Google gives black Atlanta tech companies $2.35 million

Portrait Coffee co-founder Aaron Fender (right) and operations manager Khalid Smith received $50,000 from Google for Startups for the-commerce coffee business. PHOTO: ERIN FENDER/PORTRAIT COFFEE

Aaron Fender wants people to think about the coffee business more inclusively, and he’s getting a little help from Google to do it.

Fender, a co-founder of Atlanta-based Portrait Coffee, is one of 35 black tech businesses in Georgia that are getting a piece of $2.35 million from Google for Startups, through its Black Founders Fund.

Google for Startups created the fund in June to help African Americans businesses and entrepreneurs as part of its commitment to racial equality.

Fender’s company launched in December with a focus on e-commerce because of the coronavirus, but hopes to soon open a brick-and-mortar store in Atlanta’s West End. He is trying to broaden the image of coffee, which he said is too often portrayed as young and white. The other co-founders are John Onwuchekwa and Marcus Hollinger.

“When people think of drinking really good coffee, they think of this white, Scandanavian minimalist coffee shop,” said Fender, who received $50,000 from the program. “With Portrait, we asked why there just really hasn’t been a good coffee company that catered to black people in such a way that says black people not only love coffee, they love great coffee.”

Google announced the funding on Tuesday, and the money is part of an overall $5 million the company is giving to 76 black tech businesses across the nation. Companies in Atlanta, which is seen by many as the mecca of tech for African Americans, received almost half of the funding.

The tech industry has been criticized for excluding Black, Latino and women entrepreneurs, who often struggle to get investors for their businesses and who often are not part of the sector’s decision-making leadership, which is mostly white and male.

“We are committed to helping Black founders who have been deeply impacted by COVID-19 and who are disproportionately locked out of access to the funding they need to succeed," Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, said in a release.

“By combining cash awards with Google for Startups mentorship and programming, we hope to help create a more level playing field for these founders, who are building amazing companies and making an impact on their communities,” she said.

Other Georgia-based winners include Aquagenuity, Goodr, Healthy Hip Hop and Vibe Ride.

Jakita and Erich Thomas received $100,000 for their esports business Pharaoh’s Conclave. The couple, a former Atlanta Public Schools math and science teacher and a computer and learning scientist, launched the business in 2016 after they saw few black gamers in a crowd of esports enthusiasts during an HBO “Real Sports with Bryant Gumble” report on the industry.

“Two questions came to mind when we watched that,” Jakita Thomas said. “The first was, ‘Where is the esports scene in Atlanta?’ And the second was, ‘Where are the black and brown people in that ecosystem.’”

Since then, they have helped thousands of young Atlantans connect to the industry through educational programs, league competitions and workforce development. The company also has awarded more than $15,000 in scholarships to Black and Latino high school seniors who are interested in pursuing a career in esports.

“It’s really a holistic approach and it’s really about connecting the pipeline,” she said.

Erich Thomas agreed. He said the funding gives the community a voice.

“What Google has done is allowed the people on the ground doing the work to be the leads of these different efforts,” he said.

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