When Jesica Averhart first moved to the Triangle from Ohio, she was taking care of her small child, in the middle of a divorce and changing careers. She said it was a perfect storm for self-doubt.
Yet 14 years later, Averhart has made a notable impact. As the Executive Director for Leadership Triangle, Averhart trains and transforms leaders in the area. She has also served as the Director of Corporate Partnerships for Capitol Broadcasting in the American Tobacco Historic District, building on her earlier career running her own boutique event production company that counted clients such as the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns (NFL) and Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA).
While Averhart was new to the Triangle and facing these challenges, she had what she calls a “crucible moment.” She made a choice to move forward.
“You just get it together, you straighten up your back and you go,” Averhart said. “That’s been the best decision I’ve made because I use that same motto over and over and over again.”
Back in Ohio, Averhart grew up in Evansport, surrounded by a family of entrepreneurs. She saw hard work and wealth-building up close and personal from a family that owned both an auction barn and worked in real estate.
But Averhart’s situation was unique. Her mother, who raised her as a single parent, is white. Averhart didn’t learn the identity of her biological father, an African-American, until she was an adult; she was the product of a brief dalliance between them in Germany. As a result, Averhart grew up as the only black person in a town of 284 people.
Part of the reason Averhart moved to the Triangle 14 years ago was to make sure her son Tre’ had a good place to grow up, away from the more severe pressures of racism and segregation in Cincinnati. Tre’ is what motivates Averhart in the work she does.
“I’m fortunate to be highly-resourced and have great connections,” Averhart said, “and if I can use those resources and those connections in order to close some gaps for him, that’s what I want to do. And he represents everybody that’s coming behind me.”
Averhart became involved with Leadership Triangle after first taking its Transforming Leaders class in 2012 while she worked for Capitol Broadcasting. She took the course again in 2016 before taking on its leadership role. Averhart said Leadership Triangle develops leaders while unpacking issues like sustainable agriculture and opioid addiction.
“We build leadership capacity and capacity in the human form,” Averhart said. “We’re taking the folks in this region across four counties and inviting them to have the opportunity to grow themselves professionally. And then it always spilled over personally around understanding their community better.”
The Triangle tech startup ecosystem is close to Averhart’s heart through her former work with American Tobacco and American Underground. Averhart, who is in the middle of writing a memoir centered on ‘crucible moments,’ also plans to co-found her own tech startup soon. (Sorry, she wouldn’t give any spoilers.)
“The culture in Durham is very diverse, very inclusive and there’s a lot of opportunity,” Averhart said. “It’s not perfect, but this is a really good place to build your business no matter what you look like.”
Focus On Inclusivity
Averhart is working on The Future of Work and Entrepreneurship Center, a new innovation center in Atlanta, and inclusivity is an important component of her work. She is one of the “co-disruptors” who are the founders of downtown Durham’s Black Wall Street Homecoming, an annual networking event that launched five years ago for early-stage entrepreneurs focused on the intersection of content, connections and culture. Averhart said she hosts a house party every year where brand-new startup founders can have drinks with the likes of Arlan Hamilton, the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital.
“That level of access just does not exist,” Averhart said. “But in our culture, we create moments like that.”
Averhart, who began taking risks when she quit her first corporate finance job at General Electric at age 22 because it didn’t line up with her values, would tell her past self to live large and stay curious. She said she’s been doing this ever since. Building a legacy is also important to her.
“I feel like everybody’s given an opportunity to make a difference,” Averhart said. “We only have a little bit of time on the planet, so for me, I see this as something that I can leave behind.”