Celebrity Chef Darnell Ferguson is among those that have committed to the city’s West End.
Louisville has always been a crossroads city, a center of commerce on the Western side of the Appalachian mountains, as well as a central point on journeys north and south. For the first few hundred years of America, that made it a big part of American chattel slavery.
That bleak history re-emerged last year, with the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in a mistaken drug raid, and ensuing riots and violence.
Back in the spring, a development and tourism executive, Penny Peavler, showed me a map of one of the intersections where the protestors gathered, Second and Main. It was the site of one of the worst slave auctions in the United States: the Garrison Auction. “We have not been able to heal this wound for 200 years,” she said.
But, out of the violence is coming new momentum for change. The city is on the verge of a $3 billion building boom, thanks to a new Amazon facility and a downtown housing boom.
A new generation of Black leaders is stepping out. Dave Christopher, a longtime Black leader, has raised $3 million to start the city’s first incubator for minority founders. Some $500,000 came from the Rockefeller Foundation. Louisville entrepreneur Tawana Bain founded the the Global Economic Diversity Development Initiative to support Black entrepreneurs worldwide.
A large cohort of Black and white businesspeople has committed to re-establishing a stronger economy in West Louisville, one of many communities across the country that were redlined over the years.
The tech economy, too, has new momentum. In nearby Cincinnati, Candice Matthews Brackeen and her husband, Brian Brackeen, have started a venture fund to invest in overlooked founders in the middle of the United States, including, already, one in Louisville called FreshFry, whose product extends the life of restaurants’ frying oil. The $50 million fund invests in people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities. Its focus is consumer goods, e-commerce, and AI, among others.
Meanwhile, Louisville has its location in Kentucky going for it, as well. In the early days post-pandemic, as cautious travel resume, weekend trips from the heavily populated East Coast may well be popular again. Kentucky’s lush forest, the Bourbon Trail and – potentially – a resurgence of Appalachian tourism position the city well. At least – that’s what some entrepreneurial leaders are hoping.
Geoff Marietta and his wife, Sky, moved to Appalachia, where she had grown up, after they both earned advanced degrees at Harvard. There, Geoff Marietta had founded a company, Giant Otter Technologies, which was acquired by Drift.com.
The couple runs small businesses in real estate, technology and specialty retail, in Corbin, Ky. They opened Moonbow Mercantile – ice cream, candy and local handcrafts– in Williamsburg, over the summer. (Kentucky is famous for a moonbow, a rainbow produced by moonlight instead of sunlight, that shows up regularly at Cumberland Falls).
Geoff Marietta also runs Invest 606, an accelerator that awards $30,000 in prize money to small businesses. Previous winners have included a lavender farm that’s invented a de-budding machine for flower-based botanicals and a school administrator with a way to retrofit doors to make them bulletproof.
“The wildlands and authentic culture is not replicable anywhere,” he said in an interview last year. “Appalachia is totally undiscovered yet has insane potential.”
Co-author with venture capitalist Seth Levine of The New Builders and founder of Times of Entrepreneurship, I write about turning points in the lives of entrepreneurs and