Between Pharrell Williams’ Mighty Dream Forum and the expanding Norfolk State Innovation Center, Norfolk is buzzing with innovation. In conjunction with small business incubators like Selden Market and 757 Startup Studios, the community seems to have found real momentum in entrepreneurship.
NSU’s Innovation Center came to fruition in 2019, making necessary tools and education surrounding entrepreneurship available to the rest of the university outside of the business school and to the Norfolk community at large. It comes as a community-facing complement to other educational resources that exist for students in the tech space – studies in computer science and the Ernest M. Hodges Institute for Entrepreneurship.
Dr. Rhonda Alexander, Executive Advisor at the NSUIC and adjunct business professor, describes the Center as “all about helping connecting underserved entrepreneurs to resources that help their businesses launch and grow.” Some of those resources include free business consulting sessions, training for pitch competitions, hands-on workshops, and community partnerships.
If you bring your business idea to the center, Alexander says they want to determine how to get you all the way to a successful, scalable business.
“We started creating programs aimed at leading people where they are and pushing them forward,” Alexander said. The programs range from 12-week incubators to 3-day startups, to YouTube Seminars.
“We have something for everybody.”
Recent NSU graduate and tech-startup founder Emanuel Perez jumped straight into full-time entrepreneurship after school, crediting a smooth transition to faculty and alumni who helped him along the way. He says that through the NSUIC and mentorship from Dr. Alexander, he learned effective business communication skills, which have helped him successfully pitch and earn funding.
“As long as [you’re] willing to put in the work and really trust the process, [you’ll] see the results pay off,” Perez says of programs and workshops offered by the NSUIC.
Perez also mentioned the experience gained by participating in the Hodge Institute’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence Program (EIRP) – a chance for students to serve as consultants to businesses in Hampton Roads under the guidance of senior executives and faculty. NSU is the first HBCU in the United States to operate such a program.
Perez’ recently found himself pitching his company Novus Security Inc., which builds anti-phishing tools for web3 users, at Mighty Dream Forum. He was awarded $50,000 from Williams’ non-profit Black Ambition.
Now a tenant of 757 Startup Studios, housed in the Assembly Building in Downtown Norfolk, Perez describes it as being a great and easy place to make meaningful connections with other entrepreneurs. Tenants receive 6 months of access rent-free, 25 weeks of customized educational programming, and access to a local mentorship network of over 200 people. For more developed businesses, 757 Accelerator and 757 Angels are co-located with the startup studios.
Perez told 13News Now that “The Hampton Roads area is where I’ve lived for the majority of my life, [and] to see this innovation and growth is mind-blowing.”
Williams’ philanthropic efforts are not the first time in recent years that private funding has been given specifically to support innovation at NSU.
In 2021, Netflix held its first-ever virtual boot camp for 80 HBCU students and alumni across the country, mostly from science and tech concentrations. The 16-week program taught skills in advanced Java programming, applied data science, and UX/UI while offering mentorship from Netflix employees.
Later that year, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $40 million to the university, a portion of which went to building the McDemmond Center for Applied Research. This building houses advanced computer science research labs.
The culmination of resources, organizations, and events is starting to move the needle. Dr. Alexander said she believes NSU is finding success in getting talented innovators more likely to stay in the area.
“Those folks want to stay close to one another. They want to stay close to their resources, close to the Center, close to the university,” Alexander said. “That’s really great for the entrepreneurial landscape in Norfolk because that means that the income comes into the community.”
Colonial Place, NFK
Sydney is originally from Tennessee and studied photojournalism at the University of Georgia. She enjoys using her photo and writing skills to tell stories and help others understand a place. When she's not working her day job in digital marketing, you can find her teaching spin classes, rock climbing, or riding her bike to the nearest brewery. She lives in Colonial Place and loves being by the water.