In a region dominated by long-established co-working spaces such as Durham’s American Underground and HQ Raleigh and now the appearance of local offshoots of global giants like WeWork, newcomer Provident 1898 is looking to stand out by emphasizing its ties to the Durham community—both past and present.
Located in the historic N.C. Mutual Life building on 411 W Chapel Hill St., Provident 1898 draws its community-centric inspiration from the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, once the world’s largest black-owned business, which uplifted the black community in Durham for much of the 20th century. Even Provident 1898’s name is a nod to the past—the insurance company’s full name upon its founding in 1898 was the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Company.
That history still means a lot to Provident 1898 Co-Founder Carl Webb: “If you look at the success of a 120-year-old company in a time where there were rules and systems set up for you to fail, but yet you still succeeded, and in a city like Durham that’s only 150 years old, that’s inspirational.”
Along with its large open work space and dedicated offices, Provident’s main floor below the building’s lobby includes a kitchen and lounge open to all members of the Durham community—something NC Mutual did with its cafeteria, once located in the same area.
Provident hosted North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel for its grand opening last Thursday, April 18, where it officially opened its space by cutting a ribbon with a straight razor to honor John C. Merrick, the founder of NC Mutual, who started his career as a barber. Merrick was also a prominent business and property owner in what became known as Black Wall Street, Durham’s bustling African-American-led business sector.
Diverse Slate of Tenants
Even before its grand opening, Provident has been busy recruiting members such as Equality NC, a non-profit that fights for LGBTQ rights in North Carolina; The Invictus Group, which provides support and mentoring to entrepreneurs of color; and WhatCounts, an email marketing company.
All founders are welcome, but Webb said that Provident especially wants to support black entrepreneurs and founders of color to help carry on the legacy of Black Wall Street.
“Less than 4% of the businesses that are located in downtown Durham are minority-owned in a city that doesn’t have a racial majority,” he said. “So, clearly there is work to be done.”
Ten of the company’s 14 dedicated offices—which start at $600 a month for one seat—are already leased and WhatCounts alone has 30 employees working out of the space.
Omari Hunt, Provident’s community manager, said one of the co-working space’s main attractions is the diverse types of companies located there.
“We want all types of companies,” Hunt said. “We understand that tech companies are the majority of most co-working spaces, but I think they can benefit from diversity, and other people can benefit from working next to them.”
Work In Progress
Although companies are already working out of the space, Provident is finishing construction on additional common space and dedicated offices on its main floor.
Provident Co-Founder Peter Cvelich said the company is also in the process of developing a 7,000-square-foot space on the first floor that will house WhatCounts, as well as a 9,000-square-foot mezzanine overlooking the lobby.
The company raised money in a friends and family round, but is looking for additional funding to continue running the business.
As the company continues to expand, Webb said he wants to ensure that Provident 1898 supports black founders and the Durham community as a whole.
“We want to elevate the history of the contributions of African-American entrepreneurs, creators and innovators,” Webb said. “We also want to make sure we lean forward into what’s next for the next generation of entrepreneurs so that it’s not just about statues and monuments but creating the next opportunity, the next business that could go on to be around for another 120 years.”