It is just past 6pm when the conversation at the coworking space turns to Amazon HQ2, tech jobs, and gentrification. Around the table are four technologists: one just launched a lesbian dating app; another recently exited his first start-up and is working on a second; and the other two are freelance full-stack developers with packed portfolios.
That might sound like a scene straight out of Silicon Valley, but we are in Atlanta, at the black-owned “next-generation private membership club” called The Gathering Spot.
Here, the start-up ecosystem is a photo negative of the glaringly white tech scene in the San Francisco bay area. Everyone around the table is black, and as an added bonus, instead of the kombucha and spa water of Silicon Valley’s ubiquitous WeWork, this coworking space has a full bar and table service.
“This is the place,” said Barry Givens, an entrepreneur and engineer who founded the robotic bartender company Monsieur and is working on a company that aims to connect affluent African Americans with opportunities to invest in start-ups.
“You have the money, the skill-set. If there was a Wakanda, this is it,” he said.
Indeed, with its burgeoning talent pool from area universities, significant social infrastructure thanks to a long-established black upper middle class, and a bumper crop of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Atlanta’s black tech community feels poised to break out.
Iziah Reid, founder of the local software development company NuraCode, compares the evolution of Atlanta’s black tech scene to its hip-hop scene, recalling a time when local rappers were still trying to imitate the sound of successful artists from Los Angeles and New York.
“Atlanta rap didn’t become a thing until they stopped imitating everyone else and went: ‘Hey, the south got something to say,’” Reid said. “Hopefully we’re the OutKast of black tech.”
It was not always like this. Paul Judge, whom several techies described as one of the “godfathers” of the Atlanta tech scene, recalled the early, dry years of trying to garner respect from Silicon Valley investors over lunch at Bytes, a local gastropub where the food is southern, the menus are iPads, and the location is perfect for the engineers and entrepreneurs of Georgia Tech, one of the highest ranked public universities in the US.
Judge said that Atlanta is poised to compete with Boston, Los Angeles and New York to fill out the US’ top three tech cities behind Silicon Valley, thanks to its airport (“I can leave here at 10am and be at a lunch meeting in San Francisco,” he boasts), bevy of Fortune 500 corporations and concentration of engineering talent — in addition to Georgia Tech, the city is home to Georgia State University, Emory Universityand the historically black Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.
However, Judge said that in the early 2000s, investors would hear that a company was from Atlanta and immediately say: “No.”
By 2007 or 2008, the investors might take a meeting, but they would demand that the company relocate to California.
“Now they’re saying: ‘We’ll come to you,’” he said.
That shift was apparent on the morning of Oct. 19 when a bus full of Silicon Valley venture capitalists stopped by the offices of digitalundivided, an incubator for start-ups founded by black and Latina women.
The investors were part of the second “ Comeback City Tour,” a scouting trip for venture capitalists looking for investment opportunities beyond the Bay Area.
The contrast between the black and brown women founders on one side of the room and the mostly white, mostly male venture capitalists on the other was striking, but the pitches were impressive and the conversation warm.
“There’s like five businesses I want to hear more about,” said Rob Hayes, a partner at First Round Capital, a seed-stage venture firm that boasts an early investment in Uber. “Atlanta is amazing! Why have I not been here?”
The answer to that question is left unspoken, but to black entrepreneurs in Atlanta, it is glaringly obvious. Several have tested the waters of the white-dominated tech scenes in Silicon Valley or New York, and chosen to settle in Atlanta.
“We go there, we feel excluded, we come back,” said Alonzo Patterson, a full-stack developer who recalled a bitter experience at a hackathon at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park.
No one was outwardly racist to him, he adds, but every time he offered to take on a piece of a project, he was rebuffed.
“No one thought I was a coder,” he said. “I had my laptop, but I couldn’t join a team.”
That sense of being underestimated and written off is echoed by Kathryn Finney, founder and chief executive officer of digitalundivided, who went through a start-up accelerator program in New York.
“People had no expectations of me,” she said. “Not just low — no.”
Finney’s work now includes preparing her cohort of black and Latina start-up founders for pitch meetings with venture capitalists, the vast majority of whom have never invested in a company founded by a person of color, let alone a woman of color.
In their 60-second pitches, the founders all included market research, a business plan and revenues to date, even if those earnings are measured in the hundreds of US dollars.
It is a sharp contrast to one of Atlanta’s most well-known tech start-ups, YikYak, which was founded in 2013 by two white college graduates and was showered with more than US $70 million in venture funding.
The anonymous message board app enjoyed viral success on high school and college campuses, became notorious for cyber-bullying and racist abuse, and eventually shut down last year without ever having generated revenue.
For start-up founders at The Gathering Spot or digitalundivided, that “business model” is not an option. Not only will no one write them those checks, but they usually come from families without the generational wealth to support them through revenue-free explorations.
“If it doesn’t make money in the first three months, we gotta go,” Reid said.
Finney pointed out that many of the female founders in her incubator are holding down full-time jobs while they try to get their companies going.
“It’s easy for Silicon Valley to say you should be full time,” she said. “If you are a successful black woman, you are usually supporting other people. We can’t just erase our family.”
Yet, alongside the challenges are opportunities. When Reid first founded Nuracode, he was chasing contracts with some of Atlanta’s big corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Delta, but he saw an opportunity when JT the Bigga Figga, a rapper and filmmaker, showed up in his office with US$10,000 in cash, asking Reid to build an app because his movies kept getting bootlegged.
“We were uniquely positioned for that kind of client,” Reid said. “Where else was he going to go?”
Nuracode built the app, which debuted as TrapFlix at SXSW in 2015 with backing from Snoop Dogg.
Reid also began focusing on helping local black entrepreneurs — hair stylists, restaurateurs, motivational speakers and more — go digital.
“What happened with the rap world is that everyone started following Atlanta,” Reid said. “Black culture is the culture that is most exported. Once we figure out how to tie [the culture and the technology] together, we’ll also be the most exported.”
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