Business Columns & Blogs

In NC, new efforts to break down community barriers

A global survey of executives by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 86 percent of senior leaders believe that the ability to work across boundaries is extremely important for their success. Yet, just 7 percent said they were very effective at it.

Give them credit, at least, for being honest.

Spanning boundaries, whether it involves geography, generations, organizations or politics, is never easy, because it requires finding common ground with people and ideas outside of our comfort zones. It’s hard work – and lately, we’re seeing what happens when we’re not willing to do it.

In Britain, citizens voted to walk away from the European Union. In the United States, we’re mired in a highly polarizing presidential campaign. Here in North Carolina, the divide between urban and rural communities continues to grow, fueling controversial laws that undercut our state’s enormous potential.

The headlines frequently offer little hope. But a closer look reveals that collaboration – in politics, business and faith – may still prevail in the Tar Heel state. As an antidote to a summer political season that promises to be long and overheated, let’s focus on a few important attempts to break down, rather than build, boundaries in our communities.

The most recent example comes from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, which has launched the North Carolina Leadership Forum. The initiative will bring more than 30 leaders with widely differing political viewpoints together over the next year to focus on this critical question: How can we enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families?

Funded by the Duke Endowment, the John William Pope Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, this project aims to model civil discourse among our state’s liberal and conservative leaders, build their professional and personal ties, and deliver bipartisan policy proposals that bolster our economy. It’s hard to see this effort as anything other than a much needed step in the right direction.

About 30 miles north of Charlotte, a big experiment in collaborative research and development is unfolding at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. Built on the site of a massive Pillowtex plant that closed in 2003, creating the largest mass layoff in North Carolina’s history, the 350-acre research campus is the brainchild of David H. Murdock, chairman and CEO of Dole Food Co. As a public-private partnership seeking to spur innovation in biotechnology, nutrition, agriculture and health, the campus transcends traditional academic and corporate silos, bringing together more than a half-dozen universities from throughout the state and industry partners including Dole, General Mills and Monsanto.

Since opening in 2008, the campus has created about a thousand jobs, injecting new life in Kannapolis’ economy and bolstering the life sciences industry in the Charlotte region. UNC Greensboro researchers, for example, have garnered millions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health to pursue pioneering treatments for diabetes and liver disease, while researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University and other institutions are exploring the potential of fruits, vegetables and grains to prevent and treat cancer.

Faith offers another key arena for collaboration, and the Triangle Interfaith Alliance is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The nonprofit organization’s board represents many faiths, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Just two weeks ago, the group held a prayer service dedicated to Orlando and the victims of the recent shootings there, offering a community where people can “find solace and have spiritual dialogue with people from all faiths,” said Madhu Sharma, a Hindu chaplain at Duke who serves at the alliance’s president. The group is active throughout the region, teaming with local high schools on education projects and working to address hunger and housing challenges.

As Helen Keller once noted, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The initiatives described here honor that spirit, daring us not only to work together more effectively but to do so by deliberately dismantling the constructs that keep us apart. It’s a mindset that doesn’t take hold easily but can be world-altering when it does.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.