Durham was awful in 2003.

As an unpopular 18-year-old nerd, I was somewhat biased and hell-bent on getting out. Downtown was a place of abandoned brick buildings where people didn’t want to go—especially after dark. I only had two reasons: the Regulator Bookstore on Ninth Street and weekly piano lessons.

After high school, I spent four years in Chicago and six in New York. I interned at a national magazine and then transitioned into the ad world. I worked 50 hours a week, commuted an hour to the office, and barely had money for food. I loved it.

I find myself back in the South 10 years later. Other than the architecture, Durham is unrecognizable. Bars, restaurants, and music venues occupy the once-shuttered buildings. Hip 20- and 30-year-olds saunter along the sidewalks, popping into cafes and vintage stores. A trip downtown almost makes me feel like I’m back in Brooklyn. But, more important to job-seeking 20-somethings is the thriving start-up community. Cutting-edge companies are sprouting up and flourishing in Durham and the greater Triangle area.

Take Thursday night. The fifth Tech Jobs Under the Big Top brought 13 local start-ups to American Tobacco to have a beer and tell hundreds of job seekers a little more about themselves. From small, young start-ups like Adzerk to more established companies like ChannelAdvisor, each had a table and three minutes on stage to present what they do. Afterward, they met with the eager attendees, handing out business cards and taking resumes.

I got to the venue early. The event staff encouraged me to take advantage of this time, when I had the presenters’ uninterrupted attention. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to get a beer and stand awkwardly in the middle of the room. I hate networking events. I hate trying to sell myself. This is especially ironic, because I work in marketing.

The presentations started. An excited college-aged kid to my right furiously took notes. He wore a crisp collared blue shirt and had a furrow in his brow. He laughed at the techie jokes that flew over my head. I felt like an outsider: a lit nerd among tech geeks. Had subject line best practices, social media marketing, SEO, or, hell, even the importance of the serial comma, been discussed, I would have fit right in. But “sorry, we’re only hiring engineers” was the line I heard most throughout the evening.

I still have hope. As Peter Mollins, KnowledgeTree’s VP of marketing, said, they’re looking for “smart people, writers.” So I distributed my resume and took a few business cards with a promise to email.

I’ve spent the better part of the past few days carefully going through their websites, looking for insights and connections—talking points for the messages I’ll draft when my research is done. I don’t know what they’ll lead to, but I remain optimistic. Because what I do know is that writers, lit nerds, and ad folks have a lot to offer these companies. They’re interested, but not all of them can afford us. Yet.