Wake County round table: Bringing it together

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Sept-RT-peopleBryan Regan

Wake County’s population grew more than 10% between 2010 and July 2015, topping 1 million. The growth, among the fastest in the U.S., stems from a strong job climate in which entrepreneurs, technology and collaboration are embraced. Business North Carolina magazine assembled a panel of Wake County leaders to discuss the rewards and challenges that come with its growth.

The discussion was moderated by Ben Kinney, Business North Carolina publisher. The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce hosted it. Wake County Economic Development, Wake Technical Community College and town of Apex Economic Development provided support. The transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.


How is Wake County’s growth affecting your work?

TRACY: HQ Raleigh, a co-working space in Raleigh’s Warehouse District, houses and supports 140 startups. We’re working on a 20,000-square-foot expansion that will house more startups and concentrate the region’s innovation community.

HELMS: I’m Apex’s first economic-development director. We are assembling industrial sites and industrial buildings so we’re prepared to respond to more referrals from the county economic-development office. We’re currently certifying a 120-acre site.

SCOTT: Wake Tech’s enrollment is growing while most community colleges nationwide are watching theirs drop. People want what we’re offering. The college is building a 94-acre Research Triangle Park campus, which will support businesses and industries in western Wake County and RTP. Classes will include business analytics, cybersecurity and data storage. It’ll be home to the university’s customized corporate training, too. It’s expected to open in fall 2017.

HARTMANN: Wake County’s population grows by 64 people each day, on average. That’s about 250,000 people in the next decade. We need to prepare in order to maintain the quality of life that’s enjoyed today.

SPILKER: Citrix writes software for businesses. It came to Raleigh by acquiring ShareFile, which is one of the region’s good entrepreneurial stories. It had 80 people when it was acquired, and about five years later, it has 800. Businesses grow in Raleigh because of the resources and support found here.

How do businesses, governments and other Wake County entities collaborate?   

COLE: Companies that have explored other parts of the country say, “You work so well together.” We hear that whether they are working with economic-development folks, community colleges, universities, county or local governments. I recently spoke with New York native Jonathan Hayes, who founded Raleigh-based RewardStock Inc. It’s a website that finds ways to pay for travel with reward points instead of cash. His funding was locally sourced. He is amazed by the collaboration, noting there’s a palpable desire for all to be successful. We see that working with big companies such as [New York-based] MetLife Inc. It opened its Global Technology and Operations Center in Cary in 2015 to be close to the universities, startups and others. It’s regional, too. If there’s a win in Durham, for example, we’re often the first to offer congratulations.

TRACY: HQ currently works with almost everyone at this table. We attract entrepreneurs from the outside and train people inside to collaborate with the entire community. HQ is interested in building bridges between large corporations and startups. Three years ago, HQ started working with Jesse Lipson, Citrix’s corporate vice president and general manager of cloud services. One of his big initiatives is injecting innovation into
a large corporation. [Raleigh-based] Red Hat Inc. is interested in creating innovation within its teams.

HELMS: Wake’s culture includes sharing best practices. I don’t want to see neighboring communities falter, because that would reflect on the county and region. Once a month, Wake County Economic Development invites all 12 municipalities and some utility allies to sit down together and discuss  what’s happening in our communities.

HARTMANN: Wake County is unlike most places where I’ve worked. The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s ability to bring people together and sustain a dialogue is what first struck me when I arrived about two years ago. It has groomed more than 150 people who travel the country, uncovering best practices that can be used here. You can call them at the drop of a hat, and they will help you do what needs to be done.

WHITE: The chamber was one of the nation’s first to start a small-business council. That happened in the 1980s. It sometimes goes against human nature to subordinate your self-interest for the community’s good. But here, you want to do that to win. We’re all proud of our assets and resources.

SPILKER: You need support from city, county, state and other companies to grow as quickly as Wake County has the last few years. Some of our new employees came from outside the region, but many came from nearby companies. That’s OK. People have left Citrix for jobs, and we support that, if it’s best for the individual. The good of one is the good of all.

How does Wake attract businesses and grow existing ones? 

HELMS: Money magazine ranked Apex the best place to live in 2015. Many folks said that will help recruit businesses. It will, but only to a degree, because the ranking wasn’t the best place to start a business. So we looked at ways to parlay the title into a great place to open a business. The answer was talent attraction. In this region, that’s a box you automatically check. That hasn’t always been the case in communities where I have worked. I don’t have to convince companies that we can easily ramp up their workforce. We have talent.

WHITE: There’s a tendency to become complacent about national rankings. But there was a time in the initial days of Raleigh-Durham Regional Association, back in the early 1990s, when it was very competitive. Fortune magazine named the Raleigh-Durham market as the best place to work in 1993; Money magazine named it the best place to live in 1994. That’s strong. We’re still seeing a return on those titles.

COLE: We launched a national public-relations campaign two years ago. We tell the stories of our entrepreneurs, innovation economy and established companies. We went to New York to speak to media about bootstrapping a business in this market. We’re focusing our social media efforts on recruiting and retaining businesses and talent. The Work in the Triangle initiative, which launched about five years ago, tweets open jobs. It’s getting 20,000 to 30,000 looks each week. Companies use it to promote their jobs to potential candidates inside and outside the market. Wake County has many assets to share, whether it’s a town website, resources through HQ or the universities and Wake Tech. The No. 1 concern of companies is access to talent. That dovetails into quality of life. The county is receiving accolades now, but how do we maintain that quality of life? That’s going to be critical to companies’ ability to recruit and retain talent in the future. The puzzle pieces are different than 10 years ago.

