By Zachery Eanes
The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) program isn’t just a chance for entrepreneurs to learn but also a moment for Durham to build upon its reputation as a diverse technology hub.
The basement of American Underground was standing room only Friday as 12 startup companies competed in a pitch contest at the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange Program for Black Founders, which has been hosted in Durham for the past week.
The pitch contest was the culminating event for the Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) program, as well as for Black Wall Street Homecoming, which have been held concurrently this week.
GFE selected 12 startups out of an applicant pool of more than 160 companies. Two Durham companies participated in the GFE exchange: social media platform RantRoom and travel website RewardStock.
Google has been a partner with American Underground since 2015, and the GFE program for black startups, which is the first of its kind for Google, was born out of the relationship.
For the past week, the 12 startups have taken part in classes and lectures on how to effectively raise capital, and received mentoring from business leaders and exposure to venture capitalists.
The pitch was a chance to take all the companies had learned during the week and bring it in front of dozens of venture capitalists from across the country.
“If you look around the room, it’s not just black people in this room,” said Jesica Averhart, director of community partnerships and new business development at American Underground. “This is the community that is supporting this work… It shows that people want to invest in these companies, they just need to see them. It’s about access.”
The winner of the pitch contest received $5,000 in cash and $8,000 in computer equipment from Lenovo — but it was a also chance to get live feedback from large investors.
“I think the biggest thing I gained from this week was interacting with the folks from Google that came out and learning from the mentors,” said Jon Hayes of RewardStock. “They had incredible stories that offered insights into what we are doing and they had a lot of lessons learned we can learn from.”
Another entrepreneur, John York, one of the founders of RantRoom, said he thought the program had kick-started his company’s development.
“We have never been in this type of environment before, so it’s really just been us looking at our app. We think it’s great but it was about learning to present it in a way that was attractive,” he said. “Leading up to this week, we had been making steps, but after this week we will began to take strides.”
The GFE exchange wasn’t just a chance for entrepreneurs to learn but also a moment for Durham to build upon its reputation as a diverse technology hub.
“It just continues to affirm that North Carolina is a hotspot for innovation, but beyond that we value diversity here,” said Thom Ruhe, the president and CEO of NC IDEA. “Having a diverse group of individuals that coalesce around entrepreneurship strengthens the fabric of not just the community but the entire state.”
Code2040 Entrepreneur in Residence at American Underground Doug Speight echoed that sentiment.
“This is fantastic for Durham’s image,” he said. “For one, American Underground made this really ambitious push toward being the most diverse tech hub in the country, and this is a great step toward that. It’s part of the story we tell the rest of the country that we can attract the best and brightest minds in technology to this city.”
Many of the startups that came from other parts of the country left impressed with what they saw.
“I’ve never been to Durham before,” said Sterling Smith, whose company Austin, Texas-based SandBox Commerce participated in the program. “But Durham has a couple things that Austin doesn’t have and that includes a more diverse entrepreneurial community, and that is appealing to me.”
Helen Adeosun, the founder of Boston-based Care Academy, which won the pitch contest, said she left really impressed with the city
“Durham for me represents the best of what places that are not Silicon Valley, places like Boston can become. I have a love affair with the South and the Midwest because I think there is opportunity that people don’t see. I think Durham is a shining example on a hill of what many cities can become.”