Clearly the Greensboro community has some image problems right now – and, for once, the 2017 State of Our Community Luncheon acknowledged those issues, and the presenters and audience members alike were able to laugh about the city’s somewhat blah reputation.
Thanks to that tack, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of Our Community Luncheon, held on Wednesday, August 30 in the Koury Convention Center at the Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons, was a lot more upbeat, enjoyable and at times even downright funny, than many of the stuffy and stodgy affairs of past years.
The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, previously known as the Greensboro Partnership, and its economic development partners hold the event each August as a sort of pep rally for the business community. About 850 people – business leaders, political leaders and other area movers and shakers – attended the event as they do each year in August.
Over the years, the format of the luncheon has changed many times. Sometimes, for instance, the audience hears from political leaders making a measured, cautious speech that includes nothing controversial, or from other speakers who give out facts and numbers like he or she is giving an internal corporate project proposal. However, the 2017 instantiation of the event was very upbeat and entertaining and it benefited tremendously from the speakers’ acknowledgment that Greensboro does have some big image problems. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists.
Also, of course, the lunch was a chance for community leaders to talk about what’s going right with Greensboro and Guilford County.
Guilford County Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen was in rare form when he addressed, head on, some of the negativism that’s sometimes found in Greensboro and in Guilford County. He said Greensboro needed to get its mojo back and “Spread the swagger.”
“Now, here is not how to spread the swagger,” Christensen said.
He said his son came home the other day and said, “Dad, I found this great shirt in downtown Greensboro. It’s great. It’s really funny.’”
“The shop will remain nameless, so that the guilty are not punished,” Christensen said as he held up the T-shirt.
“It says, ‘Greensboro – Not so bad after all,’” he read.
“That’s what we’re selling in downtown Greensboro!” he added.
He noted that the vendor was a chamber member no less. “That’s not swagger. No. So I bought ‘em all.”
That last comment line received loud applause.
Christensen said his teenage son’s reaction to the “Spread the Swagger,” theme was, “Oh jeez, Dad, come on …”
However, the receptive and easy crowd at the State of Our Community seemed to enjoy the message a lot.
“We need to find the swagger and spread the swagger,” he said.
In that same vein, Christensen recognized Jake Keys, the City of Greensboro’s communications manager who won instant national fame in March after Jim Boeheim – who Christensen called “that jerky coach from Syracuse” – said in a press conference that there was no reason for the ACC Tournament to be played in Greensboro. (“There’s no value in playing in Greensboro – none,” Boeheim had said, along with several other mean remarks about the city.)
In response, Keys tweeted, “We kindly disagree. But I guess you can lose in the 1st round anywhere. At least it’s a quick ride home.”
That tweet didn’t sit will with the Orangemen basketball team, which had gone home from the ACC Tournament in the first round in back-to-back years, but the tweet did garner Greensboro some great publicity.
Christensen called Keys “the defender of swagger.” He said Boeheim had taken a shot a Greensboro and Keys had “rocked the twittersphere” with “the greatest snarky comment I’ve ever seen.” He added, “It made headlines; it made T-shirts – it made for a great opportunity for Greensboro to talk about all we have to offer.”
According to Christensen, that kind of defense of the community was something Greensboro needs more of.
“Show ‘em with a T-shirt; show ‘em with a tweet,” Christensen said. “Show ‘em with a YouTube video.”
He said that, when area citizens meet with someone from out of town, or attend a conference in another part of the country, they should talk up Greensboro; they should “Make Greensboro proud.”
Other presenters at the luncheon often had the same message: Greensboro has a lot going for it, but it has some image problems as well. One spoke of how his spouse was reluctant to move to Greensboro and another pointed out that the city is often confused with Greenville, South Carolina.
The 2017 State of Our Community accomplished something that perhaps no previous State of Our Community has done – it ended on time. The schedule called for the event to wrap up at 1:30 p.m., which is exactly when it did end. In recent years especially the luncheon has often gone way over and speakers have given their talks while audience members were streaming in droves out of the large ballroom. But this year everyone stayed to the end – both because the event didn’t run long and because the speakers were entertaining.
