This week, I attended the NCIDEA Foundation Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Conference in Raleigh with over 400 other leaders from communities across our great state who are passionate about fostering vibrant ecosystems of support for our innovators, job creators and heroes of main street.

The agenda was packed full of thought leaders from across the country on entrepreneurship, community development and education such as Jonathan Ortmans, founder and president, Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN); Gary Schoeniger, founder and CEO, The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative (ELI), publisher of the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program; and Ted Dintersmith, author of the book “What School Could Be,” to name a few.

I took away many bold ideas and best practices, feelings of affirmation for the ecosystem-building work that’s already taking place here and even some concerns and a sense of urgency based on the declining rate of entrepreneurship across the United States, particularly in rural communities.

The conviction, compassion and fearless grit of one of the invited speakers in particular truly inspired me. George Taylor is a serial entrepreneur in Wilmington who has successfully founded nine companies throughout his career. After a senseless, gang-rivalry-fueled, drive-by shooting snatched the life of a teenager five short blocks from his office, he was so shocked and saddened by the killing that he vowed to end gang violence in his community.

He called the district attorney and law enforcement leaders of the Wilmington Gang Taskforce and then spent the next two years forging relationships with gang leaders throughout the city to learn about the gang culture and gain trust. In 2017, 11 rival gang members convened by Taylor to form TRU Colors Brewing and put a stop to the ongoing gang violence. Made up of active Bloods, Crips and Growth & Development (formerly Gangster Disciples), according to their website, “We fight day in and day out to change the perception of gang culture and create a safer world.”

You read that correctly — George Taylor employs active, rival gang members in their brewery. As matter of fact, as peculiar as it seems, to keep their job, they must maintain their status as an active gang member to harness the dynamics of their influence over the hundreds of fellow gang members in the city to put an end to gang violence.

Brewing and selling great beer is their business, but the mission has been to bring these street leaders together to resolve conflict through honest conversations and understanding and stop violence in their city. TRU Colors provides a living wage (starting at $30,000 per year), options for career advancement and profit-sharing, but Taylor also provides career and life-skills education to give purpose, hope and a future to these men, their followers and the generations that will succeed them. The impact has been big — I read that gang violence was down in Wilmington by 90 percent at the end of 2018.

His story left me with big questions regarding my own impact, how I’m utilizing my time, influence and resources. Can you imagine a community where everyone pointed the finger at themselves and asked, “What can I do about it?” George Taylor utilized his influence and resources to tackle this critical community issue. He didn’t wait for permission — he made it happen. This is the definition of community leadership.

To read more about TRU Colors Brewery and George Taylor, visit their website here: https://www.trucolors.co/.

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Lindsday Keisler is president and CEO of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce.

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