Christensen Family Center Teams With Knox Studios to Revitalize Durham’s Entrepreneurial Spirit
By Jamal Michel
Duke University and Knox St. Studios hosted a weekend long program aimed at empowering participants to build and pitch small-business ideas
Durham’s stake in entrepreneurship stretches back to its heyday—Black Wall Street, the four blocks stretching across Parrish Street, was a paragon of upward economic mobility for the Black community, with small businesses acting as the lifeblood of a thriving period in North Carolina history.
This enclave long stood as the genesis of Black entrepreneurial pursuit before urban redevelopment plans effectively destroyed its community and brought a swift end to the historic growth of Black wealth at the time.
The city has never fully regained its identity as a booming hub for Black, small business enterprise, nor has it recovered from the financial undoing of decades long investments. But initiatives from organizations focused on economic equity have helped keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive in Durham.
“When the Christensen Family Center was established, one of its guiding principles was to create ways for people outside of the university to access our initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Over a weekend in June, Duke University’s Christensen Family Center for Innovation (CFCI) teamed up with Knox St. Studios, a space designed for empowering entrepreneurs in the Triangle area of North Carolina, for TechStars startup weekend, where those in attendance focused on pitching small-business ideas. TechStars is one of the largest pre-seed investors in the world, providing mentorship and network opportunities for early-stage startups.
“When the Christensen Family Center was established, one of its guiding principles was to create ways for people outside of the university to access our initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Steve McClelland, interim director of CFCI. “Knox St. Studios had already done a startup weekend last year and hoped to do more of them. This was our first time partnering with them for this type of an event, and it proved that our materials and our work can in fact activate more people outside of the university.”
“The foundit team was a driving force in the success of the TechStars Startup Weekend. We often have participants who come in alone on Friday night, with just an idea, and little to no idea on how to bring it to life,” said Lee Gray, Associate Director at Knox St. Studios. “The collaboration with the foundit team really fortified our coaching team and allowed us to dive deeper with this group over the weekend in an inspiring, safe and conducive setting.”
Creating, Designing and Pitching New Startup Ideas
Knox St. Studios specializes in creating and organizing educational programs for members of Durham’s vibrant community (such as residents and business owners) about the process of creating and protecting valuable community assets. These assets can include a number of resources, projects or initiatives that contribute to the overall well-being and development of the city.
The three-day educational event served as a collaborative think-space for participants to create, design and pitch new startup ideas, all while building executable solutions to challenges within a community. Those present ranged from doctors and graduate students to budding entrepreneurs and small-business owners.
The event was designed to foster a supportive space for passionate people to build something new, and it also served as a launchpad for mentors, co-founders and investors to back ideas growing right inside the community.
At the end of the program, groups that were formed throughout the several hours on campus competed in final pitch presentations where the winner received a cash prize and additional support from TechStars resources.
Glenda Clare, a behavioral health professional, says she came to the event to learn more about startup weekends, which she first encountered in 2015, and has seen a dramatic shift in representation at these events since.
“One of the things that was important to me, regardless of whether or not I was able to pitch, was that I wanted to network with people here because I wanted to meet those computer tech professionals. There are lots of people in the room that have MBAs, but I’m health focused,” Clare said.
Others in attendance echoed similar sentiments and appreciated how communal the experience felt, as well as how important it was for those interested in entrepreneurship to have an environment where their ideas could be listened to and refined.
Kristy Scheurer, a recent graduate of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and her team took home second place at the end of the startup weekend’s pitch competition. Scheurer was blown away by the community engagement and sheer reach of what was taking place here in Durham.
“Duke brings in so many people from different backgrounds, and I think everyone’s kind of open to different things because of that. When I look at the [small business] scene—how many different types there are here, I think it is a nod to the city’s openness and the innovation that people actually care about here,” Scheurer shared.
The first-place team, whose idea focused on offering care coaching for families that provide long-term care to loved ones, consisted of members Korene Carter, Dr. DeLon Canterbury and Todd Sanders. The trio’s chemistry resonated with facilitators and other participants over the course of startup weekend, and the team built a stronger network of peers from the experience.
“I thought it was refreshing, just being able to interact with people who have brilliant backgrounds. You have doctors, healthcare professionals and tech. This is what Durham’s–and especially RTP’s–vision is all about,” Sanders said about his experience.
A Growing Ecosystem of Entrepreneurs
Canterbury pointed out that the growing ecosystem of entrepreneurs in Durham doesn’t get the same kind of attention that cities like San Francisco or parts of Silicon Valley get lauded for.
“I didn’t know there was a whole tech ecosystem of people right in my own city that looked like me. There was diversity, there were all people of different colors, races, ethnicities, backgrounds, clinical skills. Being in a silo, I thought breaking into tech or Google was near impossible. This experience proved to me otherwise,” Canterbury said.
Carter, who is originally from New York, spoke of similar appreciation for the way Durham has tapped into its growing and diverse community of industry professionals.
“I’m so connected culturally to New York. I spend more time there than I do in North Carolina because I didn’t see this type of environment. So now that this exists, and I know it’s here and there’s follow-up behind this with [startup weekend] and especially with Knox St. Studios, I’m definitely going to be here and volunteer,” she explained.
“Navi is the gateway to the innovation economy, and our hypothesis about the world is that the skills that make the best founders are the same skills that everybody needs to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.”
One of the major players supporting this vision throughout TechStars startup weekend was the software development company Navi, operated by CEO Nic Meliones, CTO Kwaku Farkye, and Startup Portfolio and Community Lead Alexandra Jones. McClelland acts as Navi’s Chief Product Officer and credits the team with bringing participants of startup weekend access to the groundbreaking resources at the heart of entrepreneurship.
“Navi is the gateway to the innovation economy, and our hypothesis about the world is that the skills that make the best founders are the same skills that everybody needs to succeed in tomorrow’s economy,” Meliones shared.
“When it comes to our product, we’ve got a digital coaching platform. It delivers curriculum, asks questions and ultimately guides somebody on this innovation quest so they can bring ideas to life. We run boot camps, we run accelerators, and each one of these is an opportunity to bring diverse perspectives into the world of innovation. We teach these core skills, and ultimately, have a consistent process to solve important problems and bring great ideas to life,” he explained.
The success of TechStars recent startup weekend here on campus came from collaboration that extended beyond Duke, and it’s the kind of ambitious community outreach that separates this institution as an elite leader in problem solving and uplifting the entrepreneurial spirit.