City Startup Labs (CSL) grew out of a need to do something meaningful and of real value to address a perceived lack of entrepreneurial activity, specifically among young Black men in urban America. We wanted to begin to move them off of the sidelines and into the startup game, by developing their talents and capacity and thus reimagine them as a new class of entrepreneurs. We knew that this would require, in true entrepreneurial fashion, a fair amount of experimentation and iteration (Labs) in order to understand what works and why.
Prior to moving to Charlotte, Henry Rock (CSL’s Founder) trained in Kansas City to become a facilitator of the Kauffman Foundation’s Icehouse Entrepreneurship and FastTrac New Venture Programs.
Early in the year, Rock did a TEDx talk in Charlotte, which presented the idea of reimagining young Black men as a new class of entrepreneurs and why that’s important. One result of that TEDx Talk, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded City Startup Labs with a $100,000 grant, which kick-started CSL and prepared us to launch a 2-year pilot with the Urban League of the Central Carolinas the following year.
City Startup Labs started a hybrid accelerator/incubator targeting young Black men (18-34), with a focus on building three classes of assets — human capital, social capital and economic capital. This effort provided entrepreneurial education, mentoring and coaching through four progressive modules: Cultivation, Preparation, Education and Demonstration. The Class of 2014 participated in CSL’s 1st Pitch Event. Meet the Clas of 2014.
City Startup Labs established the Center of Excellence for Entrepreneurial Competency, Innovation and Leadership (CoE) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in affiliation with Ventureprise. According to Henry Rock, Executive Director of City Startup Labs, “the opportunity to associate with UNC Charlotte through Ventureprise is a very big step for City Startup Labs. It allows us to draw upon the faculty, students, research capacity and other resources at the University as we continue with the work of creating a new class of entrepreneurs.” Meet the Class of 2015.
CSL continued working with another cohort of Charlotte Black male millennials (each cohort lasted up to 9 months). The class concluded with the annual opportunity for founders to network with angel investors, lenders, supporters and key city stakeholders, including then Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Mayor Pro-Tem Vi Lyles, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Ronnie Bryant, the Charlotte Chamber’s SVP, Keva Walton, and the Director of Economic Development, Kevin Dick.
With an increased interest in developing entrepreneurial talent and capacity for Black millennial men grew, so did the desire on the part of young Black women to participate in the Center of Excellence. As a result, CSL conducted its first co-ed cohort which concluded in the Spring of 2018. Meet the Class of 2017-18.
CSL conducted its 2nd coed cohort in 2018-19, while at the same time made note of new Entrepreneurial Support Organizations (ESO) in the market. Further, as the Leading on Opportunity Report made recommendations for addressing significant gaps in socio-economic mobility in Charlotte (as prompted by the 2014 Raj Chetty study), CSL turned its attention to a population who could play a key role in improving economic outcomes – Returning Citizens (formerly incarcerated persons). The ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program (REEP) was piloted in the summer of 2018. Meet the Class of 2018-19.
The research from the pilot informed a new model, that we call LEARN/EARN/BUILD (LEB). LEB marries core competencies, digital-tech services and entrepreneurial training designed to equip returning citizens with the tools needed to build a new career or a job for themselves as an entrepreneur.
CSL pulled back from promoting entrepreneurship during the height of the pandemic and shifted its focus a bit towards workforce development for justice-involved persons. Through REEP, and with the help of CARES Act funding from the United Way and City of Charlotte, CSL designed, developed virtual training for and deployed Digital Navigators. Each of the navigators received a Google IT Professional Support certificate as well.
These navigators worked with the Charlotte Mecklenburg County Library’s MeckTech Project on the distribution of thousands of computers, in addition to assisting with the development of a wireless internet project in West Charlotte. We partnered with Digital Charlotte (now the Center for Digital Equity) with the launch of Charlotte’s navigators program. REEP also sourced and placed a team of internet techs, who worked with Open Broadband on the AccessCharlotte project.
City Startup Labs acquired the digital assets of BlkTech Interactive (BTI) and the BlkTech Charlotte brand. This acquisition allows CSL to reconnect with millennials but with a specific tech focus and the development of Black tech talent through convenings and Black tech ventures through a planned startup studio.
Through REEP, CSL launched Restorative Pathways in 2021 as a pilot with Atrium Health. As Atrium is being intentional about becoming a fair-chance employer, we were contracted to design, develop and deliver an initiative that recruited, trained, onboarded and assisted in transitioning justice-involved persons from jobs into careers in healthcare.
REEP implemented LEARN/EARN/BUILD, as a virtual class with 15 participants. In the BUILD phase several of the participants received a Business-in-a-Box, which included kick-starter capital, a range of back-office services and business coaching.
Through BlkTech Interactive (BTI) CSL hosted its 2nd Annual AfroFuturism Fest. BTI also hosted a Coding & Switching series to dig into the challenges faced by aspiring Black tech talent.
REEP continued with Restorative Pathways with Atrium Health. In 2023, we’ll expand the effort into Winston Salem, NC (AH Wake Forest Baptist) and other markets, as Atrium Health continues to enlarge their footprint.
REEP, with the aid of ARPA funding from Mecklenburg County, and the Charlotte Area Fund, conducted the second cohort using the LEB model. That class will conclude the EARN Phase in March 2023 and be eligible for the Business-in-a-Box. REEP will operate 2 cohorts per year.