A simple question: What does the inner city look like? The leaders of this year's Inner City 100 companies variously characterize their neighborhoods as "up and coming" or "distressed and blighted." The streets are "vibrant," or shadowed by "gangs and crime." Bowen Banbury, CEO of DocuVault in Denver, looks out his window and sees condominiums. Darryl Hart, founder of Commodity Sourcing Group in Detroit, looks out and sees "Beirut." The question isn't so simple after all.

To assemble its annual list of the fastest-growing inner city companies, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City defines this turf using metrics such as household income and unemployment rates. (See What Is an Inner City Company?) But trying to understand any of these neighborhoods based on metrics alone is like trying to understand a person's character based on a passport description. Inner city neighborhoods reflect every phase of decline and expansion, threat and opportunity. They are alike only in the things they are not: homogeneous. Artificial. Corporate.

Perhaps that is why inner cities appeal so much to some entrepreneurs. Having chosen to quit the well-trod path for enterprises that are distinctive, unquiet, and a little raw, they are at home here. And inner cities give entrepreneurs the chance to do what they love: shape something and improve it. Over the years, the level of community involvement by IC 100 CEOs has been extraordinary. Much of it involves disseminating knowledge and expertise, by means ranging from literacy programs to scholarships and internships to local business mentoring.

These companies have something to teach the larger world of business as well. "They run national and even global businesses out of warehouses," says Dorothy A. Terrell, president and CEO of the ICIC. "They create innovative training and recruiting programs. They harness the multilingual skills of inner city residents to service an international clientele. And they tap into the consumer potential of urban markets by ingeniously tailoring products to those demographics."

In other words, inner city companies may look more alike than inner cities do. And what these companies look like is the future. On the following pages you'll see how these high performers cope with that future as it marches, inexorably, from bleak industrial lots to bustling retail districts and beyond.