NCtrend: Dancing with the startups

 In 2015-06

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by Billy Ingram

When Christopher Gergen moved to Durham with his wife and two children to teach at Duke University six years ago, he set about creating a financially sustainable “entrepreneurial ecosystem” to fuel small businesses and nonprofits. By channeling the energy of foundations, philanthropic corporations, public schools, universities and the Greensboro campus of the Center for Creative Leadership — where he’s innovator in residence — Gergen says he was able to “connect high-impact leaders with the resources and relationships they’d need to create sustainable social and economic impact. That was the origin of Bull City Forward, an organization we co-founded a little over five years ago. What we’re trying to do is help young people create deeply intentional, purposeful, happy lives for themselves that can have also a transformative impact in the world around them.” Charlotte, Moore County and Raleigh have also adopted that economic narrative, with Gergen’s involvement. Each hub offers workspace, events to unite entrepreneurs with community leaders and a months-long mentoring process for select participants that culminates with a pitch to potential investors. Gergen’s energy is contagious, says Moore Forward Executive Director Marybeth Sandell. “He’s extremely driven and not just for himself. He seems to be in it for the greater good of the community, and that’s a rare asset.”

The path to becoming a veritable Johnny Appleseed for business and social change was a circuitous one. The son of David Gergen — a Durham native who was an adviser to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — Christopher earned his bachelor’s degree from Duke, a master’s in public policy from George Washington University and an MBA from Georgetown University. In the early 1990s, he traveled to Santiago, Chile, to open a coffeehouse and bar dedicated to promoting the arts. Since then, he launched literacy programs in South Africa, taught on a sheep farm in New Zealand, started an AmeriCorps initiative matching 400 commerce-savvy volunteers with more than 90 nonprofits and held management jobs at both for-profit and nonprofit education companies. In 1999, he co-founded Boston-based Smarthinking Inc., which provides online tutoring for more than 1,000 colleges and universities. It was acquired by London-based Pearson PLC, the world’s largest education publisher, in 2011. To Gergen, it’s a foregone conclusion where future leaders will come from. “I think the millennial generation is very purpose-driven and wants to do good. What we’re trying to do is work with them through a process, not only helping them believe that they can make a difference but also see to it confidence is matched with competence. Because there’s nothing worse than confidence with no competence.”

Gergen and real-estate developer Jason Widen teamed in 2012 with tech gurus Jesse Lipson and Brooks Bell to launch HQ Raleigh, a for-profit campus in the city’s downtown warehouse district anchored by a 15,000-square-foot building with co-working space and private suites for startups, two large conference halls and space for workshops and events. HQ Raleigh is supported by an investment arm, members who pay $300 a month or less for workspace and sponsors that include Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, Research Triangle Park, Greensboro-based Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. and the Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton LLP law firm in Raleigh. This year, HQ Raleigh purchased and will renovate a former furniture factory that will triple its footprint to accommodate a growing waitlist. As Gergen puts it, “If we didn’t create the conditions to harness talent and enthusiasm, it would move away and look for more fertile territory — places like San Francisco, Boston, Seattle or Austin. Or they would try to take root in rocky ground and never fully reach their potential to be the change-making leaders they could be.”

HQ Raleigh can point to dozens of success stories that include helping low-income neighborhoods gain access to fresh food, providing innovation to classrooms and technologies to hospitals, transitioning veterans into agribusiness jobs, and fostering solutions to end child hunger and food waste. Justin Miller, CEO of Raleigh-based Deja Mi Inc., and seven programmers were working out of a basement to create a smartphone app for collecting and sharing wedding photos. After some aggressive mentoring, making financial connections and marketing, Miller and co-founder Andy Heyman attracted $4.5 million in funding for the WedPics mobile app. With more than 2,000 brides signing up daily for the service, weeks later they secured another $2.5 million.

Using a boot-camp-style approach, Gergen started ThinkHouse — literally a seven-bedroom house — as an intensive, nine-month live-in fellowship focused on leadership development. Located in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights neighborhood, ThinkHouse will start its third term Aug. 1. Jeremy Wall is a recent alumnus who is developing a line of wearable technology. “Gergen commands the room and truly engages those who are present through his speech,” Wall says. “As a young entrepreneur in his program, it was clear that Christopher exudes a genuine and palpable interest in the conversation you have with him.”

Gergen plans to add another fellowship, TeachHouse, that will open in Durham this summer for seven early career teachers. In Greensboro, he has broken ground on ThinkHouse U, an extension for students attending UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T University, just blocks away from the new home of HQ Greensboro, set to open in July.

With seven out of 10 startups typically failing, Gergen hopes a different approach can improve the odds for entrepreneurs. He’s pushing a partnership to help cities accelerate their own startup cultures by including low-income and minority communities. “The only way that the long-term innovation economy is going to be successful is that it is collectively beneficial for everybody,” he says.

Like his father, Gergen’s work has bipartisan appeal. He served on former Sen. Kay Hagan’s small business advisory committee and worked with Gov. Pat McCrory’s team shaping education policy. “From a more conservative, market-driven approach, helping people create opportunities for themselves and growing the entrepreneurial economy makes a lot of sense,” Gergen says. “But also making sure that these organizations, these enterprises, these companies are having a positive community impact around access to health care, poverty alleviation, obesity, et cetera, appeals to people driven by equality.”

After being raised in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia and traveling the world, Gergen is focusing his work on the Tar Heel state. “I grew up coming to Durham to visit my grandparents and went to Duke as an undergraduate. I want to make North Carolina the best place in the world for people who want to change the world.”

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