By Natalie Wilson

WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA — A mural showcasing the innovation, entrepreneurism and collaboration taking over the former GMAC building is rapidly coming to fruition, growing alongside the startup companies on its fourth and fifth floors. The vibrant painting marks the launch of a groundbreaking new project, Winston Arts, which brings together students from high schools and universities across the city to transform the concrete-lined stairways and landings of 500 W 5th into a map showcasing the varying objectives and missions of some of its newly-renovated floors.

“As I was designing the interior offices and conference rooms for Winston Starts, I knew I wanted to create a space for local artists to display their talents,” said Betsy Brown, director the new, low-cost, admission-based startup incubator that is the fastest growing in the area. “Part of that idea was to develop a collaborative project across all the area schools.”

To make this idea a reality, Brown connected with Alyson Francisco, Director of the Center for Women in
Entrepreneurship and Business (CWEB) at Salem College, who invited Salem College business student Christian Miller to propose a plan for the yearly project and help select art students from area schools. Together, they found the first lead artist and designer for the project, Mary Vecellio, who graduated from Salem College in May with majors in Studio Art with an emphasis on painting and Art History, and Winston Arts was born. Brown asked Vecellio to tell the story of Winston Starts with a mural in the stairway between its two floors — the fourth floor, where earlier stage companies work in a more open floor plan, and the fifth floor, which offers dedicated space for more established, later-stage companies. Vecellio developed her concept: an idea, which would be represented by a metaphorical light bulb, would be “planted” by entrepreneurs and nurtured by Winston Starts, and as it grew up the stairwell, it would flourish.

“Coming here and having to present myself a certain way, talk to professionals and sell my idea in a way that makes sense … was challenging,” Vecellio said. “I had to talk about my design in a way that was simple and straightforward because the idea itself is simple and straightforward. And that’s something everyone can relate to. I mean what artist and what businessperson doesn’t like innovation, doesn’t like community, doesn’t like growth?”

Now, assisted by students from Wake Forest University, Winston Salem State University, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Forsyth Country Day and Reynolds High School, Vecellio has already completed much of this year’s painting, brightening the stairways around Winston Starts with bold colors and inspiring messages in calligraphy.

Entering the stairwell on the fourth floor, one is greeted by a giant, brightly-colored painting of a lightbulb
illuminating the landing alongside script reading, “Imagine the Future.” On the right-hand wall of the stairs, farmers nurture and water fields of those “bulbs,” symbolizing Winston Starts mentors providing expert, caring guidance to startup founders and cultivating their blossoming ideas. “A Place to Start,” reads the second landing, where a bright green seedling bursts from a bulb like a startup ready to scale and grow.

Finally, at the top of the two stairways, a prosperous field filled with successful growth in various stages covers the second large wall, transitioning through depictions of technology and development into a colorful painting of the Winston-Salem skyline (including the building at 500 W 5th St. itself), envisioning a city where ideas can flourish and the entrepreneurship hub Winston-Salem has become. The “farmers” who first appeared watering the fields on the first wall also appear in the corner of the second wall cheering in support of the thriving businesses they’ve successfully lifted up.

“The views from windows in that building are amazing,” Vecellio said. “But what we wanted to do with the stairwell is to make everyone realize that the true beauty of this city comes from amazing people who have ideas and visions, and some of those people will be on these floors.”

Winston Starts is the brainchild of businessman and visionary Don Flow, chairman and CEO of Flow Companies, Inc., and John Whitaker, founder and former CEO of Inmar. The nonprofit’s mission is to support the growth of local startups with unique, nationally-scalable business models and ultimately drive the future economic health of Winston-Salem and the Triad by promoting a culture of entrepreneurship, collaboration and innovation and retaining the area’s best and brightest minds.

To that end, Flow has also begun to create a unique initiative just below Winston Starts on the building’s third floor to support, centralize and nurture local talent. Four of Winston Salem’s diverse universities will have office and gathering space there for their entrepreneurial programs, where their students will gain unique exposure to examples of entrepreneurism outside of the classroom in a vibrant and innovative new business center and serve as an indispensable source of interns and job candidates to growing Winston Starts companies who want to find and support local talent.

“Our goal is to fill the building with vitality and young people who want to start companies, who want to take risks and who want to imagine a different future,” Flow said.

Francisco herself has been working to cultivate Salem College’s home on the third floor of 500 W 5th, and the CWEB’s move to its new home will create the college’s first off-site workspace in 246 years. The Winston Arts mural project, which Winston Starts hopes to see replicated for other floors in the building, serves as just one example of the kind of collaborative effort among students that could come from this third-floor initiative.

“They have managed to turn a boring stairwell into not only a beautiful and creative mural, but also into an
example of the kind of collaboration between schools than can exist in Winston-Salem,” Brown said. “We hope this is just the beginning of how Winston Starts can help nurture talent, support entrepreneurism and drive collaboration in the area!”