The unclear endgame of StartUP Siler

Company provides hints, posts jobs, but also finds itself in a harassment case

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SILER CITY — StartUP Siler, the mysterious philanthropic organization which has promised, among other things, to tackle Siler City’s drug and crime woes and invest $100 million in a housing loan fund, promised in an announcement on Twitter to open its doors this week “to varies (sic) media outlets from across the state and country” to give “an intimate look at the inner works” of the organization.

“All leading up to major milestones announcements, and intros of our new selects,” the Monday post read.

It was the latest in a series of recent announcements by the organization on social media, including saying it would provide new scholarships, more than $1 million in grants (at $10,000 a pop) urging people to move to Siler City — saying those newcomers could help “end to the historic racism” within the town — and numerous job openings, some of which were posted with a long string of “#gay” hashtags.

Meanwhile, StartUP Siler’s executive director, Kristen Picot, filed a restraining order in Wake County against a Siler City resident she claims has stalked her and sent her harassing text messages.

A string of activity

It’s a dizzying string of activity following a relatively quiet period after Siler City’s May 17 general election, in which four candidates with either direct or indirect affiliation with StartUP Siler lost bids for seats on the town’s board of commissioners. In recent weeks, some of the four — Nick Gallardo, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, and unsuccessful board candidates Jared Picot, Dean Picot Jr. and Sam Williams — have again begun attending commission meetings and appearing at some community events as volunteers.

Calls, emails and text messages to Kristen Picot seeking comment on StartUP Siler’s series of new initiatives were not answered. And the News + Record isn’t currently among the “media outlets from across the state and country” invited inside StartUP Siler’s offices on East Raleigh Street in downtown Siler City.

Last Wednesday and Thursday, the organization posted several messages on its social media pages promoting its new initiatives. The first post announced its new “Phyllis Williams Scholarship for Women in Tech,” aimed at helping women seeking to enter the STEM field. The scholarship application says participants must have above a 3.0-grade point average, be under 23 years old, be accepted into a STEM program and “meet all deadlines.” 

The ambiguous guidelines for the scholarship were coupled with a one-minute YouTube video explaining the scholarship and background about Phyllis Williams. 

It is unclear how much money the scholarship is worth or where funding for the scholarship would come from. The video also does not explain why Phyllis Williams was chosen as the representative of the scholarship or what she did as a businesswoman. The video, voiced by Kristen Picot, claims Williams was “a businesswoman during the 60s, 70s and 80s” who rose up the ranks and became vice president of “the company.” A Google search about Williams also yielded unclear results. 

There is not a posted application for the scholarship, but prospective applicants are encouraged to email StartUP Siler.

Picot did not respond to requests for comment about the scholarship. 

$10,000 relocation grants

The next day, on Friday, StartUP Siler posted an announcement for a $10,000 “relocation grant.” The grant offers 100 recipients $10,000 each to move to Siler City “aimed at attracting talented workers” to the town. 

“This is your chance to affect real change,” StartUP Siler wrote of the grant on its website, “and put an end to the historic racism that has plagued this area. Chatham County is the fastest growing county in North Carolina. With beautiful rolling hills and great opportunities coming to the area, Siler City is more than just a small town hitting a growth spurt. Siler City is a hot sport (sic) where your dreams come true!”

Unlike the scholarship, there is an application available for the grant. It asks basic demographic questions and previous employment information. There are no questions asking applicants why they want to move to Siler City, or what they may be moving to Siler City for. There is also no list of qualifications for who should apply and no mentions of what grantees may contribute to the town. 

It is also unclear where the promised $1 million in grant funding would come from.

The organization also posted an advertisement about the grant and claimed the ad would air on local radio, Spotify, Pandora Radio, Apple Music and K-Love Radio.  

“StartUP Siler is expanding from Siler City and beyond,” the ad, voiced by Picot, says. “We are looking for those with an idea from conception to the existing form. The only caveat is you have to move to Siler City, North Carolina.”

The 24-second ad also claims to pay for 100% of moving expenses to the town for one year.

