Recently Vogue magazine highlighted Durham, North Carolina as one of the hippest cities in America. While ‘hip’ is an unquantifiable, highly-subjective term, the piece has been widely discussed by locals and picked apart word by word, overarching theme, undertones and missing pieces. To many, the piece had an all but exclusive focus on the food scene and blatant oversight of the strong art community, legit music scene, cultural diversity and thriving creative industry. Perhaps any other city would have acknowledged the mainstream mag shout out and moved on. Durham isn’t any other city.
While Vogue is touting the city’s hipness, Fast Company, USA Today, Business Insider, CNN and a host of other big names are boasting Durham as a tech entrepreneurial mecca with a quality of life component that’s giving Silicon Valley a run for their money. The New York Post, Southern Living and bevy of food focused outlets have highlighted Durham’s food scene, deeming the city the foodiest city in the South, possibly U.S.
From producing musical legends such as Grady Tate, Little Brother and John P. Kee to newer acts like J Gunn, The Real Law, Professor Toon and G Yamazawa, Durham has proven to be a canvas for artists to paint their stories through their music. Many of these artists still contribute to the community through their participation in the festivals, education and development of Durham’s culture.
Hip, maybe. Entrepreneurial, definitely. Foodiest, the eats are good. Place where individuals can shine, flourish and rise, yes. Notoriously dirty and gritty, proud of it. Newly put on the map, not even close.
Durham, and it’s far reaching effects, has been on the map officially since 1869, and unofficially a quick minute longer. While the primary commerce has drastically changed and diversified, the Bull City spirit, innovation and hustle continue. A unique city on the rise since inception and proudly gritty even longer.
What does all that have to do with a creative agency at 106 West Parrish Street and its lead man Tobias Rose? A lot, if not damn near everything. He’ll be the first to say his story, wild success and impactful community involvement may not have reached the level they have if it weren’t for Durham.
Tobias hesitantly rolled into Durham in 1999 from Kannapolis, North Carolina to attend North Carolina Central University. He quickly fell subject to drinking the Durham Kool-aid and has stuck around the city for going on 18 years. The Bull City grew on him, or more aptly grew with him, as his creative agency Kompleks Creative and community involvement played a role in shaping Durham as it stands today.
He put all that and more to words when in his interview in November 2016. “I do a number of things. I am the Principal and Creative Director at Kompleks Creative, a creative agency here in Durham. We are creative in a sense that we use different platforms to help our clients achieve their business goals. That can be web design and development or digital marketing. Our wheelhouse is graphic design, branding, web development, and digital marketing strategies.
“We’ve worked with companies on 1 day political reach campaigns. When people started having a serious conversation about climate change, we worked with an organization by the name of Green for All, which was founded by CNN contributor Van Jones. Kompleks launched a 1 day digital campaign to drive traffic to their website in order to increase and spread awareness about climate change. We did that a couple years ago and centered it around a speech by President Obama.
“We’ve launched multi-tier social media strategies, took pictures of food for local restaurants, and executed digital marketing campaigns. We redesigned the ceremonial seal for Duke University, launched the website for Downtown Durham Inc., handled art direction on album packaging for Rapper Big Pooh of Little Brother, etcetera. We are a creative agency.
“People come to us with creative challenges and they want to see how we can help them solve them. We’ve been able to successfully drive business, drive phone calls, drive inquires and lead generation for our clients.
“I was one of those guys in the dorm like Mark Zuckerberg, but I really didn’t want to go down the path of creating a funky dot-com. Well, at that time we called online exclusive businesses dot-coms, now it’s common practice. I decided that I wanted to go into web development. I did that while I was in college and started a company with a partner at University of Pittsburgh. We did that for 4 and half years. It was cool and fun.
“Back then all that stuff seemed sexy, you know? Yeah, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m still in college – we’re doing this, that and other. But then the dot-com bubble burst and it wasn’t sexy anymore. A lot of those guys are still trying to find their way.
“We kept doing what we were doing and we were successful. Then, he and I went our separate ways. I rebranded as Kompleks Creative in 2006. So here we are. This is our 10th year as Kompleks Creative. We’re celebrating our 10 year anniversary and preparing for the next 10 years.
“My colleagues, Jesica Averhart, Dee McDougal, Talib Graves-Manns, and I decided to work together to build a non-profit organization called Black Wall Street to carry and extend the legacy of Durham’s economic history. We want to take the spirit of our historic Black Wall Street, its spirit of entrepreneurship; reinvigorate it and use that as a platform for a telling more stories of diverse entrepreneurs.
“You don’t hear the original Black Wall Street stories in elementary schools, but they happened right here in Durham. Ambitious entrepreneurs who thought: ‘I want to build a bank,’ ‘I want to build an insurance company,’ ‘I want to build a school...’ They worked together and did it. It was something that was super farfetched, but they did it right here in the South.
“Wanting to do that, having that ambition to do those types of things is what we’re trying to bring back. Our events and the programming we’re developing are vehicles for inspiring new stories and telling the stories that are currently being written by business people in our collective ecosystems.
“North Carolina Central University, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Mutual are all still here. They’re products of Black Wall Street, our legacy.
”We felt the Black Wall Street: Homecoming was needed for a couple of reasons. If you look at a lot of areas in east Durham, these are places I want to figure out how to get into, build and collaborate with, because we’re not currently doing it. I don’t think the current configuration of programs are effective. You’ll notice a lot of black and brown kids out there who have no perspective on what is going on in downtown Durham. They don’t know about the economic growth, technology or arts scene. They don’t know about companies like Kompleks Creative.
“When I go to The Boys and Girls Club and I talk to some of these kids, this is unheard of what’s happening. Think about it, you have a lot of people who live in places of poverty where they don’t see things like this. They have no perspective of a black creative director in Downtown Durham. They don’t have conversations like the one you and I are having.
“One of the things we want to do is expose them to this lifestyle. We want to expose them to this world of entrepreneurship and professional development. What do you need to get you here? Right now the only thing that they see is TV. That’s their measure of success.
“That’s why you see a lot of people in poverty who feel in order for them to get out they have to become a movie star, an entertainer or an athlete because for them, their perception of success is shaped by what they see on TV. They think in order to be successful you have to have that Benz. It’s a symbol of status. Success to some might be a decent sized house, a family and a minivan, but that’s what they’ve seen in their networks… it makes sense to them.”
It’s evident in his answers, the way he pauses to put thought into each answer and his strong portfolio of work that he truly cares about Durham and is invested in strengthening the community for everyone. Tobias is a shining example of a Durham commonality where people take pride in their job and are also part of an altruistic endeavor. To truly be here, to be Durham is to actively be the change you wish to see. It’s a Durham thing.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.