City Startup Labs is addressing social economic mobility

through leading-edge skills training, hands-on instruction, support and mentorship, career building and community engagement for a new class of formerly-incarcerated entrepreneurs, value-added employees and Black tech founders.

City Startup Labs (CSL) grew out of an idea to do doing something thoughtful and of real value to address the issue of the employability of young Black men. In particular, they have a difficult time getting and keeping jobs, as they consistently lag behind their White and Hispanic counterparts. According to a Princeton University study, “Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets,” Even without criminal records, Black applicants had low rates of positive responses, about the same as the response rate for White applicants with criminal records. Hispanics also faced discrimination by employers but were preferred relative to Blacks.

So the thinking was that perhaps self-employment and entrepreneurship could serve as a possible anecdotes to this dilemma. Thus, CSL was created to provide an academy of instruction, training, mentoring and coaching to prepare these young men to become viable entrepreneurs, thereby providing not only for themselves but their families, communities and the country in a fundamentally positive way. Rather than rely on others to define and write their future, it was appropriate that these young men be emboldened to write or rewrite their own script, by becoming a new class of entrepreneurs.

CSL took a unique culturally-relevant approach with this population in the form of a hybrid accelerator/incubator, emphasizing building three asset classes — human capital, social capital and economic capital. We wanted to provide a progression through 4 modules — Cultivation, Preparation, Education, Demonstration where we built business acumen on top of a foundation of an understanding of “who we are, why we are, where we are” as young Black men in America.

Since the launch of a 2-year pilot with the Urban League of the Central Carolinas in 2014, the 2016 establishment of a Center of Excellence for Entrepreneurial Competency, Leadership and Innovation (CoE) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, along with a move to include African American millennial women in 2017, City Startup Labs has been able to develop entrepreneurial talent and capabilities for over 100 aspiring entrepreneurs and while assisting in the incubation of nearly 50 ventures.

Today, we lead two flagship programs, the ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program and Restorative Pathways, as well as offer space, community and training for Black tech founders. The ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program (REEP) was piloted in the summer of 2018 and those lessons informed a new model that we call LEARN/BUILD/DEPLOY, where we marry business and professional core competencies, digital-tech skills and entrepreneurial training in order to create new options for enterprise and work and pathways to wealth creation.  We have aligned this work with the research from a 2012 McKinsey Report Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work which identified 56 foundational skills or DELTAS across 13 skill groups and four categories that will help citizens thrive in the future of work.

Through REEP, CSL launched a new initiative with Atrium Health — Restorative Pathways Project in 2021. This reentry workplace readiness project is designed to source, train, onboard and support the progress of justice-impacted persons starting a new career in the healthcare field, while at the same time, assisting Atrium in their efforts in becoming a fair-chance employer.