When students in the Durham Nativity School’s entrepreneurship club visit the offices and warehouses of local startups in Durham, their most common question is often, “How’d you get the money to start this?”
It’s a fair question for the students to ask — as every student who attends Durham Nativity School (DNS) comes from a low-income background, where capital is used to make ends meet rather than fuel an interesting business idea.
“They understand how a bank works,” said Mike Glenn, the school’s social studies teacher who also works with the club. “But I don’t think they ever thought it was possible to get a loan from a family member to start a business.”
The club, which is made up of seventh and eighth graders, is meant to demystify the startup process for these students at a young age.
DNS is a secular private school for boys in fifth through eighth grades that follows students through their time in middle school through college. The school’s mission is to provide a tuition-free enriched learning environment and 11-year support system for the students, which includes placing and funding their time at a private high schools.
The school is open to boys who have the academic ability and parental commitment for the school. Currently about 60 boys are enrolled.
This is the first year that DNS has had an entrepreneurship club, and eight boys have committed to the club this school year. For the past few weeks, members have been leaving the grounds of DNS’s campus at Grace Baptist Church in the Old North Durham neighborhood to visit various startups and businesses in the city.
The idea for the club traces its roots to Rocky Mount. That’s where the school’s development officer, James Gray III, was president of North Carolina Wesleyan College. He retired from the college in 2014 and has been working part-time for DNS since.
While leading Wesleyan College he spearheaded an effort to launch an entrepreneurship center on the school’s campus to boost business activity among the students. Gray retired from the post before he could see the idea become reality but continued to think of how something similar could be done at DNS.
“The big saying here is ‘dream big,’” Gray said. “These kids come from very poor backgrounds, where big dreams are hard to come by. The objective (of the club) is to inspire them and get them to say, ‘Hey, that could be me.’”
DNS has partnered with the downtown tech incubator American Underground on the club (AU’s Entrepreneur-in-Resident Doug Speight is a mentor for the group) as well as with students from Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.
So far, the club has toured American Underground, Beyu Caffe, the factory of Durham energy drink maker Mati Energy and the warehouse for Nugget, a local furniture manufacturer started by two UNC-Chapel Hill graduates in 2015. It has plans to visit several more.
Jonathan Corres, an eighth grader at DNS, said the small-scale origins of the startups they’ve visited have been encouraging — especially as one of the school’s requirements is for the small club to create its own nonprofit by the end of the year. (The club is planning a nonprofit that donates video and board games to patients at UNC Children’s Hospital.)
“I thought they were joking at first when they said they were doing it on their own,” Corres said, noting how Nugget’s manufacturing and shipping operations were all done by the two co-founders in an old tobacco warehouse in south Durham.
Corres said the club and the school have made it clear that a large amount of knowledge is needed to start a business or an organization — even if it’s just a one-person startup.
“I am really starting to realize how important education is now,” he said. “Durham Nativity is really an opportunity for students to strive … I realize now I can really do something in my life.”
Gray said he hopes the club will also help students realize how many options are available for their future careers.
Hopefully they will realize that you don’t have to work for a large company your entire life, but that you can also create something on your own, whether that is being a video-game maker or a starting a restaurant, Gray said.
“I have no doubt that some of these kids we are exposing to entrepreneurship will have their own businesses one day,” he said.