During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.
The workspace on the 30th floor of 101 Marietta Street looks the same as many other offices devoted to the technology field and the millennials who dominate it.
The expansive room features trendy wood accents. Visitors check in on iPads. Cozy couches are grouped together for open, laid-back team meetings. Along the white-tiled walls are stations with complimentary coffee, soft drinks and cucumber-infused water.
But what sets this room in downtown Atlanta apart isn’t the way it’s arranged. It’s the people who fill it: African Americans make up almost half of the young people conversing or pecking away on laptops at the WeWork location.
The West Coast might be the epicenter for the nation’s tech community, but Atlanta is steadily becoming the top spot for black technology workers, from whom more and more entrepreneurs are emerging, industry observers say. Four times more black people work in the sector here than in San Francisco, according to a 2016 Brookings Institute study.
The city is exploding with black computer programmers, information security analysts and database administrators, as well as math scientists and statisticians, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings.
And many are using skills learned on the job or in tech incubators to graduate to the next level: becoming creators of the next must-have app or indispensable technology.
“What we’re hoping to create here is the LeBron James of tech that everyone can see themselves in,” said Travis Nunnally, who, with twin brother Troy, teaches startup strategies and offers critical financial support.
In interviews with dozens of African American techies, several factors were cited for Atlanta’s ascension, including the city’s resources for developing minority talent, such as tech programs at Morehouse College and Spelman College, as well as tech incubators at corporations. Many also pointed to Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and the city’s other Fortune 500 companies that have track records of financially supporting black entrepreneurs. And there’s Atlanta’s cheaper cost of living, a draw for technology workers residing in more expensive areas of the country.
But most importantly, those interviewed said, the community views African American contributions as central to Atlanta’s economic success.
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The city has long appealed to black trailblazers in other fields, from Jermaine Dupri in music to Tyler Perry in film to Herman J. Russell in construction.
Despite that gravitational pull, there are challenges for black tech entrepreneurs. Since 2000, Georgia startups have raised billions in angel funding and venture capital — about $1.15 billion alone last year. However, black-owned or co-founded startups have pulled in only about $300 million of that investment, said Rodney Sampson, chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Opportunity Hub, which focuses specifically on diversity and inclusion in the industry.
That doesn’t mean the work being done in Atlanta isn’t resonating with black America. Like the app that helps black women find hair stylists. Or technology that can be used to measure water contamination. Or facial recognition algorithms that are better at identifying people of color.
“Atlanta is truly a hot spot for diverse entrepreneurs to build scalable tech startups, especially if the brand is focused on African American consumers,” said Kunbi Tinuoye, the founder and CEO of UrbanGeekz, a technology industry blog.
Often, the projects African American entrepreneurs are drawn to aren’t valued in Silicon Valley. Most of what comes out of the Bay Area reflects the solutions to problems that exist for white Americans, said Likoebe Maruping, a Georgia State University associate professor in the computer information systems department.
But the world is not as homogeneous as that community, he said.
“If you think about it globally, how much of the world looks like what Silicon Valley looks like?” he said. “It’s not representative of the world, yet the technology they are building, and its design, is being very much informed by the people they come in contact with.”
And while Atlanta’s black tech entrepreneurs are not household names like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, the city is home to a number of stars in the tech world, such as Sampson, Paul Judge, Tristan Walker, Jewel Burks Solomon and the Nunnally twins.
Doll Avant, who developed the Aquagenuity water monitoring tool in response to the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., said Atlanta could become synonymous with black tech with some branding.
“Just like the images of hip hop with Outkast and T.I. and Lil Jon went all over the world, we need to do the same thing with the Paul Judges and Tristan Walkers,” she said.
Like anyone trying to open a business, black Atlantans in the tech field who decide to become entrepreneurs have to overcome a challenge: raising capital.
“The talent is here. The ideas are here. The people willing to do the work are here. Atlanta is on fire. The money ain’t here,” said L.A. Campbell, a black tech entrepreneur who failed to secure financing for an app that would help consumers match wines to their palates.
More often than not, funding from friends and family — the first source of revenue for many startups — is nonexistent for young black companies because of a lack of generational wealth among African American families, Opportunity Hub’s Sampson said. Instead of investing, parents and friends of black tech entrepreneurs try to steer their loved ones to traditional work paths, such as jobs at tech companies, he added.
