Business

Durham’s Black Wall Street Homecoming marks its fifth year of supporting startups

Jesica Averhart, director of corporate partnership for American Underground.
Jesica Averhart, director of corporate partnership for American Underground. N&O File Photo

Jesica Averhart, one of the architects behind the Black Wall Street Homecoming in Durham, knows there is still a long way to go before black entrepreneurs can compete on a level playing field with their white counterparts.

But in the past five years, she believes, there has been a significant change in the levels of support black founders of startups receive — in part because of efforts from people like her.

In 2015, Averhart thought community support for black tech entrepreneurs was basically nonexistent, both locally and nationally. Only 1% of funded startup founders were black, according to a report from CB Insights in 2015. And just 0.2% of venture capital went to women of color between 2012 and 2014, Wired Magazine reported.

So Averhart, executive director of Leadership Triangle, and several of her colleagues created Black Wall Street Homecoming, a celebration and gathering of tech leaders and investors from all over the U.S. Other founders include Tobias Rose, Talib Graves-Manns and Dee McDougal.

“The original idea,” Averhart said, “was ... to invite (black venture capitalists) and angel investors from across the country to come together to meet in Durham during North Carolina Central University’s homecoming weekend.”

What was meant to be just a weekend barbecue has grown into an annual three days of networking, talks and startup pitches for founders of color.

The event even helped spark the Google for Startups Exchange Program for Black Founders — a Google-funded summit that brings black-founded startups, entrepreneurs and investors together for a week of intense classes and meetings about how to overcome obstacles. The summit is in its fourth year in Durham at American Underground, one of 11 Google-backed tech hubs in North America.

It was the Google exchange program that highlighted Durham as a historical place for black entrepreneurialism.

Averhart said the goal of the homecoming is to get back to the mentality of the original Black Wall Street, when Durham had one of the largest concentrations of black wealth in the nation thanks to a thriving black banking sector that could help fund black enterprises across the city and North Carolina.

BWS!
Co-founders of Black Wall Street, from left to right, Talib Graves-Manns, Tobias Rose and Jesica Averhart, speak at the Black Wall Street Homecoming in 2015. file photo The Herald-Sun

She now sees that infrastructure starting to come back, where black founders of startups can tap into capital and have the security of knowing their community has their back if they fail. Corporate funders have also been more included to work with Black Wall Street in recent years to make the event larger, Averhart said.

There’s still much work to be done — “We have not arrived,” Averhart said, “and we have a while to get there” — but attitudes are slowly changing.

“What I am sensing … is that there is a fearlessness around creating your own wealth through trusting your ideas and stepping into the unknown territory of starting your own company,” Averhart said. “Not sure I felt that fearlessness within the black community five to 10 years ago.”

“People feel there is a support network that didn’t exist before,” she added.

Durham-based American Underground, a significant partner to Black Wall Street Homecoming, has tried to address those disparities in recent years, at least locally. A few years ago, the co-working space said it hoped to become the most diverse startup hub in the nation.

AMERICAN
The American Underground in Durham will again serve as the host for the Google for Startups exchange for black founders. N&O File Photo

According to its most recent annual report, from 2018, 30% of the companies there are led by a person of color. That is an increase from 28.4% in 2016.

And American Underground’s partnership with Google has now brought 32 black-funded startups from all over the world to Durham for its summit (not including this year’s cohort, which includes three North Carolina companies).

“Thirty of those companies are still in existence, and we have alumni of 20 of those are coming back this week for content and connections,” said Tarryn Henry, startup programs manager at American Underground. “The network is extensive and it is continuing to grow.”

Two thriving startups that came out of the summit have been locally based. RewardStock, a travel rewards company based in Cary, was part of the first cohort and eventually went on to get money from Mark Cuban during a Shark Tank episode. And Durham-based social media company SpokeHub recently raised $2 million in funding from a black angel investment group.

Supporting black-led startups will have a positive impact on the area’s economy, said Molly Demarest, general manager of American Underground.

“Intentionally looking at how the work we do ... contributes back to the local ecosystem, from an economic development standpoint, we take very seriously,” she said. “We think startups can diversify economic opportunity, and that is not just for founders (of startups). That has a ripple effect in the community.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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