BY CECE NUNN, Published 11/05/2021

Local entrepreneurs Girard and Tracey Newkirk are growing a for-profit business development company in downtown Wilmington, but the couple also has their sights set on an even bigger goal: to create innovation corridors in the Port City and beyond.

The Newkirks opened Genesis Block last year and are serving more than 90 entrepreneurs, small businesses and corporate partners out of their current hub at 20 Wrights Aly, where they offer coworking space and workshops in exchange for membership fees.

They count 64 companies “that we provide specific business development services for, whether it be coworking or some type of consultation, and we have 38 resident companies that participate in our entrepreneur programs,” Girard Newkirk, who is also CEO of Genesis Block, said in October. “One of our goals is obviously to build the entrepreneur class, but we also wanted to become a hub for entrepreneurial activity in the Wilmington area, and we want to serve as the anchor organization for minority and women business development here in Southeastern North Carolina.”

He said establishing innovation corridors, starting on Castle Street in Wilmington, will help meet demand.

More than 170 companies have reached out about some type of business service or entrepreneur training program, Girard Newkirk said.

He added, “We’ve literally turned away dozens of businesses here in the area. And so it’s really made us as a company reflect on what we could be doing if we had more capacity to support the small business owners and entrepreneurs here locally.”

For the Newkirks, innovation corridors would bring “small business and entrepreneur resources directly to communities that in the past have been underrepresented. And so, what Castle Street represents for us – being right in the center and right in the hub of economic activity in the community – it gives us an opportunity to demonstrate what this innovation corridor model looks like.”

They hope to reuse the former Wave Transit maintenance buildings at 1110 Castle St. to create their first innovation corridor.

“We’re turning a lot of companies away just because we don’t have the capacity, so we want to take one of those buildings, which was the Wave transportation facility [and] convert it into a new Genesis Block campus,” Girard Newkirk said. “It’s about 8,800 square feet of space in the building, so it will give us an opportunity to service probably 75 to 85 companies a year out of that.”

That building would also include coworking, meeting room and event space, just as 20 Wrights Aly does. The former Wave building that fronts Castle Street on the property could become an incubator tailored for the food industry.

“Here at Genesis block … 20% of our businesses are in food services, and they lack the infrastructure to get them to that point where they can bring their products to the market. We have a lot of catering companies. Commissary kitchens are direly needed here in Southeastern North Carolina,” Girard Newkirk said. “We want to bring this experience to Castle Street; we want to create an incubator with a full galley.”

They also want to work with well-known local chef Keith Rhodes on the project, and potentially use the food incubator component to help address the issue of food insecurity in the area.

“Why not give the entrepreneurs and innovators an opportunity to try and tackle some of these problems?” Girard Newkirk said.

The entrepreneurs Genesis Block currently works with include Johnathan Blue and his wife, Shiyana Blue. The Blues recently launched The Pop Shop ILM, a business that sells gourmet ice pops and boozy pops, which are ice pops made with alcohol.

“We’re doing mobile pop-ups all around the tri-county area,” Johnathan Blue said. “And we’re opening up for delivery on Black Friday.”

Johnathan Blue began forming a relationship with Genesis Block when he attended an NC IDEA grant program session the company held earlier this year.

“I immediately felt like I was at home,” he said. “I enjoyed the vibe. I enjoyed the space, the creative juices that are flowing in the room. I immediately asked about coworking opportunities … They ended up letting me know about the Jumpstart Academy. It was a very brief conversation, but by the time I got home, the Jumpstart Academy had popped up on my Facebook timeline. And so I applied, and the rest was history.”

The Blues started their recent entrepreneurial journey with the idea of buying into a frozen dessert franchise. But coaching from Genesis Block gave the young family (they have an 8-month-old daughter) the confidence to strike out on their own from the beginning.

“We called up a couple companies, got a few wholesale accounts going and opened up The Pop Shop, and it’s been absolutely tremendous,” Johnathan Blue said. “We’ve pretty much made the same amount of money we would have made had we opened up the franchise in this month because we opened up at the end of technically outdoor ice cream season.”

The Newkirks have been measuring the progress of their clients. The first quarter 2021 revenue totals for Genesis Block companies amounted to nearly $88,000, Girard Newkirk said.

“For the third quarter of this year, our resident companies brought $728,000 worth of revenue back to this community,” said Tracey Newkirk, who in addition to being cofounder is president of Genesis Block.

The company’s work with underserved business owners has attracted grants and investments.

New Hanover County awarded $25,000 in economic development funds to Genesis Block’s minority business accelerator program, which also received a $50,000 grant from the NC IDEA Black Entrepreneurship Council to advance Black entrepreneurship in Southeastern North Carolina.

The first Genesis Block Back on the Block Minority Accelerator began in January, and the state and county funds were used to provide technical assistance, educational resources, training, networking opportunities and access to capital.

Bank of America is investing $15,000 to support Genesis Block’s efforts for Castle Street workforce development.

The bank “is focused on helping create pathways to employment by supporting a range of workforce development opportunities like those offered by Genesis Block,” said Bank of America Coastal NC President Derek Cohen, in an email. “These efforts are part of our $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity for people and communities of color.”

Girard Newkirk said he hopes the investment is the start of a long-term relationship.

“We are so excited about this opportunity to partner with Bank of America to lay the foundation for the innovation corridor on Castle Street,” he said.

Corning Inc. has partnered with Genesis Block to provide funding for the Genesis Block Wits Begin Incubator, which is the next step after programs like the Jumpstart Academy and before companies are ready for the Back on the Block Accelerator. Wits Begin is “where small businesses owners can come in and really formulate a sustainable business model, test it and do the experiments that are necessary to make sure it’s a solid model,” Tracey Newkirk said.

Genesis Block’s recent growth has also come in the digital realm. During Cape Fear Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week in October, Genesis Block launched ANZA, which is “a technology platform that connects minority and business enterprises with prime contractors with developers and local municipalities. The goal is to have more increased minority participation in the contracting process,” Girard Newkirk said.

It was another area where the Newkirks saw a need.

“We do a lot of marketing for minority- and women-owned businesses. And throughout this process, a lot of the feedback that we got from construction companies, from prime contractors and developers was that they didn’t really have a mechanism to get viable trade partners,” Girard Newkirk said. “They couldn’t get the outreach; they couldn’t connect with them.”

As a result, Genesis Block is beginning a pilot of ANZA in November.

“The pilot will give us the opportunity to get pain points in minority contracting directly from developers, contractors and the minority business enterprises. We will use the insights from the pilot to have a full-scale launch of the ANZA app in 2022,” Girard Newkirk said. “The Genesis List website, which serves as a directory of minority-owned businesses in the Cape Fear region, launched in October 2021.”

Entrepreneurs who use the company’s services said Genesis Block’s efforts are not just resulting in profits for Genesis Block and its clients.

“Without those minority-owned businesses, without those Black-owned businesses, women-owned businesses,” Johnathan Blue said, “your economy is not functioning at its full capacity.”

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