Diversity Series: How Triangle Officials Are Tackling The Issues Head-On

GrepBeat graphic by Ximena Colopy.

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final story of a four-part series on diversity in the Triangle’s tech ecosystem. You can find Part I on Access To Capital here;  Part II on the role that HBCUs play in creating a more equitable talent pipeline here; Part III on DEI initiatives in the workplace here; and the Roadmap to the full series here.]

North Carolina is not immune to the systemic inequalities outlined in the previous pieces of this series. Widespread problems such as unconscious bias, informal networks and hiring pipelines exist on a large scale—hence “systemic.”

A 2020 Kauffman study measures four indicators that illustrate state trends in early stage entrepreneurship: rate of new entrepreneurs, opportunity share of new entrepreneurs, startup early job creation and startup early survival rate.

In the above graphic, darker colors correspond to higher rates of new entrepreneurs. North Carolina (in the lower middle-right) hovers in the middle range with a rate of 0.25% new entrepreneurs, compared to the state with the highest (Florida with 0.47%) and lowest (Rhode Island with 0.17%).

Based on the indicators, the study assigns an index value to each state.

North Carolina earned a score of -0.1, compared to other states ranging from 5 to -7.6. Again, it ranks in the middle of the pack.

Despite the systemic inequalities still holding back people of color and other minority groups from equal opportunities and representation, each county in the Triangle is taking active measures to reverse that reality.

Wake County

Danya Perry compares his work to an old circus trick, like spinning little plates on sticks. He says the trick is not getting the plates to spin, but getting them all to spin at the same time.

Perry is Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and Director of Equitable Economic Development for Wake County Economic Development (WED). Prior to starting those roles two and half years ago, he did nonprofit work for 12 years in community youth development.

His work with WED encompasses efforts not only in Raleigh, but also in Knightdale, Cary, Holly Springs and Apex.

Perry says before he began his inclusive development work, leaders in the department began wondering why economic development was occurring in some parts of the county but not others.

Perry’s work led him to create a vulnerability index that accounted for factors like mobility, poverty, housing vacancy, unemployment, graduation rates and density. They found that the most vulnerable region of the county was in what he calls the “eastern crescent.”

The map rates areas in Wake County from those with the most economic and societal resources to support development, in green, to neighborhoods most lacking those assets in red.

Rather than calling them “vulnerable regions,” Perry reframes the phrasing. He says these areas don’t have as many resources that help support economic mobility.

“When you do that asset map,” Perry said, “if we look at just small business and entrepreneurship, we have to start to geographically convene more events in the east.”

That’s exactly what he did. WED now offers incentives like tax breaks to companies that bring economic activity to the under-resourced areas. 

“It becomes sort of galvanizing the existing resources and thinking critically about where the gaps are with how can folks access this information and these resources to then be able to scale up their business,” he said.

Danya Perry is Wake County’s first-ever Director of Equitable Economic Development and is tasked with creating thoughtful, inclusive growth for the city. (Eamon Queeney for Walter)

Perry also introduced programs in the eastern part of the county catering specifically toward minority populations. Their programs Black Business Momentum and Hispanic Business Momentum each host 40-50 participants per cycle and partner with Wake Technical Community College to offer monthly sessions on topics such as building a brand, marketing and seeking funding.

“The interesting part about it,” Perry said, “and I think the success of it, is the topics don’t change because they are a Black or Hispanic business. What has changed is the voice of inclusion. It speaks to, ‘We need you here. We want you here.’”

Perry says in the past, Chamber events would not always have high participation rates of businesses of color. Now, though, the Pathways program hosts a 20-person cohort of businesses leaders of color with a free, year-long Chamber membership and intensive networking training.

Perry says these cohorts of color mean that a minority business owner can come to an event and know that someone else will be there that looks like them.

“The cool thing about it is we’ve seen a incredible collective will of our community to help support our historically under-networked and under-resourced businesses,” Perry said. “There’s been a lot of intentional, intensive strategies to figure out, how can we change the narrative of not being inclusive in the business space.” 

