E3 Durham: A Rebirth of Grassroots Entrepreneurship

December 13, 2023 | By Hassan Bazzi

Forward Cities Director of Entrepreneur Engagement, Hassan Bazzi, reflects on the current state of entrepreneurship and shares his thoughts on the future, drawing insights from his work as the Navigator for the E3 Durham Community Navigator Program.

"The creative drive and its spark, which is at the heart of entrepreneurship, must be nourished and supported when it is fresh; when the inspiration and driving motivation is there."

Man holding a microphone

Hassan Bazzi served as the E3 Durham Navigator, connecting Durham entrepreneurs to spoke partners and resources within the E3 Durham program.

I wholeheartedly believe we are all born with and possess an entrepreneurial spirit. How else do you explain our tendency as children to develop new games out of thin air, the drive to take a leap of faith, our desire to not want to obey rules, and our indelible desire to search for a way around when we are told “this is how it's done”? As we journey through life, little by little, we unintentionally drown that spirit in order to function under rules set by others to ensure an orderly society. Some resist the temptation to conform and go through life guided by that entrepreneurial spirit and pave their own way.  Others only later rediscover and reawaken the dormant spirit when struck by a sudden and unanticipated life shock that disrupts their status quo. And realize that although it is a scary notion, the only constant in life and all they truly have to depend on, is themselves.

The creative drive and its spark, which is at the heart of entrepreneurship, must be nourished and supported when it is fresh; when the inspiration and driving motivation is there. We take for granted public funding for infrastructure, national defense, etc., and our elected officials coalesce to get these funded regardless of their differences and any economic challenges. Although everyone acknowledges the value in supporting entrepreneurs, funding for entrepreneurship at the grassroots level all too often seems to be an afterthought or bonus arising only when there is leftover funding or a need for a good community story.  Entrepreneurs must be funded at every stage, in every community, and in the same way we fund infrastructure projects and national defense because entrepreneurship is the foundation of our infrastructure and it is our national economic defense in a global economy. Entrepreneurship education must be part of the curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school. Granted, there are programs that already exist around the country, however, entrepreneurship education should be part of the core curriculum for every student at every school, and not just a privilege afforded only to those who happen to reside in the right school district.

"The engine that drives this country forward is its entrepreneurs."

Beyond the foundational education must be a support ecosystem that meets the needs of entrepreneurs at every stage and from a variety of disciplines. Having a support system in place whether internally within one’s business or externally through relationships with mentors, entrepreneur champions, and business support organizations is many times the key to successfully navigating challenges within a business’ life cycle and emerging better, stronger, and more resilient because of it. At its core, E3 Durham had two main aims. One, to build a more connected, cohesive, and collaborative ecosystem of entrepreneur support organizations, entrepreneurs, and their champions. And two, to remove for entrepreneurs the barrier of having to know where and to whom to turn as they navigate the many and unique challenges experienced at each stage in the business cycle. It’s not enough that programs, services, and resources are available in an ecosystem - entrepreneurs need to be aware of what is out there and must be able to navigate. Entrepreneurs must have a trusted partner they can turn to, who can make introductions, connections, and who helps them navigate the ecosystem.    

E3 Durham entrepreneurs and Spoke partners shared their stories at the December 6, 2023 End-of-Year Celebration event.

The common thread amongst the incredible entrepreneurs within the E3 Durham community is that their businesses are a direct response to their experience navigating the changes of the last 3.5 years. Many left the security of a corporate America job to reclaim their individuality and creative drive, and rediscovered dormant passions that had faded under the fog of the day-to-day grind. Others came to realize that old business models and systems they had come to rely on were not as resilient as we had been led to believe and could not withstand the shock of a sudden change. All realized in one form or another that their immediate and broader community’s needs were not being met. And so they responded and took action. These entrepreneurs shared stories of wanting to have control over their destiny, build a better life for themselves and their family, as well as a desire to help their community and leave behind a legacy.   

A smiling woman in a construction hat

The E3 Durham program worked to build a more connected, cohesive, and collaborative ecosystem of entrepreneur support organizations, entrepreneurs, and their champions.

After two years of engaging with the entrepreneurs from the E3 Durham community, I believe we are in the midst of a coming renaissance in entrepreneurship, and that renaissance is from entrepreneurs at the grassroots who are engaging in one-on-one, face-to-face, authentic human interactions on a daily basis, and responding to community and business needs with humanity. These entrepreneurs are developing products and services that meet needs and fill gaps that the giants of global industry are unable to because they are detached from their end user. These entrepreneurs engage not on a transactional level, but on a human level and recognize their end user as more than just a consumer of their product or service.    

The engine that drives this country forward is its entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs know that entrepreneurship is local, at the community level, and all about genuine relationships with your customer. I am now convinced more than ever that the American dream is still alive and well, and has been renewed through the hard work, persistence, and determination of the everyday man and woman, the American entrepreneurs.

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Funded in part through a Grant with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, conclusions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.

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