City Startup Labs (CSL) works hard to close the entrepreneurial divide for young black men and women in the Charlotte community who are often marginalized and don’t have resources to start their own businesses. Additionally, the organization’s leaders have developed the ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program (REEP) to give returning citizens — or those who were formerly incarcerated — the tools needed to be successful entrepreneurs and innovators.
Heading into 2020, the organization planned to update REEP to include training in digital technology services with the goal of addressing the digital divide in Charlotte. However, those plans came to a halt because of COVID-19. Instead, CSL transitioned from entrepreneurial mentoring to workforce programming to better serve the community during the pandemic.
To successfully transition its programs, the City of Charlotte awarded City Startup Labs a Workforce Partner Support Grant from Open For Business.
“The Workforce Partner Support Grant allowed CSL to concentrate our activities on training and deploying this population to confront the digital divide in unique ways,” said Henry Rock, Executive Director of City Startup Labs.
The COVID-19 relief funding allowed CSL to train and pay a cohort of six returning citizens as Digital Navigators who work in helpdesk support roles. The individuals assist people in Charlotte facing challenges with access and connectivity to digital technology.
CSL also used the grant to help with the recruitment and selection of a cohort of five returning citizens to work with the company Open Broadband (OBB). Those individuals were offered on-the-job training and employment, which was also funded through the Workforce Partner Support Grant.
Despite the challenges that came with quickly switching its focus, CSL saw a positive response that gave hope for restorative justice to many in the Charlotte community.
“We’re proud of our ability to expose and train persons from this population who otherwise have had significant challenges with finding work due to their backgrounds in a new field,” Rock said. “We have begun the process of having cohorts conduct important civic work within the community. This is what we have imagined that restorative justice can look like.”
Rock saw the significant impacts the grant made on the personal lives of individuals, including one participant of the Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp at the Mecklenburg County Jail who expressed interest in the technician’s program with Access Charlotte. After gaining experience, OBB hired the individual.
“I recently spoke with OBB’s CEO, who mentioned how well the young man is doing and is likely to continue to work with the project in the future,” Rock explained.
After seeing success with its workforce programming, CSL plans to continue giving opportunities to returning citizens to improve the digital divide by teaming up with Digital Charlotte to work on the Digital Navigators Project. CSL also intends to conduct research to better understand the specific issues the Charlotte community experiences as a result of the digital divide.
City Startup Labs received a Workforce Partner Support Grant from Charlotte Open For Business. Through the grant program, the City of Charlotte has awarded $3.5 million to workforce partners to provide programs for our community.