At 210 Delburg Street, just off of Main Street and across from Brickhouse Tavern, sits another low-lying, red brick building by the train tracks. Built at the turn of the 20th-century, the space originally housed the Davidson Cotton Mill.
“The construction of any industrial or manufacturing complex was a visible and tangible sign of progress [for the sleepy Southern town],” according to the Historic Landmarks Commission.
Over the years, the cotton industry died down, and the building served various purposes, from fabric distribution center to warehouse.
In 2014, Davidson purchased the Delburg property for $730,000, according to The Charlotte Observer . The historic site is once again poised to be a source of growth and industry for the town. The former mill is now known as The Hub @ Davidson. The Hub will serve as a physical home for Davidson’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) initiative and as a larger entrepreneurial center for the community.
Founded in 2013, I&E is now entering its fourth academic year. It began as the “Transition to Impact” program in the President’s Office. Other initiatives at the time included the Sustainability and Education Scholars programs.
“One of the big pushes for The Hub was to bring the programming that we’ve continued to have and promote on campus into a physical space,” said Liz Stevens ‘16, who currently serves as the Innovation & Entrepreneurship/The Hub @ Davidson Fellow.
I&E runs programs and events geared towards engaging students in entrepreneurship and helping them apply the skills they gain from a liberal arts education to the tech world. They also provide funding opportunities for student ideas.
The Hub will offer a variety of opportunities to students beyond those originally offered by I&E.
“We’re not just taking the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program and quadrupling the programming and repeating the same types of events,” explained Julie Goff ‘05, the Interim Chief Evangelist for The Hub. “We are moving the I&E program into the Hub and also bringing lots of other elements.”
Goff and Stevens use the tagline “it’s more than just a building” to promote The Hub. It is part of an effort to grow a community for students with the help of professional faculty and staff.
The Hub features an office and bench space for “co-working members.” Co-working members are members of local startups, professionals, or consultants who pay a monthly fee to get their own space at the Hub and access its events and networking opportunities with students.
This program is part of The Hub’s goal to help foster and grow the Lake Norman entrepreneurial community and put Davidson students at its center. The Hub seeks to build a “hyper-local community,” according to Goff. The Hub “[looks] to bring together entrepreneurs who live in this community, who have lots of experience, and then newer entrepreneurs looking for mentors,” she added.
Similarly to the Center for Civic Engagement, The Hub hopes to help students make connections with local companies and startups, plugging them into internships and projects if they choose to do so.
The Hub “is very much about the concept of trying to build up that Lake Norman entrepreneurial community that’s very focused on having Davidson students engage in a way that haven’t necessarily been able to engage prior,” according to Stevens.
Stevens and Goff both emphasized how a liberal arts education, particularly the one received at Davidson, is highly applicable to the entrepreneurial and tech world.
“I think when you look at what skills are needed in technology right now, it really comes down to creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, user experience, and user design,” commented Goff. “Those are all things that Davidson students are trained better than many other undergraduate students in the country to do well.”
Entrepreneurship may be closer to Davidson’s goals as an institution than many students realize. Stevens believes: “Davidson’s underlying mission is developing students for lives of leadership and service. I think being an entrepreneur or even an intrapreneur, supporting another entrepreneur’s idea, really involves learning on the ground skills for what it means to be a leader and the different forms leadership can take.”
Goff wants to “debunk [the Hub] as this technology factory where all we’re doing is coding apps and cranking out software files. That’s not it at all. We live in 2017. Every problem that surfaces is probably going to have some component of tech as part of the solution.”
Right now, The Hub is still being constructed. The building’s signs went up last Wednesday, presiding over a new sidewalk, street lamps and landscaping. Much of The Hub’s facade will maintain the cotton mill’s rustic appearance, but the interior spaces will need large- scale renovation. A blueprint hanging from a wall boasts the design.
When finished, The Hub will host large event spaces, meeting and hangout rooms for students, and even a virtual reality lab. There will be few spatial divisions, with floor to ceiling white boards standing in for walls in many places. Students can reserve carrel-like personal spaces, or congregate in large coffee shop-like areas with large windows.
