Community meeting gives students an entrepreneurial peek into Durham

Students stepped out of the classroom and into the community September 18 to meet community leaders and discuss tackling Durham’s challenges with an entrepreneurial approach as part of Professor Christopher Gergen’s Social Enterprise Development course.

Representatives from 12 organizations presented at the second annual Bull City Community Meeting, which took place at the community center at Lyon Park. The event, tailored to suit students’ interests, focused upon three sectors: job creation and economic development, youth and education and community health and welfare. Speakers included Michael Lemanski, founder of Greenfire Development; Leigh Bordley, executive director of Partners for Youth; Nadeen Abir, program director for El Centro and Ernie Mills, executive director of Durham Rescue Mission.

Community meeting gives students an entrepreneurial peek into Durham

Community meeting gives students an entrepreneurial peek into Durham

Social Enterprise Coordinator Della Owens McKinnon lauded the event’s success in opening students’ eyes to the Durham non-profit sector. “We wanted [the speakers] to address the challenges they face with the populations they serve and also the root causes of the issues, and what new innovations or strategies would they add to their efforts if more resources were available,” McKinnon said.

Speaker Brian Schneiderman, vice president for emerging markets lending at Self-Help, said he found the meeting energizing. “I’m always inspired when there’s a room full of bright young people hungry to learn how to be part of community issues and community conversations,” he said.

Each of the twelve speakers gave brief presentations followed by a question-and-answer session at the meeting’s conclusion. The structure was less free-flowing than last year’s meeting, said Gergen, but more comprehensive and focused on action. “What we were really trying to get to was a call to action, and I think we got there this year,” Gergen said. Gergen and McKinnon both said they hoped to see the meeting grow into a half-day or full-day event in future years to facilitate deeper exposure to the issues and allow students time to process what they learn.

“We want to find out what tugged at you, what resonated with you, what pulled at your spirit that you want to address,” McKinnon said.

For students, the afternoon provided a key glimpse into the functioning of local non-profits and the difficulties they face. Now, briefed with firsthand accounts from community leaders, students are charged with designing high-impact social enterprises to complement and bolster ongoing community efforts.

For students, the afternoon provided a key glimpse into the functioning of local non-profits and the difficulties they face. Now, briefed with firsthand accounts from community leaders, students are charged with designing high-impact social enterprises to complement and bolster ongoing community efforts.

“What really caught my attention was just the passion that I saw in the faces of the directors of different organizations,” said junior Shawheen James. “They spoke of the challenges but they still had a light in their faces. It was a really powerful experience.”

He hopes to work in the youth and education sector, he said, and the presentations had helped him see where he could contribute the most. “A lot of them seemed to need resources, and I would want to channel Duke resources to different organizations and help them build an infrastructure and support system in Duke community,” he explained.

 

Junior Lina Feng praised the meeting for its broad introduction to the causes of Durham’s challenges and the efforts taken to solve them. “They got to the nature of the general trend of problems in Durham-gang problems, poverty and the social implications of poverty. For someone like me who didn’t know much about Durham, it was a good introduction to what we will be doing for the rest of the semester,” Feng said. Now, she said, she has a clearer idea of who to contact and how to shape her project. “It helped me brainstorm and inspired me to be a bit more innovative,” she said.

Students will now work in teams to develop business plans capturing the vision and action plans behind their entrepreneurial ideas.

Students will now work in teams to develop business plans capturing the vision and action plans behind their entrepreneurial ideas.

Sustainability is a key theme of the projects, so each team will be judged on the support they have within the Durham community-as well as on their plans for scaling and sustaining their enterprises going forward. The most promising ideas will be invited to join an incubator on campus and receive start-up capital as well as ongoing technical and mentoring support.

For Gergen, the meeting was an essential component in catalyzing high-impact, sustainable change in the community: “We want students to understand the root causes of the core problems we are trying to solve and how we can add value to all of the interesting things that are already happening in Durham.”