Banking, Finance and Entrepreneurship Reporter
Charlotte Business Journal
Henry Rock believes teaching young black men about entrepreneurship could help Charlotte’s social-mobility problem.
Rock is the executive director of City Startup Labs, a program focused on helping black male millennials see their potential and learn what it takes to launch a company — or to think like an entrepreneur within a larger company.
He worked with the Urban League of Central Carolinas to launch the program as a pilot in 2014. Since then, City Startup Labs has partnered with Ventureprise at UNC Charlotte and currently operates from the university’s Portal building. The program’s sponsors include Wells Fargo, Google Fiber and Microsoft.
The classroom-style program focuses on character and mindset as well as lessons about starting a company. Rock brings in guest speakers such as Greg Johnson, founder of Orbital Socket and a former Nike executive, to impart wisdom to the young men.
Participants then work on business models in the incubator portion of the program. Davon Bailey started his company EatWorkPlay Charlotte, a city guide and lifestyle brand for millennials, while he was in the City Startup Labs program. EatWorkPlay currently has over 32,000 followers on Instagram. Bailey credits much of his success to the program.
“Henry Rock is an amazing instructor and one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life,” Bailey said. “You can tell he really cares about what he is doing. He holds students accountable.”
Rock said he appreciates the mentorship and guidance he received throughout his career, and this is his chance to give back to an underserved group. I caught up with Rock to learn more about the program recently.
Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:
Why did you start this program?
Really, a lot of it has to do with me trying to do my part to answer what I feel has been a conundrum that has faced this country since emancipation — what do we do with these young black men? Instead of being on the sidelines with my arms folded, I wanted to see if there was something I could do where I could bring the breadth and the depth of my experience on their behalf.
Entrepreneurship seemed to be a practical way in which we can reimagine these young black men and so they can reimagine themselves. I’ve sort of found a calling. As a guy who is a boomer and would be considered to be a retiree, this has sort of reinvigorated me. I see this as the rest of my life’s purpose.
What role do you see this filling and playing in the Charlotte community?
“It’s not just about teaching them to be entrepreneurs. It’s teaching them to have entrepreneurial thinking and how that ultimately shows up in so many ways.”
One is around the issue of the social-economic mobility gap. I think we need to really include the voices, contributions and the imagination of these young man to close this gap in some way or another. I don’t know if we can, but I believe we can. Part of what I’m operating on is this belief we can move the needle. It’s not just about teaching them to be entrepreneurs. It’s teaching them to have entrepreneurial thinking and how that ultimately shows up in so many ways. That can also be for companies they are working for here in Charlotte. Imagine if you have young guys thinking differently, thinking innovatively. Problem solvers, leaders — imagine bringing that sort of mindset to the companies they are working for.
Lastly, we are at a place here in the city where entrepreneurship is starting to gain some traction and momentum. I see this program as playing a fundamental role in it because it is about inclusion or equity. We want these guys to be included in the conversation. It’s also about how we are able to reframe this conversation around equity.
What kind of support have you seen from the Charlotte community?
I think that it has been mixed. We have gotten enthusiastic support from Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC). They have been a sponsor since the beginning, and we are grateful for that. We’ve also had mentors come through Wells Fargo. There may not be a lot of awareness outside of the entrepreneurial community about what it is we are up to. I really feel that it is important to get the business leaders here to see what we’re doing.
How did you design the program and how did you build your entrepreneurial acumen?
I’ve been tweaking this for a number of years. I originally came up with this idea when I was looking to do more of a weekend boot camp with ex-offenders in Newark, N.J. Those were the first seeds of this. Then in 2011, Mayor (of New York at the time) Mike Blooomberg launched the Young Men’s Initiative, and I really started thinking of the design of this and what would it look like.
The character piece is the foundation upon which we build business acumen. I’ve also been thinking about this rapid enterprise deployment. I’m settling for enterprise deployment. I would love for it to be rapid — I would love for them to get their businesses out in the market and all of that — but many of them are working, and it is tough to break away from their jobs.
As you look back on the past few years what moments have stood out to you?
This latest cohort is full of bright guys with amazing ideas. When I see how this stuff is landing to them and how it resonates with them. When somebody comes up to me and says, ‘We really thank you because no one is doing anything for us as young black men. No one has really thought about us so we really appreciate the fact you’ve done this on our behalf.’ That seals the deal.
Where do you see this program in five years?
I see us being able to attract great talent, not just within Charlotte but we want to attract talent to Charlotte. I want to bring some of the best and brightest to Charlotte to establish roots, companies, families and so forth. If we are able to do that then that is real success.
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