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Black entrepreneurship in Chapel Hill

Mr. James Sills, CEO of Farmers and Mechanics Bank, started his career as a statistician.
Mr. James Sills, CEO of Farmers and Mechanics Bank, started his career as a statistician.

Recently, Durham-Chapel Hill ranked as one of the top 10 places for black entrepreneurs according to, a data analysis website.

But as of 2007 only 3.6 percent of firms in Chapel Hill are black-owned.

Carmilla Farrington, owner of the Farrington Law Firm that operated from the Midway Business Center, a small-business incubator located in a historically black business district on the edge of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, said there are very few black-owned businesses in Chapel Hill, especially in comparison to Durham.

As of 2007, 25.9 percent of all firms in Durham are black-owned businesses.

“I think in this case Durham is making us look good,” Jessica Anderson, newly elected member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, said.

“Durham has some really great programs and infrastructure to help black business owners get off the ground,” she said.

“I think in this case we need to look to our neighbors.”

The ranking was based on the number of black-owned firms, the percentage of black residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher and the city’s unemployment rate and GDP.

“I’m proud that Chapel Hill is being recognized as a community that supports entrepreneurship,” said Lee Storrow, Chapel Hill Town Council member.

Storrow said the partnership between the public and private sectors in Chapel Hill has allowed for a climate supportive of entrepreneurship with the development of entrepreneurship hubs such as 1789 Venture Lab and Launch Chapel Hill.

Deborah Stroman, the director of sport entrepreneurship and community engagement at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, said a university setting is a great place for entrepreneurs because of the wealth of resources available to people looking to start up businesses.

“If there’s a place to do it, it’s best to do it near a university,” she said.

“The resources are definitely here.”

One of these resources is the Midway Business Center, run by EmPOWERment Inc.

EmPOWERment is a housing counseling and community empowerment organization.

The center is the home of most black-owned businesses in Chapel Hill.

Ed Harrison, Chapel Hill Town Council member and former Durham resident, said the data collected was from the metropolitan statistical area that includes both Chapel Hill and Durham.

“I expect that the listing applies almost entirely to what’s happening in the city of Durham right now, although that doesn’t have to remain the case,” Harrison said in an email.

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Kristen Smith, spokesperson for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said the ranking reflects the history of black entrepreneurship, particularly in Black Wall Street in Durham and Midway in Chapel Hill.

Smith also said Orange County Economic Development has loan and grant programs for businesses having trouble obtaining credit. listed one of the main obstacles to black business owners in entrepreneurship is access to credit, with only 13 percent of black small business owners reporting they were able to obtain the credit they need.

Jim Sills, president and CEO of Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham, a 108-year-old institution that caters to small- and medium-sized businesses, said obtaining credit is hard for anyone going into business.

“Just like in the (GoodCall listing), probably the number one challenge for any business is access to capital or access to credit,” Sills said in an email.

Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which operates a branch in the former NC Mutual building, works to provide capital and loans to local businesses, which helps the black-owned businesses in Durham thrive.

“I think it is good for students and up-and-coming entrepreneurs to be aware of the services and capabilities of community banks like ours in this region,” Sills said.

“Going into the future, as the society becomes more and more diverse, we are going to need entrepreneurs that are going to hire STEMs that are coming out of these universities.”