At the luncheon, Action Greensboro Executive Director Cecelia Thompson spoke on the importance of “attracting and retaining the next generation of leadership.” Thompson, who moved to this area to attend Elon, said she was the product of a great internship program and those programs should be encouraged at area schools and businesses.
“We need all of you in the room to really think about mentorship,” Thompson said. “Have you connected to a young person recently, whether it’s through your office, or your neighborhood or your place of worship?”
One of the liveliest presentations was from Ursula Dudley Oglesby, the president of Dudley Beauty Corp. – a successful company that her parents began. Oglesby, who grew up in Greensboro, is a Harvard Law School graduate who returned to this area when her father asked her to create a new cosmetics line for the company.
“It is the best feeling to carry a legacy on,” she said.
She also offered some business advice.
“There are good times and bad times and, no matter what, you keep going,” she said.
She said her family often read Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich and took its lessons to heart.
“You have to have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D, and when that doesn’t work you have to have Plan A1 and A2 …”
She said the luncheon was a great event.
“This is fabulous to have so many business owners all together in one place,” Oglesby said, and she added that people should take advantage of all that the chamber has to offer.
“And finally,” she said, “as consumers, buy local.”
Troy Knauss, a partner with Guardant Partners and a well known angel investor with an MBA from Wake Forest, spoke about a new online tool for entrepreneurs from InnovateGSO. “Triad Navigator,” at Triadnavigator.org, is an information and support tool, now in beta testing, for local start-ups. It will go live in November but he said people can go to the site now to help with the testing.
“The Innovate Greensboro Council was formed in 2015, one of five North Carolina cities participating in InnovateNC, for intentionally engaging under-connected populations,” he said.
Adam Duggins, a managing partner with New Page Capital, told the attendees how his wife became sold on living in Greensboro.
“Like many Greensboro kids, I wanted bigger lights and brighter cities and I worked in cities like Atlanta and New York,” Duggins said.
His wife was from Maryland and she didn’t want to move to Greensboro, he said. He said that in the past sometimes people sounded like they were ashamed of living in the city and his wife didn’t have a good impression of Greensboro at all.
“One of the conversations we actually had, she said, ‘I don’t want to live in your home town,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to live in your hometown,” Duggins said.
He said that, when the couple came back five years ago, his brother showed them around and pointed out all the great things happening in Greensboro.
“He showed us what was going on at PTI [Piedmont Triad International Airport], and with the aviation industry that didn’t exist before,” he said. “He showed us the universities with bustling campuses and a downtown that was dramatically different.”
Duggins said his brother also showed the couple the city’s new large aquatic center.
“My wife is a collegiate swimmer, so she walked in there and she turned to me and said, ‘This is the best swimming facility on the East Coast.’ She saw that a community that could do something like that, could be bold.”
“Driving back to Atlanta, she said, ‘Hey, what about Greensboro?’” Duggins said.
He said it can be hard to see while it is happening but, with all that’s going on downtown, at the airport and at area universities, “Greensboro right now is going through a renaissance.”
But not enough people are talking about it, he said.
“Two of the best qualities of the folks here in Greensboro are that we work hard and we’re humble,” he said at the close of his speech. “We’ve got to continue to work hard but we might want to be a little less humble about it.”
Derrick Ellington, the Triad Market President of Bank of America, spoke at the luncheon on the way in which “Greensboro has become a city of action that is making great strides.”
Ellington said the Chamber of Commerce has a five-year plan to make Greensboro a household name.
“No longer will we get confused with Greenville, South Carolina,” he told the crowd. “We will turn the tide and we will become once and for all a force to be reckoned with regionally and globally.”
Ellington said that will be done in part by preparing sites for business and leveraging the growth the city has already experienced.
At the end of the luncheon, the chamber showed a video of people-in-the-street interviews where men, women and children talked about why they liked living in Greensboro. Two of the crowd favorites were the man who had a one-word answer, “Golf!” and the one who said he liked city because there were a lot of bars.
Also at the State of Our Community luncheon, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro presented the Hubert B. Humphrey Jr. School Improvement Fund Award to Eastern Guilford High School Principal Lance Sockwell for his accomplishments with that school.