October 12, 2018

Let’s reimagine African American millennials and returning citizens as a new class of entrepreneurs

The founder of Charlotte's City Startup Labs celebrates five years of training the next generation of America's innovators.

City Startup Labs founder Henry Rock recently celebrated the the organization's five-year anniversary. Photo courtesy of Henry Rock

Little did I realize that this idea would affect people the way that it has. Of course I had a notion, but five years on, it’s bearing fruit–many of the young folks who have come through City Startup Labs are truly better for the experience.

I used to think, that at the end of the day (for what was a nine-month program, now pared down to six), we needed to see successful businesses employing people and generating solid economic impact. Enterprise deployment–business starts and hires, real tangible metrics–were what we strove for. But five years on, I’ve come to appreciate a different mission—changing young lives.

Don’t get me wrong, this effort has very much been about business starts from a place of preparedness, and the results have been pretty good. Between 2014 and 2017, of the 82 aspirants who started the program, 52 graduated, 43 pitched and 16 businesses are up and running and revenue positive. The Class of 2017 (our first co-ed cohort) also included an NC Idea Grant Awardee, one of 50 entrepreneurs from around the country selected to visit China as part of the inaugural Entrepreneurship & Innovation Summit, and a 2018 TED Fellow. Not too shabby!

But five years on, I’m still very much aware of the tremendous challenges these young African American entrepreneurs must come to terms with as they navigate a world that hasn’t much changed for them since my TED Talk in 2013. It’s a world where the complexion, ethnicity, and gender of the game is nearly as homogeneous as it has always been. Yes, this is the context they find themselves in, one that continues to exacerbate the chasm the participants of City Startup Labs will face, just as sure as they’re black.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, where CSL now runs two programs through its Center of Excellence, including a newly launched program for the formerly incarcerated, we’re still attempting to come to terms with the black eye of being 50th among the Top 50 markets for socio-economic mobility. While community leaders have made early childhood education a priority (and rightly so), scant attention has been given to the role that business building and the development of entrepreneurial talent can mean for lifting the city out of the bottom of the barrel. As one of the country’s leading markets for banking and financial services, one would think that stoking the fire of an eager class of entrepreneurs would be at or near the top of the list of fiscal and policy imperatives.

We want these incredibly talented and motivated young men and women to know that they’re part of a continuum, a legacy of amazingly steadfast people, many of whom have gone unmentioned and unnoticed, who blazed trails, built businesses, innovated and invented, in the face of even more profound headwinds. This applies, whether they choose to be a business owner or a better employee.

So, five years on as we’ve just kicked-off our latest class. Our focus is, and has frankly always been, about the development of entrepreneurial talent, or as we like to say—reimaging black millennials & Returning Citizens as a new class of entrepreneurs and innovators.

Henry Rock

Founder of City Startup Labs

Henry Rock is the executive director and founder of City Startup Labs. The Charlotte, North Carolina, venture was created to provide an academy of instruction, training, mentoring, and coaching to prepare African American millennials and returning citizens to become viable entrepreneurs, thereby contributing to not only themselves, but their families, communities, and the country in a fundamentally positive way.
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