StartUP Siler did not respond to requests for comment about grant funding.  

Job postings

The organizations, and its subsidiaries, also posted several job openings this week with high-paying salaries. Last Thursday, the company put out a call on social media searching for in-house counsel, a position which offers an annual salary of $195,000.

“If you are a member of the [North Carolina Bar Association] with at least 10 years’ experience in practice,” StartUP Siler tweeted. “A background in corporate, trial, government, and First Amendment Law is a plus.”

The postings looking for a lawyer were coupled with job postings from Chatham Weekly, an online publication that, like StartUP Siler, is funded by Courtney Jordan, the self-described billionaire philanthropist under whose foundation StartUP Siler supposedly operates.

“After months of meeting with a consulting firm and talking with varies (sic) newspapers and news magazines with a wide reach,” Chatham Weekly tweeted last Thursday. “We are happy to announce we are opening hiring and starting our process to reach Chatham County.”

The publication posted several openings including its own search for an in-house counsel, along with reporters, photographers and newspaper delivery people to deliver “40,000 copies of our weekly print addition (sic).”

Chatham Weekly has yet to publish a print edition.

Paper deliverers would receive $20 per hour and the publication claims to have already hired five people for this position, according to its Twitter page.  

Reporters and photographers were promised $60,000 per year in salary. Responsibilities include basic journalistic practices like covering meetings and events in the community.

“This reporter will also write compelling and powerful stories about the successes, helpers and the good work being done in these communities,” the job posting reads under its responsibilities section. “The positive news that is often overlooked and severely under reported.”

When Chatham Weekly originally posted the reporter and photographer openings on its Instagram page, the post also included the following hashtags posted by the Chatham Weekly account: #gayuk #gay #instagay #gayboy #gayman #gayguy #gaymen #gaypride #gaylife #gayfollow #gayusa #gayselfie #gaystagram #gaylove #gaylondon #gayhot #lgbt #gayfrance #gayfit #gaybrasil #gayworld #gayitaly #gaycute #gaybeard #gaygermany #gayfitness #lgbtq #gaytwink #gaydaddy #gaylatino. 

These hashtags have since been deleted from the posts. Chatham Weekly did not respond to requests for comment about these posts or its job openings. 

As of publication, Chatham Weekly’s website consists of primarily celebrity news and articles posted by “special contributors.” Its only local story is about the hiring of Kristen Picot, written by Liam Santos, which was first posted months ago.

StartUP Siler’s primary funder, Courtney Jordan, finds himself awaiting a September court appearance in Moore County on driving while impaired charges.

The restraining order

In the midst of the hiring activity, Kristen Picot posted a tearful Instagram video claiming a Siler City resident harassed her.

In the video, Picot says:

“I work in Siler City, North Carolina and I’ve fallen in love with the community here,” Picot said in her video posted on July 15. “Since I’ve been here there’s been a select few people that have not been as welcoming. They’ve followed me home, they’ve talked about my appearance on the road, they’ve come after my friends and family, I’ve gotten, gosh, so many text messages.”

Screenshots of the text messages were posted by Picot along with the video. They do not show the sender of the messages, but do reveal harsh words calling Picot degrading names. The post also includes a screenshot from a doorbell camera of Hauser, but it is unclear what he is doing other than standing on the front porch.  

The video goes on to name Alec Hauser as the person harassing her. She claims he and others have tried to get her to leave town and called her names. She also says, however, that she has not reported these instances to law enforcement due to “previous experiences,” which she claims there has been no follow-up on her concerns. 

Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner told the News + Record he has not been contacted by Picot. He also said those who complained about harassment around the May primary election, which included Picot and the Unity candidates who were also involved in StartUP Siler, are now “uncooperative witnesses” who have not responded to Wagner’s recent follow-up calls.

Hauser told the News + Record the 50-C no-contact order was filed by Picot in Wake County. He denies any wrongdoing but didn’t want to make further comment about the pending case. 

A hearing on the no-contact order was scheduled for Aug. 11 at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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