The first day on the job at an impact investing firm in downtown Durham, Adam Klein ’04 was invited to lunch by the head of the organization. It was his summer graduate internship with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the boss asked where he would like to eat. The choice was simple—there were only two restaurants to choose from in the area. The boss said, “You can get a cheeseburger or you can get Mexican food.”
It’s a radically different environment now in Durham, with boutique shops, newly renovated factories, and development of 20-plus story buildings downtown that weren’t there three years ago. And Klein was witness to—and a willing participant in—the community’s remarkable transformation. As the chief strategist for American Underground, Klein spent six years leading a startup community to encourage new businesses in a city that was struggling.
Klein was recruited in 2012 to run American Underground (AU) after working for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham Chambers of Commerce in economic development and entrepreneurial initiatives. AU was the brainchild of Capitol Broadcasting, a fourth-generation, family-owned broadcast company that has diversified into real estate, ownership of the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, and now a startup hub. But what was different about this startup network was Klein’s vision of moving American Underground in a direction that supported black entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs in a diverse city.
American Underground started with about 30,000 square feet of space in an old tobacco building in downtown Durham with about 30 early-stage startup companies and a couple of incubator programs. From 2012 to the time Klein left that role in 2018, the organization grew to more than 280 startup companies and is one of the most dense startup networks in the country.
Today Klein is in a new role with Capitol Broadcasting, as part of the mixed-use redevelopment of a million-square-foot tobacco mill the company owns in Durham. It’s the state’s largest historic renovation project, and it’s Klein’s job to guide a strategy across some of the company’s disparate business units and drive the vision for the real estate unit. With this larger lens, Klein hopes to help keep businesses in Durham flourishing for the next 20 years.