My first internship was at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a Google Tech Hub and startup incubator in Nashville, Tennessee. Since that experience, I have been fascinated with the work that the country’s 10 Google Tech Hubs are doing to diversify the innovation economy through the Google for Entrepreneurs and Code2040 entrepreneur-in-residence program. During my visit to Durham, North Carolina, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Durham’s Google Tech Hub, the American Underground.
I walked into the space on a Wednesday afternoon, eager to explore and get a feel for the hub. The steep stairs that lead the way from the entrance and private offices to the basement, where the coworking area is located, instantly gave the space a rustic, urban feel. In the basement, T-shirt clad entrepreneurs were eating pizza and swapping ideas at the AU’s “Helpfest,” a weekly program during which members collaborate on ways to build the success of their companies. The community atmosphere was apparent, as members excitedly took the microphone to share their tips and tricks. American Underground, which was dubbed the “The Startup Capital of the South” by CNBC, had an atmosphere that perfectly matched the culture of Durham.
The American Underground’s history is inextricably tied with that of the city AU calls home. The city was built on a thriving tobacco and textile industry, and the impact of those industries are apparent in the infrastructure. Textile factories have been converted into studios and galleries. Tobacco mills have been refurbished to house the food, fun and eclectic culture that characterizes Durham. In the same way, the American Underground is repurposing the industries of old to make way for a new wave of thriving Durham industry. The hub was created in the basement of the building that used to house the American Tobacco Company as a way to rebuild the city after years of economic devastation when the tobacco and textile companies closed. Since then, it has grown to house over 250 companies.
While many entrepreneurial communities are currently trying to solve the industry’s “diversity problem,” diversity is built into the American Underground’s history. In Durham’s most prosperous times, African-Americans were able to take part in the thriving economy, a trend not often seen in similar cities in the South. On the same street that was home to the American Tobacco Company, black businesses such as North Carolina Mutual and Mechanics and Farmers Bank were created. This resulted in the highest concentration of African-American millionaires in the country at the time. Parrish Street was dubbed “Black Wall Street”.
So, naturally, a renaissance of economic growth in Durham would have to come with inclusion, a responsibility not lost on the staff of the American Underground. The tech hub has undertaken extensive diversity and inclusion initiatives. American Underground’s partnerships include SOAR Triangle, a program that addresses the funding gap that female founders face, Code the Dream, which diversifies the tech talent pipeline by teaching computer programming basics to immigrant and minority students. American Underground also hosts the Google for Entrepreneurs Black Founders Exchange, a week-long immersion program and pitch competition. “We provide a counter narrative to that of Silicon Valley. For Durham, [diversity and inclusion] comes naturally,” says Philippe Charles, director of communications for the American Underground.
Their end-goal is to make Durham a destination for founders from all backgrounds to thrive. Thus far, it seems to be working. According to the startup hub’s 2015-2016 Annual Report, of the over 257 companies that call the AU home, 48.2% are minority or female-led. Over the years, AU companies have raised over $50 million in venture capital funding and created almost 1,000 new jobs here in the Raleigh-Durham area. Two of the past three Google Demo Days have been won by AU companies.
Durham may not be the city that immediately comes to mind when we think of startups, but the movement at the American Underground does not plan to slow down until Durham is an entrepreneurship household name.