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Rise of the Rest Day 3: Will "The Rise" include everyone?

05/15/2015 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

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You don't have much to say to someone who has found out the truth about themselves.

-Jack Burden, All the King's Men

Day Two of Rise of the Rest included a tour through Raleigh-Durham, a city clearly on the rise.

Steve Case opened the day with a breakfast conversation with Governor Pat McCrory pointing out the great history of North Carolina, and the role the state played in the founding of the country. He reminded us how America was once a startup, and how today, "American communities are like startups. Everyone's trying--some are succeeding, some are failing, but Raleigh-Durham is clearly on the right track."

The entrepreneurship scene in Raleigh-Durham (more commonly referred to as "the Triangle" by locals) has been succeeding at a rate faster than maybe any metro area outside of DC, New York, and Boston. Companies in the region raised $700 million in funding for growing enterprises in the last year, and in the last 24 months, a square foot area of 200 yards in downtown Durham generated $1 billion in returns for investors. And the government is a great partner--the best idea I've heard of in a while is the state government's "Try Before You Buy" startup software demo initiative.

We've seen technology entrepreneurs creating prosperity in other communities. Today, though, we saw something different. Leaders are engaging in daily conversation and critical thought around a topic we don't typically hear discussed in startup hotbeds (including Silicon Valley): how this growth can work for everybody in the community.

One of the major questions about entrepreneurship in this country remains: will "The Rise" include everyone? Whether it's battles in San Francisco over whether tech company shuttles can stop at public bus stops, or the lack of affordable housing in fast-growing "high-tech" districts, or the miniscule numbers of venture-backed companies run by women or under-represented minorities, it's critical that the growth of the country through entrepreneurship includes everyone.

In my experience, almost nobody in the startup world talks about inclusion. In the past decade, the only San Francisco Bay Area startup investors I have heard even talk about issue are Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, whose work at the Level Playing Field Institute is leading the industry, and Dave McClure and the team at 500Startups, who are often viewed as iconoclasts for their views. These folks' discussions are viewed as "different" and "distinguishing," but if our country's growth in entrepreneurship is going to include everyone, they need to be the norm.

Entrepreneurship advocates promote job creation, and rightly so: but they don't talk about what kind of jobs they are creating or for whom: startup jobs need to employ more than well-educated engineers to increase social mobility and economic opportunity for the country. Investors say "the best way to get funded by us is through a warm introduction," without recognizing that introductions happen through social networks--and the relationships of people who are well-educated, have capital, and come from fortunate backgrounds are usually other people who are well-educated, have capital, and come from fortunate backgrounds. The growth of social networking through technology has in many ways widened the gap between those who have information and resources, not closed it.

This can't be the future. As Steve Case said today, "If we want to remain the most entrepreneurial nation in the world, we have to level the playing field." Why does the Triangle engage with the issue of inclusion differently than other cities?

Perhaps it's because we who grew up in the South is painfully aware of some dark periods in our history with race--and its relationship to inequality and exclusion. Yet acknowledging any problem is the first step towards a solution. I grew up in Atlanta, where we'll be attending Thursday, and my wife grew up outside the South. One of the most noticeable things to her about moving to the South, she said, is how often and openly people talked about race, compared to other parts of the country where she had lived. Perhaps the stark memory of a painful past better equips the South to engage on an issue that the future of entrepreneurship must get right than other regions.

To paraphrase today's line from the Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, we didn't have much to say to folks in the Triangle on the front of inclusion, because this is a community that is amazingly self-aware. Today, we saw a community appreciating and celebrating its growth, but additionally, making sure its growth includes everyone. Chris Gergen, an amazing advocate for entrepreneurship in the region since founding Bull City Forward (one of the first entrepreneur support organizations I know of in a Rise of the Rest city) nearly a decade ago, has encouraged Raleigh-Durham's growth, but spent his time and resources over the past several years supporting other areas of the region through his Forward Cities Initiative.

Today, Chris showed the Rise of the Rest tour a glimmer of hope as he took Sheila Herring and Erich Broksas of the Case Foundation to a corner of Durham they call the "60-60": a corner of Durham that had 60% unemployment and 60% high school graduation rate. Forward Cities built free housing for entrepreneurs (who don't have the personal cash to "bootstrap"), a co-working space for enterprises that need, but can't afford an office, and a leg forward.

Another impressive initiative we saw today was the American Underground, an office building/development built on top of the old tobacco mills of Durham. A five-story building employs 1200 people in companies such as tech rockstars like Windsor Circle, a company Steve Case invested in last year and is one of the fastest-growing companies in the region. Adam Klein, the entrepreneurial leader of the American Underground, has led the development of this remarkable community, and their next initiative is bringing on Talib Graves-Manns as an entrepreneur-in- residence focusing on under-represented entrepreneurs building companies. As Adam and Talib said on the bus, "Investors say that lack of inclusivity in entrepreneurship is a pipeline problem. Well, you can't solve the problem if you don't do anything to build a better pipeline."

In Raleigh-Durham, we saw a community that appreciates the growth it has had, but still recognizes it has a long way to go. Building companies in communities with high unemployment, with entrepreneurs who you don't typically see at technology pitchfests, and with workforce practices that grow quality jobs is not something that Silicon Valley has been excellent at--yet. But we saw the start of this in Raleigh-Durham today, and if these leaders are successful, they can show us how entrepreneurs can bring the rest of the country along with them.

And for the skeptics who think that this can't be done, Steve Case had these parting words that were fitting for the lofty ambitions of Raleigh-Durham: "When startups pitch, don't think about why they'll fail: think about why they'll succeed."

Note: This blog was cross-posted from Southern/alpha, which is the premier publication covering startups, entrepreneurship and innovation in the South with a focus on high-growth companies and the founders, engineers, investors, team and culture around them.