Half of The Hub will serve as the Van Deman Innovation Lab, an area meant predominantly for student use. The lab’s construction will be made possible by a $1 million donation from Ed Van Deman ‘69 and his wife, Nancie Fimbel. The Hub is still seeking donations for the second phase of construction.
Until construction resumes, the partially completed spaces of the Hub will play host to a series of pop-up events throughout the fall. The purpose of the events is to give students, faculty, and the community into the Hub’s mission, the space, and how it will operate. “We want The Hub to be a community that forms before the building opens,” explained Goff. The Hub is set to be completed by the summer of 2018.
The largest pop-up event of the semester occurred this past weekend, as The Hub hosted a 3 Day Startup program (3DS). Eight years ago, Cam Houser ‘00 started 3DS as a national education program to give college students a feel for the startup world. It serves as “a gateway into learning about entrepreneurship,” according to Stevens. Davidson has hosted 3DS three times, but this was the first year that Davidson alumni and students from other Charlotte-area institutions were invited.
Starting Friday, students who had signed up for 3DS met in the Hub and split into groups. Each group came up with two startup ideas and pitched them to the entire room. Everyone then voted on the six best ideas, and individuals proceeded to form six new groups based on what idea sounded most appealing to them.
The next day, the groups canvassed campus to ask Davidson students about their interest in their potential community-based startups. Following the “customer canvassing,” the groups met with sets of mentors back at the Hub who also gave feedback. The mentors consisted of local business leaders, professionals, lawyers, and coders.
On Sunday, the groups created a preliminary website and slideshow for their startups. They then gave a final three to five-minute pitch before a panel of four judges. The judges consisted of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce board member Dr. Shante P. Williams, Director of MDM Advisors Michael D. Marvin, UNC Professor of Practice of Strategy and Entrepreneurship Dr. Don Rose, and Games for Life Institute owner Michelle Serano-Mills ‘90. After each group presented, the judges gave several minutes of constructive feedback and questions.
3DS gave students a chance to talk to professional entrepreneurs, pitch their creative ideas, and get a feel for what The Hub is all about.
“It’s an experience to just learn about how to get a start-up going, but it’s also a really good networking opportunity,” said Andrew Wright ‘20, reflecting on his experience at the 3DS event. Wright and his partner intend to stay in touch with some of the mentors they met to continue working on their start-up idea beyond the walls of The Hub.
Previous 3DS weekends have already produced some real world results. Houston Downes ‘18 designed the app Krouded, which focused on crowdsourcing restaurant wait times, along with Matt Walker ‘18 and Julius Hatcher ‘18. While Walker and Hatcher have since pursued other projects, 3DS helped inspire Downes to continue in entrepreneurship. He is currently working on his app Pokadot, which helps coordinate impromptu group events and meetings. Downes recently traveled to San Francisco to find potential partners for Pokadot.
“If you have an idea, just try to go for it in as small of scale as you want,” advised Downes. “There are so many resources here, and so many people who want to help, both at the college and with alums of the college.”
Aside from 3DS, The Hub will also host an “On the Table” forum on October 25th. “On the Table” meetings will take place across the greater Charlotte area with the aim of generating conversations and potential solutions to a problem exposed in a recent Harvard-Berkeley study. In the study, Charlotte ranked 50 out of 50 for the largest US cities with regard to economic mobility.
Goff noted that while many large universities like Duke or the UNC system schools have Hub-like spaces to engage students in entrepreneurship, many small liberal arts colleges do not. Universities generally use theses spaces to cater to engineering or computer science departments. Goff and Stevens want The Hub to play to Davidson’s strengths of critical thinking and leadership development, and even the honor code—traits that are sometimes lacking in the tech world.
Goff stated: “What we’re trying to create at the Hub, we have not found any example or parody of at another liberal arts institution. That’s what we’re really excited about.”