Danya Perry leads the conversation around growth
by Jessie Ammons Rumbley | photography by Eamon Queeney
Raleigh is growing—that’s old news. The new news is that Danya Perry wants to be sure the growth is fair. The New Bern native planted his roots in Raleigh after graduating from N.C. State in 1998, and he’s the first-ever Director of Equitable Economic Development for Wake County Economic Development (WCED), a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Perry’s charged with adding thoughtful layers to our city’s evolution: corporate inclusivity, citizen mobility and workforce diversity. “We are going to be on the right side of history and we’re going to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says. “That’s where we’ll see growth.”
Perry’s post is the answer to years of data tracking by the WCED, which mapped Wake County using a U.S. Census Bureau index that measures poverty, unemployment, housing and education. The results were clear: not all community members have benefitted from, or been able to participate in, the county’s economic growth. A strategy to create economic inclusivity is necessary. And the man for the job is not an economist or business recruiter, but one with a background in sociology and community development.
“We knew we needed someone who could bring partners together, understood that strategies would be both place- and people-based and had a passion for the work,” says Chamber President Adrienne Cole. “Danya demonstrated both his ability to lead and to be a strong team player. All economic development, at its best, is a team sport—we wanted Danya on our team.”
In an arena of bottom-line priorities, Perry brings a people-focused approach informed by prior work in school violence prevention, juvenile justice and improving statewide graduation rates. Much of this passion comes from years of mentoring local kids, and raising his own 13-year-old. “I don’t see data, I see stories. That’s all I see, people.” That’s why, soon after accepting his job in January 2018, Perry spent six months on a listening tour that spanned the county. He targeted areas like Southeast Raleigh and east Wake County to hear what challenges small business owners face to develop strategies for action.
Perry’s focus is threefold: inclusive economic mobility, small business support, as well as talent and workforce development. What he’s focused on, in essence, is constant dialogue about equality—across races, genders, sexual orientations, generations—as Raleigh grows. One of his team’s first initiatives was the Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) Conference last summer. The goal was to spark conversation. “We were going to be happy if we had 150 people show up,” Perry says; instead, they had to cap the registration at 500. They discovered a community hungry to figure out these nuanced topics. “Seeking equitable outcomes for our students as they join the workforce is a priority for Wake Tech, so I was relieved that the first DEI Conference was so well attended. People in our community care about equity, which is essential to our quality of life,” says Gayle Greene, executive vice president of Wake Technical Community College. Now, the conference will be annual—the next one is August 9—and Perry heads up the Chamber’s Triangle DEI Alliance to keep momentum going. “It’s not a cookbook approach. We can’t have one conference and say ‘add water and a couple of eggs and flour to create a solution.’ This is an opportunity to continue conversations.”
Another of Perry’s projects is a series of small business seminars called Black Business Momentum. It’s the same content as any other small business seminar, Perry explains, but titled to “make an invite to communities that don’t typically see themselves as having access [to the Chamber]. It’s an all-call.” And these seminars aren’t only in Cary meeting rooms or downtown Raleigh offices, which can be difficult for many to get to at the end of a long workday—they’re in town halls and community centers in Garner and Zebulon and Rolesville.
No conversation, if Perry and team can help it, is one-sided. “The work of equitable economic development is not only trying to connect with the person who feels underrepresented, but also trying to prepare the table we’re inviting them to to be receptive,” Perry says. To that end, the DEI Alliance hosts gatherings called Courageous Conversations, where Perry and team break down topics like structural racism and gender identity. “To use an analogy, diversity is being able to go to the school dance. Inclusivity is being asked to dance. Equity is, how are you going to get to the dance in the first place? It’s about building bridges or removing barriers. It’s not a social service, and it’s not taking from one person to give to somebody else, it’s about bringing folks up.”
Perry says he has a captive audience among Chamber members, WCED leaders and beyond. “We have people who are ready to talk about an equitable economic ecosystem and people who are ready to ideate around it. We have the right partners. The mindset is there. Now, it’s about organization and will.” Perry’s in place to captain this team.