieve this. The idea is to build Durham into an economic ‘cluster’: a geographical block cohabited by companies of the same kind receiving well-suited investments and thriving by a constructive policy climate. (Ex: how Italy has become a mecca for shoes.) The cluster concept is a flywheel—a device that gains its own momentum once it gets going—but it still needs that initial push. “Durham has all the right ingredients,” Gergen said. “But if we’re not intentional about this, we’re going to miss the opportunity.”
One way Durham might miss the bus is by not having a proper publicity campaign to show others who it is and what it’s about. The White House now has a special spotlight program to distinguish these clusters, and it’s the city’s job to brand itself as a hub of social innovation. It must be a total collaboration, the panel said, including everyone from investors to policy-makers, from public school representatives to college-aged interns. Weeks said she has more UNC, Duke, and NCSU interns employed at School House than actual employees this summer, and she is tickled with how hardworking and enthusiastic they are. It’s crucial to retain this local talent and make sure they don’t skip town to New York or Miami after graduation for more-established VC markets. This is a major plank of Gergen’s ‘Bull City Forward’ initiative, aimed at becoming the conscience to the Durham economic cluster; how does we homegrow talent and keep it here down the road?
But, first, how does all this happen in such a tumultuous economic climate? The panel described a sea change in the general nature of start-ups going forward. “Consumers coming out of this experience are highly distrustful of the system we once knew,” Weeks said. “The next big companies and home runs are going to be socially responsible concepts.” Houghton classified many VCs today as “accidental entrepreneurs”, ousted from their tenured corporate desk jobs, and encouraged them to stay with their new start-ups even after the economy gets back on track and those desk jobs are open once again.