Inovation Fellows: New Class – October 2017

Our fellow Rotarian Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, an organization that unleashes the impact potential of next generation entrepreneurial leaders. This work includes launching community-based strategies to develop and scale high-impact entrepreneurs. I first met Christopher nearly ten years ago when he started one of Durham’s first incubators for entrepreneurs, Bull City Forward. BCF focused on emerging companies whose mission included aspects of social entrepreneurship: i.e., “doing well by doing good.”

Now a Fellow at Duke’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Christopher helps communities and institutions of higher education develop transformational leadership experiences with partners such as Duke University and Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership, among many others. This vision, coupled with his work to develop and scale high-impact entrepreneurial concepts, led him to approach our Rotary Club’s Board of Directors four years ago with his idea of creating the downtown Durham Rotary Innovation Fellows.

Chris’s concept was simple: he wanted Rotarians to nominate a diverse group of high-impact entrepreneurial leaders in the community. Three Fellows would be selected from the nominees based on their ability to make sustainable, measurable, and scalable impacts in their respective fields, and to emphasize the concept of “inclusive innovation”: welcoming emerging leaders from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods into the Rotary community and the greater Durham leadership network.
The cost of membership for the Fellows is underwritten by our club for the first 18 months. (Fellows are selected annually, however, so there is overlap among the successive classes.) After 18 months, Fellows are asked to pay 50 percent of membership costs, and beyond that, the hope is that they will be further along in their careers and more focused in their direction and can take on the cost of annual membership.

Christopher briefly introduced this year’s group of Fellows, our third “class,” allowing them as much time as possible to present their various programs. Katherine Gill has been a landscape architect since 2001, and is focusing her effort on helping people, young people in particular, learn more effectively in outdoor settings. She works with community partners to identify underutilized parcels of land in urban settings, and change them into places where kids can be involved in project-based outdoor learning exercises and engage in healthy living initiatives.

Katherine cited Durham Central Park’s Mount Merrill as a successful project she had collaborated on in recent years, where a “postage-stamp-sized piece of property” was transformed into a multi-sensory mini-playground. She is currently actively engaged in Friends of the Hub Farm, a Durham Public Schools facility in northern Durham County, helping them recruit board members, seeking donations, and increasing awareness, while working on project development in the transition to a non-profit organization.

Beatrice Parker, Event Specialist and Concierge, had distributed cheerful postcards on the luncheon tables touting her full-service event planning company, “Absolute Joy” ( Her areas of expertise include corporate, social, and community events of all sizes, whether as a package deal or if just a few a la carte options are required. Conferences, family reunions, festivals, baby showers, grand openings and more – Beatrice can offer everything from administrative support to planning and logistics, from complete menus to flowers and décor, allowing her clients to relax and enjoy the event and their guests.

Beatrice, whose name means “one who brings blessings, joy, and happiness,” often refers to herself as the “Joy architect,” Helping people maximize the joyous moments in life and creating lasting memories are the foundation of her entrepreneurial venture.

This year’s third Fellow is Alexandra Zagbayou, Executive Director of Student U. The organization’s mission is “to empower students in the Durham Public Schools to own their education by developing the academic skills and personal well-being necessary to succeed in college and beyond.” Student U offers year-round support for middle and high school students as well as College Promise and Career Development programs to prepare them fully for success as adults. Financial programs, personal well-being, and community programs round out the educational enrichment offered by the organization.

The first class of Student U graduates (Class of 2014) is preparing to graduate college now, and “Ms. Z” as she if affectionately known, challenged Rotarians to help create a sustainable network for these graduates, helping them retain their work and study ethics and forward mobility.

Club members wishing to mentor or otherwise support the Rotary Innovation Fellows may contact Fellowship Advisors Lois Deloatch, Vandana Dake, Ari Medoff, Indira Everett, or Guy Solie.

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