HARTMANN: Wake County has become difficult to traverse as its population has grown. The transportation bond — a half-cent sales tax that will be on the November ballot — is one way of addressing future quality of life. We had a central stakeholder group, including businesses, bus riders and government officials from the county’s 12 municipalities. It was a great example of collaboration. [The group] spent more than a year creating and launching the plan. With other federal and local dollars, it has a value of about $2.3 billion over the first 10 years. Much of the infrastructure it will fund will support commuter rail, ultimately from Johnston County through Durham County, and a big increase in rapid bus transit.

How do the universities and community-college system ensure Wake has enough skilled workers? 

WHITE: We love working with community colleges and others. We have to collaborate because the workforce pipeline is long, and it needs to be deep and broad. We hosted a job fair sponsored by Capital Area Workforce Development Board in early August. The McKimmon Center [at N.C. State University] hosted a unique event — Hire North Carolina Alumni Career Fair — a few months ago. Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill were partners. Twenty-five universities from across the country attended because the talent and jobs are here. Our college of engineering has two career fairs each year. The most recent fall fair had more than 7,700 attendees and more than 370 employers. It’s where they find engineering talent and individuals that understand STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

TRACY: HQ was started, in part, to keep talent here and recruit startups by showcasing the number of available jobs. We partner with N.C. State’s Poole College of Management on an entrepreneurship clinic. About 260 students have completed it since it was launched in 2015. They’ve worked with 135 companies. Some might end up working for one. Nine countries are represented within that student cohort, so it’s an opportunity to tap into international institutions and give our startups the opportunity for global innovation. Ten students have started companies.

How are small businesses and entrepreneurs supported in Wake County? 

COLE: We’ve had more than $300 million in venture capital and angel investment in Raleigh startups in the last three years. There’s more co-working support and business support, from helping an owner write a business plan to scaling a startup. The seasoned business leaders in the county are lending their expertise to entrepreneurs at HQ and other co-working spaces.

SCOTT: We have a small business center, and probably 3,000 to 4,000 people attend its seminars on how to start or grow a small business each year. We partner with chambers countywide, offering programs to their members. They’re for the entrepreneur running a business from their basement or garage with no more than 25 employees. One participant has sold 32 apps but hasn’t quit his day job.

HELMS: Many chambers in the county have a small-business focus. The Apex chamber, for example, hosts events that bring together small-business owners and entrepreneurs. We’ve been working with HQ on a co-working space in Apex. We haven’t found the building, but the feasibility study uncovered an entrepreneur community that wants to be in Apex. We also found encouragement from the folks at RTP’s collaboration space, The Frontier, and tech hub American Underground in Durham. They said the region needs more co-working spaces.

SPILKER: It’s important, especially with entrepreneurship, to assemble like-minded people. They don’t have to be in the same industry, but being in the same general location, where they’re eating lunch, stopping for coffee and overhearing conversations, gives them a chance to bump into each other and share ideas. You might have a thousand entrepreneurs in Apex, but it’s not going to work if they’re staying inside.

How can N.C. State’s Centennial Campus be leveraged? 

WHITE: The campus has 4 million square feet of buildings, 1,400 acres and 75 partner companies and dozens of local, state and national agencies. It’s the epitome of collaboration. It’s home to the 221,000-square-foot James B. Hunt Jr. Library, which hosts visits by site-selection consultants and companies. It’s not just buildings and great faculty members. It also is the nature of our kids. Chancellor [Randy] Woodson says you can take classes, intern and then work with a company in the same N.C. State building. In August, we broke ground on almost 50,000 square feet of office and laboratory space at the Centennial Biomedical Campus.

COLE: The “wow” happens there every day. I can’t tell you how many companies that we’ve introduced to N.C. State faculty. You see them move to their seat’s edge, realizing the possibilities of industry-sponsored research, internships and special projects.

What challenges does Wake County face?

SPILKER: House Bill 2 — the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which requires people to use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate — has had a large impact on my business and the county. Politics aside, if HB2 is repealed next week, its impact isn’t reversed. It’s keeping venture capitalists from flying their private jets from California to Raleigh. They may come for a great opportunity but not to have coffee and chit-chat about opportunities. As a business community, county and state, we have to fill the investment, student and entrepreneur gaps that HB2 has created.

TRACY: HQ has several companies in the midst of raising funds that have hit roadblocks because of HB2. It has given other states an opportunity to recruit them. Some are considering moving. The last thing you want to worry about when you’re growing a company is the availability of talent and investors. If moving to Boston or San Francisco, as examples, will ease those concerns, you eventually go. The entrepreneurship and tech communities need more inclusion and diversity. Only 20% of startups have a female founder. There’s always a funding challenge, but we need to better support women and minorities with access to advisers and mentors to grow these businesses. That taps into rural North Carolina, too. Whether it’s a community college training workers or more co-working spaces such as Apex is developing, that density can form the support needed for those regions to grow.

COLE: We were in New York in May, meeting with site-selection consultants. One said companies are mitigating risk, and HB2 has created risk. It factors into their decision.

HARTMANN: About 120,000 county residents live below the poverty line, which the federal government set at $11,880 for individuals and $24,300 for a family of four in 2016. About 266,000 county residents live below 200% of the poverty line, which is more than a quarter of our population. The county is helping vulnerable communities. Adrienne [Cole] is working with a group, researching economic-development opportunities that create good jobs in hard-to-serve places. Part of our growth comes from people moving here in search of opportunity. We’re seeing it in delivery of human services, so it’s impacting many levels. It’s important that quality of life is maintained for everyone.

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