ThinkHouseU: Toss a group of budding entrepreneurs together in the same house and see what happens

Justin Catanoso

Entrepreneurial support is poised to expand once again in Greensboro while taking a step closer to a nationally recognized entrepreneurial haven — the Triangle.

Starting in August, UNC Greensboro will serve as a national pilot for a residential concept called ThinkHouseU. In a renovated house in the Glenwood neighborhood near campus, eight imaginative and determined undergrads with viable visions of new business startups will live together for nine months. They will not only share kitchen space and bathrooms, but swap ideas and encouragement as well.

“We want students to come into the house with a business concept that is highly scalable,” says Bryan Toney, UNCG’s associate vice chancellor for economic development and corporate engagement. “They will work on it for a better part of a year with other people like themselves doing similar things. There is a synergy that will come from this, and they will get a lot of mentoring and support along the way.”

The ultimate goal, of course, is that these budding ideas turn into businesses that turn into jobs that take root right here in the Triad. It’s a concept already bearing fruit in the Triangle, born from the boundless enthusiasm of Christopher Gergen, the driving force behind ThinkHouseU.

Toney calls Gergen, the son of political analyst and presidential adviser David Gergen, “a change maker, one of the most visionary people I’ve ever met.” Indeed, that’s the mark Gergen is making in the Triangle and other parts of the state.

As the CEO of Raleigh-based Forward Impact, Gergen’s mission is to support entrepreneurial innovation in its many forms. His company runs programs in Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte and Moore County. His HQ Raleigh, a co-working space there, is the inspiration for Greensboro entrepreneur Andy Zimmerman’s HQ Greensboro, which will open on Lewis Street downtown in July. Gergen in an investor in Zimmerman’s project.

But whereas HQ Raleigh and HQ Greensboro are, and will be, about pushing established businesses to new levels of progress and growth, ThinkHouseU rolls back to the starting point, where ideas meet enthusiasm with no guarantees of success. But in the right space, the odds can improve.

“The genesis of this work came from the question: how can we unleash the highest potential of next-generation entrepreneurial leaders,” Gergen explains. “We think there are two major ingredients. One, create the talent pipeline. And two, create an enabling environment around the talent to connect them to the kinds of resources and relationships they need to be successful.”

Gergen’s ThinkHouse in Raleigh, which is focused on graduate students (while ThinkHouseU focuses on undergraduates) appears to be playing out that way. Of the seven budding entrepreneurs in the first grouping, Gergen says six are still working on their ventures and several are hiring employees.

The key to all this is more intentional than simply luring a few creative kids into an affordable housing situation ($500 a month covers rent and utilities) and hoping for the best. There is tailored programming and mentoring. There is access to the incubators, venture capital sessions and co-working spaces in Raleigh and Greensboro. And there is the expectation that all this support will deepen their commitment to the local community.

“With ThinkHouseU, we want to work with an even younger pipeline,” Gergen says. “We want to identify those working on cool ideas while still in school. If we give them the tools and resources they need to accelerate, it will increase the chances that they will pursue their ideas locally after they graduate, rather than move away and take a regular job.”

That Gergen’s company is renting a house and investing in renovations in Greensboro for the first ThinkHouseU, and not in Chapel Hill or Wilmington or Asheville, is a testament to the entrepreneurial infrastructure that has developed in the city. Gergen would be welcomed just about anywhere. He did his due diligence in Greensboro over several years before making a decision.

“I think that Greensboro is at a really important inflection point as a community where a few of these proof of concepts will go a long way toward further accelerating the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Gergen says. “Two or three years ago, I felt Greensboro wasn’t ready. But now, given the enthusiastic support from the community and UNCG, we feel it’s an important time and we want to contribute to the tipping point.”

Adds Toney at UNCG, “We’ve spent a lot of time looking for opportunities to work with High Point and Winston-Salem. A lot of that has been good. But when you look at successful entrepreneurial areas, Raleigh-Durham makes every national Top 10 list. We want our people to interact there, and we want to be on their radar screen.”

That might put a lot of pressure on the eight undergrads selected in the coming months to live in the ThinkHouseU in Glenwood; applications are being sought now from all the colleges and universities in the city. But Gergen is nothing if not optimistic.

“Everything we need to succeed is in Greensboro — the right space, the universities, and the entrepreneurial support systems,” he says. “We hope this is the start of a long-term relationship with the city. We want to grow HQ Greensboro. We want to open more ThinkHouses. I love the idea of connecting the Triad and Triangle in a meaningful way. There are great benefits that can flow in both directions.”

Justin Catanoso, former executive editor of the Triad Business Journal, is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column, Triad Next, appears monthly in the paper.