Aisha Lewis had read about the startup scene in Durham while living in her native California, but it wasn’t until she visited American Underground as part of the nonprofit CODE2040 that she wanted to be a part of it.
“Honestly, if I had not come to Durham I wouldn’t have (moved here),” she said. “You can read about Durham all you want — but, until you see it, I don’t think you will get it.”
American Underground, the downtown co-working space popular among technology startups, gained plenty of national headlines in 2015 when it loudly declared its intentions of being the most diverse tech hub in the country.
It was a bold declaration that American Underground has made strides toward. Last year, more than 48 percent of the 257 AU-based companies were female and/or minority led — which itself was a 30 percent increase from 2015.
Now, Lewis will be tasked with helping maintain that diversity that attracted her away from California as AU’s newest director of corporate partnerships.
“I think that leadership has been a big reason (Durham’s startup scene) has been so successful,” Lewis said. “I think that watching the American Underground team accomplish so much with so few people on their staff just by being bold ... is really impressive to me.”
Lewis joins the downtown tech incubator from the San Francisco-based nonprofit CODE2040, an organization that seeks to increase diversity in technology companies and is one of AU’s major partners. CODE2040 sponsors AU’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, which gives black or Latino entrepreneurs $40,000 in seed money.
Lewis is succeeding Jesica Averhart, who left AU in January to lead the nonprofit Leadership Triangle.
The director of corporate partnerships role is a dual one of outreach and making connections, Lewis said — noting the difference between making influential partnerships between large companies and AU-based companies as well as creating events that bring a diverse crowd to the co-working space.
Under Averhart’s leadership the co-working space connected many North Carolina-based companies, but the one connection that stands out is its relationship with the tech giant Google.
The search engine company decided to make AU one of 10 “Google for Entrepreneurs” hubs in North America. Last year, Google hosted its first GFE program at AU, which brought in 12 black-founded companies for a week of mentoring and an opportunity to meet investors. The event brought in both Google employees and venture capital investors from across the country.
“If you’re from California, you know North Carolina for its universities and maybe RTP,” Lewis said. That’s why planning for this year’s Google events is priority No. 1 — it brings out-of-state people to the Bull City.
She added there are likely more people like her that need to actually visit Durham to invest in it.
But, Lewis’ role isn’t just about attracting people from out-of-state to Durham.
While at CODE2040, she worked with students of African-American and Latino heritage and helped them land internships at tech companies around San Francisco. She hopes to eventually increase the amount of programming available to those outside of the tech community.
That could mean bringing in elementary- to college-aged students for mentoring or creating workshops for companies that aren’t technology startups.
AU is already in the process of diversifying the types of companies using its space. Among her first projects she’ll help run is the Startup Stampede — a new accelerator program that works specifically with consumer product companies.
But whatever programing AU creates, it will need to include community stakeholders, Lewis added.
“... If they aren’t serving anyone, what is the point?” she said.