Orange County

Keysha Jones entered her role as Assistant Director for Community Engagement at UNC’s Entrepreneurship Center in January of this year, but already she’s launched several efforts for inclusion.

Jones says her position has many “buckets,” and one of those is DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) efforts. As a part of the University, her leadership impacts the broader community as well. Anyone who has experienced Chapel Hill knows that the school is tied closely to the surrounding college town.

The Eship Center, where Jones is based, is part of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC. The Eship Center also has a partnership with Innovate Carolina, the town of Chapel Hill and Orange County, which powers the accelerator program, LAUNCH Chapel Hill.

One student-facing effort is the Eship Scholars Program set to launch this fall, powered by NC IDEA. The program will target students from underrepresented groups and connect them with mentors and funding to invest in self-development and innovative ventures.

“The obstacles with entrepreneurship tend to lie in many areas,” Jones said, “but definitely access to capital is one. Securing the funding from NC IDEA was monumental.”

Keysha Jones, the Asst. Director of Community Engagement for UNC’s Eship Center

Jones also put together two events in July that focused on inclusion in entrepreneurship, first “Creating a Space for Black Entrepreneurs” at the beginning of the month, and a few weeks later “Office & Work Culture: Is it Truly Inclusive & Equitable.”

Jones says the Black Lives Matter movement has informed their programming.

“That movement basically ignited us to use our platform for engagement between minority entrepreneurs as well as allies,” Jones said, “so they can hear first-hand, ask questions and really just get best practices and tips to encourage a more inclusive environment wherever they are, whether they are a VC firm or an entrepreneur in a startup.”

Overall, Jones says the Center is putting a lot of intentionality into the advisors and coaches they select for all their programs. Meanwhile, the Eship Community Slack channel provides resources and keeps up conversations.

“There are so many layers of voices, of work, when it comes to DEI,” Jones said, “but we want to make sure that doesn’t stop with all of our partners and that it continues with us.”

Durham County

Unlike the other two counties, Durham has a proud and extensive history of Black enterprise.

Durham’s Black Wall Street reached its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company—originally founded in 1898 as NC Mutual & Provident Association—serving as the largest Black-owned insurance company in the country.

Provident1898, a majority Black-led co-working space, now resides in the same building where NC Mutual built its landmark headquarters, the Tower at Mutual Plaza. Co-Founder Peter Cvelich says they are hosting The Black Wall Street historical exhibit in their lobby. It is also available virtually.

The exhibit explains that NC Mutual and other Black-owned financial institutions issued loans to African Americans in the area who were turned away by white institutions.

This allowed Durham’s Black population to build generational wealth, Kevin Dick says.

Dick worked for the city of Durham for 10 years, seven of those as Director of Economic and Workforce Development. Dick says Black businesses could thrive without fear of violence in Durham at the turn of the 20th century, unlike other hubs for Black business like the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla.

Kevin Dick, President and CEO of the Carolina Small Business Development Fund

“There’s still a huge disparity between white and Black, but I think in Durham, its historical lineage of supporting Black entrepreneurship and Black small businesses helped not eliminate, but buttress it from some of the disparities at large.”

Now, Dick is President and CEO of the Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a 30-year-old Community Development Financial Institution. The organization offers loans, grants and coaching to small businesses, with an emphasis on underserved groups.

CSBDF also manages county-level loans, and Dick says that during COVID-19, it has deployed $1M in funds to 115 businesses.

Dick says when he worked for the city, it was one of the wealthiest in the state. He says there’s still disparity, though, in education, healthcare, transportation and social capital in Durham between Blacks and Whites.

“It’s definitely a study in contrast,” he said.

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About Elizabeth Moore 38 Articles
Elizabeth Moore tells the stories of the Triangle's tech startups as GrepBeat's summer intern. She is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Spanish. You can contact Elizabeth on Twitter (@elizltmoore) and LinkedIn.