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Entrepreneur school open for business in Charlotte

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/08/17/16/rNwc6.Em.138.jpeg|216
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    From left, City Startup Labs participant Victor Davidson, City Startup Labs founder Henry Rock, and participant Jamal Tate, a junior at Queens University of Charlotte, talk with Urban League of Central Carolinas President/CEO Patrick C. Graham, who’s helping launch the pilot program in January.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/08/17/16/1gF83J.Em.138.jpeg|207
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    City Startup Labs participants Victor Davidson, left, and Jamal Tate talk at the Urban League of Central Carolinas Thursday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/08/17/16/TmVsG.Em.138.jpeg|492
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    From top left, City Startup Labs founder Henry Rock and Urban League of Central Carolinas CEO Patrick Graham with participants, from left, Victor Davidson and Jamal Tate at the Urban League of Central Carolinas Thursday.

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  • Be visible, be prepared

    Though City Startup Labs is a nonprofit, developing it was an entrepreneurial endeavor. Here are some of founder Henry Rock’s tips for getting your venture off the ground:

    Ask for the introduction: Rock moved to Charlotte at the end of summer 2012 and immediately scheduled times to meet with power players in the entrepreneurial community. He then went one step further: He asked them to introduce him to other leaders.

    Embrace partnerships: Rather than spend countless hours developing his own curriculum, Rock asked groups that had already developed successful programs if he could use elements of theirs. The character assessment part of his program is from New York-based Youth-at-Risk program and the classroom component uses materials from the Kauffman Foundation.

    Be prepared and organized: Rock’s first big break came when the Rockefeller Foundation called him to see if he’d like to apply for one of its grants. Because he already had his materials together, he was able to jump at the opportunity, apply immediately, and within a couple of weeks, he had $100,000 to work with – and leverage for other grants.



Charlottean Jamal Tate was 18 years old, handcuffed at the wrists and ankles, and leaving jail in the back of a prisoner transport.

He’d spent the last two months in Mecklenburg Jail North (one of his many run-ins with the law), where he awaited trial on breaking and entering and larceny charges, which were eventually dismissed. Tate was returning to his single-parent home and E.E. Waddell High School, where he was a few months – and many missed assignments – from graduating.

The 45-year-old handcuffed man sharing the transport, however, was on his way to his fifth stint in prison an eight-year sentence.

“He’s telling me about how his kids hate him, his grandkids hate him,” Tate recalled. “He said, ‘You’ve been spared. God is giving you a second and third chance.’”

The man’s words touched Tate, spurring him to spend the following months readying himself for high school graduation. He then enrolled in a summer program at Central Piedmont Community College and parlayed that into another two years at CPCC, where he served on student council and was part of the school’s “Emerging Leaders” program.

Now 21 and a junior organizational communications major at Queens University of Charlotte, Tate is excited about his next big step: City Startup Labs.

Grappling with economic gaps

The brainchild of Charlotte resident Henry Rock, City Startup Labs is a new 15-week intensive program designed to teach entrepreneurship to young African-American men, ages 18 to 29, a demographic underrepresented in entrepreneurial circles nationwide.

“Young fellas, they need to think along the lines of how they’ll plant their flags – and not as rap artists or athletes,” Rock said. “We can come up with market-based solutions.”

The entrepreneurial academy is scheduled to launch mid-January, with an initial class of 25, at the Urban League of the Central Carolinas, a nonprofit agency promoting financial stability and racial inclusion through education, job training and job placement.

“We need new entrepreneurs ... particularly black males … to help us deal with the economic gaps that we have,” said Patrick Graham, CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas. “That’s what attracted me to do this.”

Graham cites 2011 statistics that show that while young black males have twice the unemployment rate of their white counterparts, nearly the same percentage of white and black men are seeking work or currently working (81 percent for black males, 82 percent for white, Graham says).

A program like Rock’s could help lessen the gap between ambition and gainful employment, Graham said.

Participants will meet on weekends and weeknights, moving from a self-discovery unit to a monthslong boot camp, where they plan their new venture.

Then the individuals will pitch their ideas at uptown startup hub Packard Place, and the best five will enter the city’s social-enterprise accelerator, Queen City Forward. Promising ventures are also eligible for micro-lending through the Urban League.

And if City Startup Labs is a success, Rock and Graham plan to take the concept nationwide.

Tate will be one of the first 25. So will Charlotte native Victor Davidson, 27, who after graduating from N.C. A&T with a double major in biology and mechanical engineering, made plans to start a business selling sustainable eye-wear made 100 percent from wood, hinges included.

Davidson, who sports the glasses daily, hopes his eye-wear line will be a jumping off point for him to start a bigger consulting business on how to simplify and proliferate sustainable manufacturing.

“I studied science, how to make things and change things, but not how to sell things,” Davidson said. In the pilot program, he’s looking forward to learning “business, finances, accounting, and how to integrate such novel ideas (in the marketplace).”

From ‘outside’ to insider

Rock’s journey to establish City Startup Labs was its own lesson in entrepreneurship – getting back up after rejection, forging critical contacts, finding funding when purse-strings were still tight.

Rock, who’d moved from New York City to Charlotte to get married in 2012, had begun developing plans for a program like City Startup Labs in response to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, a cross-agency, public-private effort designed to close the achievement gap between young black and Latino males and their peers. The initiative connected “at-risk” young men to educational, employment and mentoring opportunities.

But Rock, whose background was in helping small businesses with advertising and marketing, saw a piece of the puzzle that was missing: self-employment and entrepreneurship.

He pitched the idea to the co-chair of the Young Men’s Initiative, and six months later heard back: his idea, while a good one, was outside of their mission.

So when Rock moved to Charlotte, he tried, once again, to give the idea some legs. First he enlisted the help of the Urban League, which is handling City Startup Labs’ accounting and lending classroom space.

But Rock needed more funding as well. His first big break came when he got a cold call from the Rockefeller Foundation, following a Tedx Talk he gave about inspiring black males to embrace entrepreneurship.

Within a couple of weeks, he’d been approved for a $100,000 grant.

“We really needed the money,” Rock said.

Rock leveraged that financing to get other grants, such as $25,000 from Charlotte’s Knight Foundation, and a curriculum partnership with the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which supports education and entrepreneurship.

For community support, Rock began mentoring startups and attending events at Packard Place, where he got to know founder Dan Roselli and other leaders in the entrepreneurial community. Now he’s enlisted their help with the program, and has many business leaders volunteering to be mentors and business coaches.

The ultimate goal, he says, is for graduates of the academy to do the same – stick around, be role models and mentors for the next classes of City Startup Labs, while helping build up the communities they came from.

That’s what Jamal Tate, the young man who made the transition from the streets to the college classroom, hopes to do. He doesn’t know what kind of business he wants to start, but he knows what kind of applications he won’t reject.

“I want to be able to hire people who have felonies,” Tate said. “I know what it’s like to be in that predicament and have society look down on you. … I could create a business that would help the economy and get some guys off the street.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045 On Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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