“You and I may not have family and friends to go and get the first $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000,” Sampson said. “We can’t even get started unless there is outside support, corporate support or public support.”
To be sure, some have found that outside support, Sampson said. Judge, founder of security technology firm Pindrop and Wi-Fi company Luma, raised about $144 million in capital between 2010 and 2019, Sampson said.
Andrew Ryan, founder of management software MemberSuite pulled in $23 million during the period. Shawn Wilkinson, founder of cloud storage company Storj, raised $33 million, Sampson said.
Atlanta has about 20 black angel investors or venture capital operators. Expanding that group is critical if there’s going to be support for entrepreneurs working on technology specific to communities of color, groups white investors may not understand, Sampson said.
Sig Mosley, founder of Mosley Ventures and known as the “godfather” of angel investing, told the online tech news site Atlanta Inno that he plans to step in to help, joining Zane Ventures Fund in its efforts to beef up funding. Zane Ventures was created in 2018 by businesswoman and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution employee Shila Nieves Burney.
Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, is also trying to do its part to provide support, Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of the agency, said last month. It has launched low-interest loans for entrepreneurs who sometimes have to dig into their own pockets to get their companies off the ground.
“After grants, the next best money is my money,” she said. “It is a loan at 3% interest, no payments for six months.”
Fast-growing tech jobs
Atlanta isn’t the only city where African Americans are playing an increasing role in tech, leaders and observers of the industry said. Chicago and Washington, D.C., for instance, are diversifying their tech communities, too.
About 17% of Washington, D.C.’s, tech community and 8% of Chicago’s is black. In Atlanta, it’s about 25%, according to Brookings.
Atlanta has risen because its black tech infrastructure is further along, black tech leaders said. There are minority tech programs at Morehouse University and Spelman College. Herman J. Russell & Co., one of the city’s biggest black-owned construction firms, recently launched a center for innovation to help grow the city’s tech talent.
Incubators — a place where startups go to get help developing their products —at Coca-Cola., Southern Company and Home Depot also have played a role in increasing the number of African Americans innovators. And there are numerous minority meetups focused on the tech business, such as The Gathering Spot, a private club that allows black business entrepreneurs to share ideas.
“There is diversity in the Bay Area and in California. … But the question is, do you have that sense of community that you have here?” said Jason Gumbs, a regional senior vice president for Comcast who moved from San Francisco to Atlanta last October. Comcast has a tech accelerator called “The Farm” near its Atlanta headquarters at Truist Park in Cobb County. “I would say that, as someone who has been here for 120 days, there is to me a greater sense of community here.”
Like others who are still trying to build their business or create that next must-have app, many black techies have been forced to leave the Bay Area because of inflated housing prices.
“I moved from Silicon Valley to Atlanta and a big reason for that was the lower cost of living,” Jewel Burks Solomon said.
Solomon founded a parts replacement software company in Atlanta a year after moving here in 2013. She sold the company to Amazon in 2016 for an undisclosed sum.
Last month, she was tapped to lead Google for Startups in the U.S., a new division at the search giant that supports tech businesses in underrepresented communities. The new position will be based in Atlanta.
Roots of a new mecca
Joey Womack, the new labs manager at WeWork, said he’s amazed at how much the needle has moved in the past decade.
It started when some in the black tech community began meeting up to exchange ideas, calling their group “founders therapy,” he said. Founders is an industry term for developers.
“We got together over a few drinks and kind of vented,” he said. “A few years later, more and more people came into the group. And then, Opportunity Hub opened in 2013, and that gave us a place to come together.”
Nowadays, “as a result of the growth of our startup ecosystem, Atlanta can stand in its own right as a tech scene and doesn’t have to rely upon affirmation from other cities to be validated,” said Monique Mills, who works with startups focused on retail technology for the Advanced Technology Development Center incubator at Georgia Tech.
Nashlie Sephus agreed. Sephus, tech lead on artificial intelligence for Amazon, said the city’s black tech workforce has been demonstrating its skills both at the corporate level and among startups for the past decade.
Now, she works out of Atlanta instead of Seattle, which once would have been unthinkable.
“The thing about Atlanta is that we have solid data points to point to,” she said. “Some people didn’t know because they hadn’t opened their eyes.”
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