A Look Back: Durham is not Silicon Valley, and That's Our Best Quality

This week, I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic as I start my new position at the American Underground. The space is one I’m quite familiar with, having worked here since 2014.

When I started, I was writing more frequently for Clarion Content. My employment at Runaway was in its infancy stage so my status in the downtown scene was unknown. The piece below represents a growing sentiment I felt toward the phrase “the next Silicon Valley.” Even back then, I knew that place was a toxic environment not to be emulated. After a presentation by Wayne Sutton, I couldn’t hold my thoughts in any longer.

Enjoy


The High Road: Durham is not Silicon Valley, and That’s Our Best Quality

May 31, 2015

This past April, entrepreneur Wayne Sutton spoke to a crowd at American Underground @ Main during Innovate Your Cool about diversity in the startup community. Most of the presentation introduced ideas we are all familiar with; the lack of diverse employment in the startup world, and how Silicon Valley is the mecca of brilliant ideas. Here, Sutton explains the difference between Durham and The Valley/San Francisco:

Here we value sports (…) and we like tech and entrepreneurship, arts, music. That’s all cool and great,” he says. “But over there, I’ve never seen a community care about who can write the best, most brilliant essay in the world. It’s about intellectual capital. (…) They care about our minds.

I would like to kindly ask Sutton to try and open his own.

Business diversity is incredibly important, do not get me wrong, as is economic development. Providing opportunities for those who seek them, regardless of race, color, or creed, is paramount to the future of the nation’s well being. With that said, what do Sutton and his ilk expect from attracting a diverse group of people? That they will all look like Mark Zuckerberg and watch TED Talks on repeat?

How can you promote diversity when you do not support the things that reflect those people?

The beauty of diversity is that we all experience life in different ways, and our backgrounds and interests make us unique. Sports, the arts, nature, these things do not hold us back but unlock our potential as individuals. Durham, as well as the Greater North Carolina, is a place where these things exist at the highest level.

Students choose to attend universities like Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and NC State not just for their academic prowess, but the entire student experience that includes successful athletics, arts programs (of which the system is trying to sever at the neck), and a beautiful geological landscape with beaches, mountains, and city life all within a few hours of one another. Variety opens minds to new ways of thinking and stimulates personal exploration, and yes, business development.

Through this personal exploration, our communities learn to grow and co-exist in a symbiotic way, unlike in The Valley/Bay Area where incidents like the one below repeatedly create tension between city residents and the influx of careless business giants attempting to swallow up the planet.

In the video, you can hear one of the assholes… Dropbox employees saying to the group:

“Who cares about the neighborhood?”

Well, since you asked, Durham cares about its neighborhoods. At least, that is the Durham that I grew up in.

None of this is to say Durham does not have its own issues on the horizon, a horizon which will soon be eclipsed by the large monolith propping up in Downtown Durham.

Stop me if this sounds familiar:

One is building 222 Second Street, a 26-story, 450,000-square-foot tower that will house up to 2,500 workers for the social network LinkedIn. Another crane is working on Salesforce Tower, which will be the tallest building in the city and house the cloud-computing company’s workers in over 714,000 square feet.

Which leads to this:

In 2012, the park underwent a $7.5 million renovation and the city’s parks and recreation department instituted a new set of rules… But that left the neighborhood children feeling slighted, because those evening hours were prime slots. They made this video recording after several conflicts like this had already happened over many months.

Ground has already been broken on our own 26-story eye sore in the heart of downtown, and many people fear, based on the trajectory of cities like Brooklyn and San Francisco, that this battle is far from over.

The sense is that Silicon Valley has the blueprint for the future misses the most important aspects of life. Durham is a unique city, and we should not compromise our own character to emulate a region that is stripping the area of its culture for the sake of building the next Snapchat. ¹

We have the community in place to be different, to achieve differently, and yes, one that cares about its neighborhoods. Our ambition should not be to emulate Silicon Valley, or Austin, or Brooklyn, but to be Durham at our core, a core that gave birth to Black Wall Street in the early 1900s, a place where Black American entrepreneurship thrived because our predecessors chose to think and act differently. Durham has an obligation to lead on how communities can excel without sacrificing anyone’s way of living.

Be a leader, Durham, not a follower.

Take the High Road…

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Editor’s Notes:

1. As a proud tenant of American Underground here in Durham, I do believe our startup culture can and will be different thanks to the efforts of many who see diversity, opportunity, and community as something of the utmost importance to a sustainable lifestyle.