Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Looking Past Present Hyperbole to Entrepreneurial Roots

Durham, NC “stayers” have always known better but “boomers” who bought into Raleigh, NC’s narratives over the years stand out because they believe Durham wasn’t “cool” to young people until recent developments made it “cool.”

By young people they typically mean those ages 18-39.  Those under the spell of this narrative can be identified because they demean Durham as it was 10 or more years ago.

The same people stand out because they also mischaracterize entrepreneurs and start-ups as being driven by people in this age group.

It turns out that by 1980, Wake County, where Raleigh is dominant, had only a half of a percent more of its population in the age group 18-34 than Durham County where the City of Durham is even more dominant.

By 1990, both experienced a slight decline proportionally.  But during the 1990s when that taunting was taking place, it turns our Durham surpassed Wake/Raleigh in appeal to this age group.

By 2000, well before downtown Durham became “cool,” Durham had already surged ahead by 3 percentage points, a gap it widened to 5 between 2009 and 2013.

In fact for more than twenty years, Durham has had a greater proportion of this age group in its population than any other urban area and the state as a whole.

Durham also excels in the percentage of this population with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, greatly exceeding Wake/Raleigh over more than three decades.  Durham is now double the proportion statewide in this category.

But Durham’s entrepreneurial nature dates to before settlement and has never been reliant on this age group alone.  In fact, studies in other urban areas such as Silicon Valley and New York City have found that founders of start-ups average 31 years of age with the median age today about age 38.

A third were 40 or older and about a quarter were in their later 30s.

What should be of interest to state officials who have been critical of colleges for the majors their students choose is that 64% of the tech founders in New York City did not major in engineering, mathematics, electrical engineering, computer science or other STEM categories.

In fact, more studied history, philosophy, marketing, business and political science.

A relatively new book I’ve been reading entitled, The Vanishing Neighborhood: The Transformation of American Community, by Marc Dunkelman, a researcher at Brown, is commended for many reasons.

One, is that it provides insight into why and how communities such as Durham have sustained entrepreneurialism in its DNA for nearly 200 years and why other communities, however bad they seek it including those nearby have remained “stovepiped.”

It also gives insight into why the way Durham is going about revitalization of its downtown may be too one dimensional, putting at risk rather than enhancing the community’s sixteen decade old tradition.

Dunkelman cites evidence that “economic dynamism, in essence, emerges less in the cliques…than in the longer list of contacts we each maintain in our virtual rolodexes.”

This goes back to a study in 1973, less than a year after I graduated from college, by Dr. Mark Granovetter, that found that when it comes “to the spread of innovative concepts, the connections we maintain with our closest contacts are not nearly as important as the breadth of our extended networks.

There is an editorial from the Raleigh newspaper in the decades after the Civil War that ridiculed Durham by opining,  “Have you seen what they are doing in Durham? Whites and Negroes are working side by side on the same street, like a wild west town.”

But according to studies, it was this characteristic that had long before and after the editorial has fueled Durham’s entrepreneurial character, an incarnation of which is heralded today as though it is something novel.

Washington Duke, Julian Carr and James Buchanan Duke were early entrepreneurs in Durham but hardly the first.  Yet, what fueled entrepreneurialism here, I can see from the studies reviewed in Dunkelman’s book, including Granovetter’s seminal work, was not the connections among friends and family or cliques among Durham’s elite.

An example that scholars have studied, is that different than other southern cities at the time, blacks and whites in Durham enjoyed extended friendships and relationships and invested in one another’s ideas and startups.

Researchers at the Neighborhood Policy Institute were analyzing and writing about entrepreneurial enclaves such as Durham a quarter of a century ago when I first arrived here.

John Merrick, one of the founders of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, an anchor on “Black Wall Street” here in the late 1800s, was a barber for Washington Duke and Julian Carr who invested in his idea.

In this newest reincarnation, many here rightfully worry that downtown Durham, by becoming a little too cute and more of a creative class resort is purging this socio-economic diversity so critical to Durham’s entrepreneurial DNA.

It is in grave danger of losing the “side by side” heritage that has repeatedly propelled its entrepreneurial bones.

Research in The Vanishing Neighborhood would strongly suggest that fostering entrepreneurs in Durham's future will take a lot more than hubs that let startups and researchers rub shoulders.

There is incredible value from respecting, mining and learning from our community’s past.  Durham “stayers” know this and it is why for decades now, while repeatedly leapfrogged by officials and developers, they have ranked a local history museum as the top cultural priority.

Just as important to Durham’s entrepreneurial future is repopulating it with the black, Hispanic and Asian businesses that give Durham as a whole its character, as well as people from a wide socio-economic range.

It is important to remember that not only has Durham been a magnet for residents age 18 to 34 including a much higher percentage with college degrees, but it also has a higher percentage who live in poverty.

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