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Charlotte: Tech Startups, Southern Charm, Dogs Everywhere

Trees on hikers on trees on hikers on trees.

My reprieve after graduation was short-lived. After leaving Norman for the last time and watching my sister officially graduate with her masters in Speech Pathology from OSU, I hitched a red-eye flight to Charlotte, North Carolina.

And man. Man oh man. If someone combined dogs, southern hospitality and tech entrepreneurship into one experience, it would be the 36 hours I had in Charlotte. Let me say that again: dogs, southern hospitality, tech entrepreneurship. If that doesn’t get you amped up, then you are not in the same target market as me.

I flew to Charlotte to interview with another VFA-partner company; this one is an education technology startup that operates in the developmental education (ages 0-10) space. This time I had a partner in crime in the form of Boston-native Niki Chimberg, a fellow-VFA Fellow and Cornell graduate. From Uptown to Birkdale, we ran all over Queen Charlotte’s namesake town. Here’s the breakdown.

Uptown, Tech Town

Uptown Charlotte is the city center—technically it is Charlotte’s downtown, but it's just called Uptown. Niki and I started here to meet with a VFA-contact at Tech Talent South to hear more about life in Charlotte. Tech Talent South is a coder/tech academy that trains people from all walks in the skills necessary to break into the coding world. What initially was planned as a 30-minute informational meeting turned into an invitation to tag along with a class of their trainees to tour the offices of the startup Heels.com, the heels niche equivalent of Zappos.

Uptown Charlotte is an impressive skyline from the perspective of an Oklahoman native. It may not be New York, but it doesn’t have to be for me. The centralized metropolis nestled in the heart of an east coast forest is enough to win me over.

It was cool meeting the local talent on the ground that is already entrenched in Charlotte’s entrepreneurship scene. The Charlotte startup scene is similar to OKC in that there is a strong emphasis in tech startups, but Charlotte’s community is much more developed due to the presence of major players like Bank of America and Wells Fargo. There is a strong angel investor and startup accelerator community in the area, and a growing interest in “FinTech” (financial technology) startups as well.

In short there are young people on the ground working, money in the air to back the best, and enough momentum that the community is starting specialize in both general tech and financial tech startups.

The Neighborhoods and all the Dogs

Separating Uptown from our destination in Huntersville is a series of neighborhoods; on the north side of Charlotte these consist of the two art districts Midwood Plaza and NoDa. While the Uptown skyline is still clearly visible to the south, the neighborhoods embody much more of *the* South. People are smiling, friendly and constantly greeting you even if they are just walking past. The lunch menus all have deviled eggs, and “iced tea” is understood to be “sweet tea.” I passed a large building that looked like a fraternity house, but I realized it was just a YMCA and that this is the architectural style. Welcome to the South.

The ‘hoods are where the young people of Charlotte seem to flock. A mixture of UNCC/CPCC students, fresh graduates and 20-somethings make up the community. Charlotte may not be a college city like Norman, but it’s definitely got that same young vibe in the community—plus it’s got killer Korean tacos at Growlers.

One defining characteristic of the neighborhoods that is also true of Huntersville, Uptown, and seemingly the entire state of North Carolina is that dog culture reigns supreme. Apartments allow dogs. Offices (sometimes) allow dogs. Restaurants often have communal water bowls outside their doors. There are dog parks, dog bars (yes, you read correctly), and enough green land for a retriever to run to its heart’s desire. I have a new business idea, Charlotte: let me a part-time dog sitter. I’m all for networking events at the dog park.

Huntersville: The Bubble

Imagine if you could live, eat, work, play and do about 95% of mandatory life activities all within walking distance. Welcome to Birkdale Village, A.K.A. “The Bubble.”

Birkdale Village is a community within Huntersville. It’s 50+ plus acres of walking, shopping and living. The whole area is wrapped in trees and green belts, and the shopping has a Gap *and* a Barnes & Noble. Add a movie theater and apartments above the shops, and you have a self-sustained, consumer-friendly community

The interview consisted of touring the area, meeting the other startups based in Huntersville, and of course meeting the founders’ dogs (I was particularly fond of the short-haired retriever). Even though Huntersville is not quite the magnet for young fresh graduates, the idea of being able to bike to work is incredibly appealing. Having a lake that is heavy in water sports a couple miles to north doesn’t hurt either.

The Verdict

Charlotte is definitely an ideal city for me. It’s got the city appeal and southern charm, the bumping tech community and the outdoor hobbyists, and to boot everyone and their dog owns a dog. Even if the job in Charlotte doesn't work out, I will definitely be back again one day-- if for no other reason, I want to buy another plate of those delicious deviled eggs.

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