This column originally appeared on Clarion Content. View it here.
This past April, entrepreneur Wayne Sutton spoke to a crowd at American Underground @Main during Innovate Your Cool about diversity in the startup community. Most of the presentation introduced ideas we are all familiar with: the lack of diverse employment in the startup world and how Silicon Valley is the mecca of brilliant ideas. Here, Sutton explains the difference between Durham and The Valley/San Francisco:
Here we value sports (…) and we like tech and entrepreneurship, arts, music. That’s all cool and great,” he says. “But over there, I’ve never seen a community care about who can write the best, most brilliant essay in the world. It’s about intellectual capital. (…) They care about our minds.
I would like to kindly ask Sutton to try and open his own.
Business diversity is incredibly important—do not get me wrong. As is economic development. Providing opportunities for those who seek them, regardless of race, color or creed, is paramount to the nation’s future well being. With that said, what do Sutton and his ilk expect from attracting a diverse group of people? That they will all look like Mark Zuckerberg and watch TED Talks on repeat?
How can you promote diversity when you do not support the things that reflect those people?
The beauty of diversity is that we all experience life in different ways, and our backgrounds and interests make us unique. Sports, the arts, nature—these things do not hold us back but unlock our potential as individuals. Durham, as well as the Greater North Carolina, is a place where these things exist at the highest level.
Students choose to attend universities like Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State not just for their academic prowess, but for the entire student experience that includes successful athletics, arts programs (which the system is trying to sever at the neck), and a beautiful geological landscape with beaches, mountains and city life all within a few hours of one another. Variety opens minds to new ways of thinking and stimulates personal exploration, and yes, business development.
Through this personal exploration, our communities learn to grow and co-exist in a symbiotic way, unlike in The Valley/Bay Area where incidents like the one below repeatedly create tension between city residents and allow an influx of careless business giants attempting to swallow up the planet.
The sense is that Silicon Valley has the blueprint for the future, but it misses the most important aspects of life. Durham is a unique city, and we should not compromise our own character to emulate a region that is stripping the area of its culture for the sake of building the next Snapchat.¹
We have the community in place to be different, to achieve differently, and yes, one that cares about its neighborhoods. Our ambition should not be to emulate Silicon Valley or Austin or Brooklyn but to be Durham at our core, a core that gave birth to Black Wall Street in the early 1900s, a place where Black American entrepreneurship thrived because our predecessors chose to think and act differently. Durham has an obligation to lead on how communities can excel without sacrificing anyone’s way of living.
Be a leader, Durham, not a follower.
Take the High Road…
1. As a proud tenant of American Underground here in Durham, I do believe our startup culture can and will be different thanks to the efforts of many who see diversity, opportunity and community as something of the utmost importance to a sustainable lifestyle.