In cooperation with the International Affairs Council and funded by World Learning, Bull City Forward hosted ten business leaders, educators, and entrepreneurs from Belarus. Over the course of three days, we experienced and engaged with the leadership, vision, and application of the Triangle’s best.

On Thursday, we attended the Triangle Entrepreneurship Week “Women in Business” session at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. In addition to hearing the inspiring stories of Cecily Durrett, Angela Hollen, Kristin Adams, and Shannan Legge during the plenary session, our guests experienced an intimate panel with the founders of Sanitation Creations, ABAN, and Symbology Clothing – all social enterprises. Contextualizing the supports and opportunities for regional women business leaders, was Briles Johnson, director of the Women’s Business Center of NC. We are grateful to Kate White and Marbles Kids Museum and the visionaries of TEW, Jon Leonardo and Sarah Wechsberg for donating their space and event admission to our guests.

On Monday morning, our visitors convened at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. What a venue – what a view! CEO and President of the GDCC, Casey Steinbacher welcomed us and drove the context of Durham’s revitalization, highlighting key public-private partnerships and the role of socially-minded community partners like Self-Help – represented by Commercial Loan Officer, Jennifer Sherwin; Small Business and Technology Development Center at NCCU – represented by Assistant Regional Director, Mary Speight; and the Great City of Durham – represented by Director of Economic and Workforce Development, Kevin Dick.

Later that morning, our guests met with marketing, public relations, communications, and regulatory experts from the area, who advised them on best practices, models, strategies, and regulations. We are grateful to our presenters who gave of their time and expertise: Dee McDougal – VP, Public Relations & Sales Communications with Square 1 Bank, Kristi Lee-John – Principal at Crossroad Public Relations, Camilla Meek, and Laura Chipman, associate with Brooks Pierce.

This morning, we found ourselves at the Redwoods Group – a B-certified corporation that reduces drowning and child sexual assault (everyone should know about this company!). Driven by our guests’ interest in youth entrepreneurship, we facilitated a session between youth entrepreneurs from Durham and Raleigh, Robert Smith and Shane Stephens, the Director of the Campus Y at UNC, Richard Harrill, fmr. Director, Institute of Rural Entrepreneurship, Leslie Scott, and the Associate Director of NC REAL, Malinda Todd. The second session – delivered by Redwoods Group leadership – focused on crisis and risk management. Bull City Forward is grateful for and recognizes the Redwood Group’s hospitality. You are a true community partner.

After a great lunch at Mellow Mushroom and tour of the American Tobacco Campus, Bull City Forward supporter and local triple bottom line company, Triangle Ecycling not only provided an inside look at their e-waste solutions facility, but also surprised our guests with a taste of home. Larry Herst, founder and CEO of Triangle Ecylcling happens to employ a chief technician from Belarus whose father, a researcher at Duke and also from the Belarusian capital city, Minsk, joined us as well. We arrived to warm, Belarusian home-cooked bread and toured one of Durham’s signature social ventures. At Triangle Ecylcing, electronic waste from corporations, schools, and individuals is processed for optimal environmental and social benefit. Local youth intern with Larry and his team to gain valuable technical skills, while the company delivers refurbished computers to institutions and individuals who cannot afford brand new laptops, desktops, and printers. Additionally, Triangle Ecylcing donates 10% for profits to Durham’s school system. This model is a jewel in Durham’s shining crown.

Our final host this afternoon was the almost unimaginably successful Bull City company, Thundershirt. Jay Mebane and the welcoming staff of this multimillion dollar, international corner shop provided insight into the conceptualization, personal investment, launch, and scaling of a product that provides pet owners with a solution to anxiety caused by storms, loud noises, and other antagonists our “best friends” experience. One Belarusian who happened to own a Thundershirt called it a “miracle” product. The team at Thundershirt then opened their facility to a session with the Belarusian bankers in the group to work with Dara Keatts, founder and CEO of Pengo Loans, a “gap finance” social investment enterprise based here in the Triangle that delivers value to investors and opportunity to those most in need.

These three days have been quite the experience. As the new Executive Director of Bull City Forward, my aim is not only to help local social entrepreneurs in Durham, but also to help swing the international spotlight toward Durham. We want to be known internationally as the place for social innovation, ethical corporate responsibility, and chief among emergent social entrepreneurial ecosystems. All of our Triangle-based hosts made a great impression. Yet, perhaps not as much as our guests made upon us.

Our guests from Belarus came with kindness, interest, gratitude, and gifts! – a reflection not only of their personal values, but of their homeland and culture. Durham and the Triangle are ever so grateful to have hosted this amazing cohort. As Durham’s Assistant County Manager, Drew Cummings stated during his closing remarks: “We hope you will return again soon, and as often as you might. We remain your host and friend.” We at Bull City Forward echo this sentiment.

I also want to thank our Charlotte-based and Belarus-native interpreter, Paul Fetkevich, MA. Without his services this opportunity would have been half the experience. Thank you. Should you ever need Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarusian translation services, he is you man. He is certainly ours.

Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank our guests. They represent various aspects of the entrepreneurial community in Belarus. Here are links to some of their ventures and projects. I will update it as I receive more of their contact information:

TurboSphere (Kiril Levkov) – a new microturbine for secondary energy resources recovery

Belarusian Association of Entrepreneurs (Elena Bortnik) – the “Bull City Forward of Belarus”

IGRIKA (Gleb Gerasimovich) – board and tablet based games

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