A Pearl in the Community

The innovative partnership between Atrium Health and Wake Forest School of Medicine in Charlotte

By Eugene A. Woods, President and CEO of Atrium Health

When Atrium Health began its strategic collaboration in 2019 with Wake Forest Baptist Health (now known as Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist), headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a new vision for the future of health care, medical education, innovation and research in the region was born. With an influx of fresh ideas and inspiration as the shared values of the respective organizations aligned, we immediately began to envision the future: to bring together our hospital systems, to build a second campus of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Charlotte, and to expand on the entrepreneurial spirit of both organizations by developing an innovation district in Charlotte that would link to Winston-Salem’s “Innovation Quarter.”

The focus from the beginning has been to plant the seeds for transformational impact through health, learning and community, and our vision strives to reflect just that. Today, our collaboration with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist is well underway, and progress with Charlotte’s innovation district continues to gain momentum.

Honoring the past, looking to the future

The district will be constructed in an area of Charlotte formerly known as Brooklyn, which, for years, was a thriving African American community of families, businesses and faith-based institutions. Urban renewal displaced most of the neighborhood in the 1950s, with Pearl Street Park standing as one of few remaining landmarks.

The innovation district was recently named “The Pearl” to acknowledge the area’s past as it looks toward its future as a place shaped by diverse people and perspectives, rooted in inclusivity and belonging. This mixed-use community, centered in academics and research, will feature office, retail, housing and hospitality spaces. It will have an open-door policy, where people from all walks of life are welcome to enjoy free coworking space, participate in community yoga or enjoy a history exhibit.

Put simply, The Pearl will be a place where Charlotte’s historic vitality meets its innovative future.

Serving as ground zero for entrepreneurship and innovation, The Pearl will attract clinicians, scientists, investors and visionaries from around the world to collaborate on breakthrough technologies and cures, providing life-changing care for all in rural and urban communities alike. To further promote Atrium Health’s vision of a space that is home to all, the organization has set aside funds to invest in minority-owned startups in the life sciences industry.

Additionally, The Pearl will house over 3,500 learners each year, across more than 100 specialized programs, including at Wake Forest University School of Medicine – Charlotte. This will help reduce the shortage of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals in underserved communities.

Creating jobs and promoting inclusivity

Through The Pearl, we also are determined to create jobs that provide inclusive opportunities and enhance the economic vigor of the entire region. As we begin preparing for the groundbreaking of The Pearl later this year, we’re intentionally creating opportunities for small, minority-owned businesses to participate in the construction and maintenance of the district itself. And, during the next 15 years, The Pearl and its tenants are projected to create more than 5,500 on-site jobs  30 to 40 percent of which are not expected to require a college degree — and more than 11,500 jobs, in total, in the Charlotte community.

This job growth will deepen the community’s need for a robust pipeline of STEM talent, so we also are investing to ensure that today’s learners are exposed to the many types of jobs that the district will create. As an example, we hope to build a STEM Experiential Learning Lab on campus so students from local middle and high schools can learn alongside The Pearl’s researchers, scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers and allied health professionals. We are also investing in collegiate scholarship and internship programs to support underserved students pursuing healthcare careers through programs like our Bishop George E. Battle, Jr. Scholarship and partnership with Johnson C. Smith University.

We are also working to build new partnerships that will bolster the impact of The Pearl around the world. For example, earlier this year, IRCAD, the French-based research and training institute for the world’s finest surgeons, announced its intent to establish its North American headquarters in Charlotte, at The Pearl. When fully operational, IRCAD North America will be a “super magnet,” attracting new businesses, innovators and surgeons every year to train and collaborate on the latest surgical techniques. Like every tenant who joins The Pearl, IRCAD’s partner organizations will also make commitments to social impact, further supporting the aspirations that we have set forth for the district.

While many steps remain in our 1,000-step journey toward bringing this monumental opportunity to life, our vision has remained clear at every turn along the way thus far. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The future depends on what we do in the present.” And while Atrium Health will forever remember and honor the roots of its communities, it is in the same spirit of Gandhi that we work relentlessly today to fulfill our vision for tomorrow.

Together, with our partners around the globe, we look forward to our collective future — a future where we usher in the next era of healthcare, education and research for our region; where we give back to our communities through economic opportunity and advancement; and where we explore and champion new, innovative ways to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing — for all.

Eugene A. Woods, FACHE, is president/CEO of Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. (chiefexecutiveofficer@atriumhealth.org).