Darrell Freeman has just three months to flesh out the plan for a business incubator at one of Nashville’s historically Black colleges and universities.
He’s not inclined to wait that long.
“I’m not going to take 90 days. I want to get it done fast,” Freeman said in an interview.
Freeman, one of the city’s most accomplished entrepreneurs, is spearheading a push to open an incubator at Fisk University at the behest of Mayor John Cooper and Metro Council. Fisk’s home neighborhood, North Nashville, is an area city and civic leaders are striving to boost after decades of neglect, displacement (first by the construction of Interstate 40 and, more recently, gentrification that’s driving home prices and rents higher) as well as the 2020 tornadoes.
Funding hasn’t yet been allocated. Freeman’s early estimate is that the center is a $7 million investment, coming mostly from Metro and also possible corporate backers.
The effort is a bit of a homecoming for Freeman: He started his technology services company Zycron Inc. in an incubator and moved it to an office on North Nashville’s Clarksville Pike. His first two hires were Fisk students, for a business he sold in 2017 for more than $20 million. Among other interests today, Freeman is an investor and mentor to the trio who founded restaurant chain Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria, which started on Buchanan Street and now has 10 locations in four states.
“A business incubator at Fisk will drive the creation of Black wealth and small business formation in Nashville and further cement Jefferson Street as a corridor of innovation — while connecting students from Fisk and [Tennessee State University] to jobs at Oracle and other businesses downtown,” Cooper said in a March 7 speech to the Rotary Club of Nashville.
“I know we both believe the next Zycron and the next Slim & Husky’s will come out of the incubation center at Fisk,” Cooper said of Freeman.
Freeman said his mission is to offer more than just a laboratory for turning business ideas into successful startups.
“There are a bunch of cool things about this project,” he told the Business Journal. “It will increase the number of businesses in North Nashville. It will increase the number of people being employed. Metro can provide services in that building for North Nashville. Entrepreneurs will have exposure to the smart students at Fisk, Meharry, Tennessee State.
“I believe you can bring hope and inspiration,” Freeman added, noting that his Clarksville Pike office was “behind the projects.”
“The people who lived there never saw someone like me, dressed up, sometimes driving a Mercedes, running a company,” he said. “That’s the opportunity.”
Freeman said he will be leaning on the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, led by CEO Jane Allen, to guide decision-making on what programming to offer. Brian Tibbs, who leads the Nashville office of architecture firm Moody Nolan, is working on designs for the space, Freeman said.
Jane Allen is the CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.Martin B. Cherry | Nashville Business Journal
Brian Tibbs leads the Nashville office of Moody Nolan.Nathan Morgan | For the Nashville Business Journal
A Metro Council resolution asks Freeman to convene a steering committee of at least nine people, including community members, business and religious leaders, as well as representatives from Fisk, Meharry and TSU (the last of which has an incubator on its campus).
The council asked for a report in three months that details design plans and initial cost estimates.
“My hope,” Cooper told the Rotary audience, “is that it’s really just the first of several coming around Nashville that’s … a platform for workforce development, being able to make the match right there between the needs of a growing economy and the workforce.”
This article was first published by Nashville Business Journal