Big leadership changes coming to Durham’s startup community

Significant leadership changes are coming to Durham’s startup community, as Adam Klein, the longtime leader of the American Underground, is taking a new position at Capitol Broadcasting Co.
Significant leadership changes are coming to Durham’s startup community, as Adam Klein, the longtime leader of the American Underground, is taking a new position at Capitol Broadcasting Co. file photo

Significant leadership changes are coming to the Durham startup community, as the American Underground’s longtime leader is moving into a new role at Capitol Broadcasting Co.

Adam Klein, who has led CBC’s co-working community American Underground for the past five years, will now become the director of strategy for CBC’s real estate holdings in Durham and Rocky Mount.

CBC owns the expanding American Tobacco District, as well as several other downtown properties in downtown Durham, and has made significant investments into the Rocky Mount Mills project in Rocky Mount in recent years.

The American Underground startup community has grown significantly since Klein took the helm of the organization in 2012. The number of companies working there has increased from 35 to 275, and it has struck high-profile partnerships with tech companies such as Google.

“I think the partnership with Google has been one of the most impactful things that has happened in past five years,” Klein said of his time in charge of AU. “It has led to so many ancillary things. Google’s brand has given validity to the startup community here ... creating a platform to show the country, and hopefully the world, what Durham can do.”

Under his leadership, the American Underground has also gained national recognition for increasing the number of minority- and women-led companies using its facilities. Its partnership with Google led to the creation of Soar Triangle, an organization for promoting women entrepreneurs, and the Google Entrepreneur Exchange, which brought African-American-led startups from all over the country to Durham.

The companies that operate out of the American Underground are typically young technology startups with under 25 employees. But in the five years that Klein has overseen the incubator, several have outgrown the space and moved to new office space in downtown Durham.

Nine companies have grown out of American Underground and leased office space in downtown Durham outside of the American Underground, including Smashing Boxes, Archive Social, Windsor Circle and iScribes, Klein said.

“AU hopefully embodies what makes Durham special, which is a creative entrepreneurial energy that is present now and hopefully in the future,” he said. “I am really proud that AU has been able to solidify a density of startup activity in downtown.”

Geoff Durham, president and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, said Klein has been instrumental at spreading a positive image of Durham to the rest of the country.

“I think Adam’s energy has been infectious,” he said. “I love what he has done, so far as shining a light on the entrepreneurial character of Durham to the rest of the country. And once the city got that attention, he worked hard to magnify it through his work at American Underground. ... He worked really hard to make sure it was reflective of the broader Durham community, making sure it reflects the diversity and inclusivity that sets Durham apart.”

Klein will be replaced by Doug Speight, who will have the title of executive director at AU.

Speight has a long relationship with AU, having been an entrepreneur in residence there in 2016.

As entrepreneur in residence at AU, Speight was heavily involved in diversification efforts at the startup community.

Speight said that his leadership of the American Underground wouldn’t have a different focus than Klein’s.

“The benefit of this transition is that we have worked together since late 2015,” he said of his previous involvement as an entrepreneur in residence. “I am very familiar with where AU is in terms of its operations and programs, and I am directly in line with where the tech hub wants to go in terms of its local and national connections.

“And I am completely bought in on diversity and inclusion. There is no difference in operation philosophy.”

Speight called Klein an “absolutely stellar leader” and applauded the organization’s diversity efforts, noting that more than 20 percent of its companies are led by people of color and over 30 percent are led by women.

“Those are metrics that any tech hub in the country would be glad to have,” he said.

Klein will still be based in Durham, but will travel to Rocky Mount often. He will help oversee strategy at the Rocky Mount Mills development, an old cotton mill that CBC has invested on the Tar River in Rocky Mount.

A brewery incubator is already based there, and CBC is hoping to attract businesses in eastern North Carolina to lease office space there, similarly to how it has at the American Tobacco District.

“I am going to spend a lot more time in Rocky Mount to get to know its leaders and to understand what their desires are,” Klein said. “We want to find out what we can do uniquely in Rocky Mount to support its economic development.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes