Capital Matters Conference, Day 2: The Power of Local


Picking up the microphone Thursday morning, Henry C. McKoy, Jr. quickly restored the momentum and focus of the previous evening. With the Black Wall Street exhibit now stationed outside of the Fuqua School of Business lecture hall, the director of entrepreneurship at the NC Central School of Business spoke on the glory days of black commerce in the Bull City.

“Hayti may be the closest thing America has ever had to Wakanda,” said McKoy, invoking the fictional African utopia from the Black Panther comics. But now, sixty years after urban renewal destroyed the community, Durham was more racially inequitable than both the surrounding state and the rest of the U.S., a gap that’s growing.

If Day 1 of the Capital Matters: Race, Gender, and Entrepreneurship Conference focused on the large-scale problems, the second day was about local, small-scale solutions. From the opening panel of mayors and civic leaders spanning from Durham to Kauai, Hawaii, to the evening screening of Maynard—a documentary on Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor—Thursday explored the barriers to business existing in individual communities and the narrow avenues to success that both public and private sector can provide.

In that evening’s film, Jackson was quoted as saying, “You don’t have to be crazy to be mayor, but it helps,” and in the morning session Derek Kawakami, mayor of Kauai, laid out some of the strange perplexities of the role. Effecting change on the local level often means funding areas and people that have long-been neglected, and aiding them with taxpayer dollars involves trade-offs, which can be “tough, unpopular decisions,” he said. But in a democracy, “by the nature of it, we have people who are holding office who are making popular decisions.”

One key solution is bridging the divide between the public and private sector. Loren Nadres, director of economic development in the city of New York, explained how the city had invested $10 million in a fund to catalyze funding of women-owned businesses in technology, a number matched by $20 million from a selection of venture capital funds. The question as always, Nadres said, is in figuring out “how do we ensure that opportunities are available? Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

Soon after, attendees gathered in a workshop led by the Financial Health Group to learn about the barriers to capital that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from chasing their dreams. For those on the margins, who may not have adequate savings or personal credit to dive into the world of business, and who—because of their race, sex, immigration status, gender identity—may have experienced discrimination in lending markets, the process is arduous if not dangerous. Breaking into small groups, participants brainstormed ways to fill in gaps in the market to provide capital funding for all with ambition.

It was a sentiment reiterated at the lunchtime address, delivered by Roshawnna Novellus, CEO of lending platform EnrichHER. “I’m just adamant about seeing a world in which billions of dollars flow to deserving founders who need capital to grow,” Novellus said, recounting how she was “tired of hearing these statistics” about the lack of funding that black and female entrepreneurs received from existing funders. “My vision,” she said, “was not to a fund with 30 or 50 portfolio companies…my vision was to fund 10,000 women-led companies.”

But the problem won’t be solved by precocious individuals alone, be they Novellus or Maynard Jackson, who famously attended Morehouse College at age 14. These shortcomings require many parties coming together to tackle both sides of the financing equation: answering how lenders can find the right opportunities and founders, and how founders can find willing lenders.

The early afternoon panel, featuring investors Kojo Ako-Asare of Emerson Collective and Jim Casselberry of 4S Bay Partners, explored how systemic inequities can, on occasion, create their own solutions. “You can put money in places that have historically been overlooked,” said Ako-Asare, “and you can see unimaginable returns.” Likewise, while programs like Opportunity Zones offer incentives for investments in low-income areas that can often benefit all but the groups who need it, they can provide an (imperfect) pathway forward. “We can divert the unintended consequences of that to the benefit of our communities,” said Casselberry. The discussion concluded on an optimistic note, with discussion of creating a database to document the individual efforts of these investors and those like them, with hopes of providing a better resource for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Finally, a range of Durham funders and founders shared the stage to relay the opportunities and setbacks they’d witnessed firsthand in the business world. “Coming into Durham was a huge game-changer for me in terms of the acceptance of who I was and the kind of work I was doing,” said Kezia Godwin, founder of Kate’s Korner, a drop-in childcare solution in Downtown Durham currently in its development stage. “I think the financial institutionsit didn’t matter as much to them.” The panelists spoke, as real estate investor Tiffany Elder did, of how there wasn’t a supportive ecosystem for people like them, and how the onus was on them to build that, much like their predecessors in Hayti and Black Wall Street did.

One panelist shared the anecdote of how, increasingly in the city’s marketing materials, the skyline of Durham doesn’t always include the outline of the famed North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance building. The bustling black business district has disappeared. And as the area’s populace and industries turn over, while the path forward isn’t totally clear, the task facing the community is. “We can’t let the faces [of old Durham] go missing,” said James Heyward, principal at his local accounting firm. “I think we have an opportunity to not let it get washed away.”

The recording of the Thursday program can be viewed here.

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