General Assembly collaborated with Techsquare Labs and the New Leaders Council for the event. All of the mayoral hopefuls were invited, but the packed room of attendees heard from six out of the ten people running: Cathy Woolard, Councilman Kwanza Hall, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, Glenn Wrightson, John Eaves and Rohit Ammanamanchi.
Each candidate was given five minutes to pitch Shark Tank style, then five more minutes to answer questions from an esteemed panel of judges. The judging panel comprised of Jennifer Bonnett, Director and General Manager of the Advanced Technology Development Center; Rodney Sampson, Partner at Techsquare Labs; Dr. Tiffany Bussey, founding Director of the Morehouse Entrepreneurship Center; James Franklin, CEO at TechBridge and Dr. Kamau Bobb, Senior Director of Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I believe our mission was accomplished in terms of making sure that this election and any election going forward that tech, startup and entrepreneurship, venture capital, and STEAM will be on the agenda,” said Rodney Sampson. Not one at many of the forums and debates throughout the campaign season has mentioned tech, he added.
“When you don’t hear yourself in the conversation, you ask, well do I matter?” he said. “Tech matters, diverse tech matters, and it is really the number one priority to address income inequality. People cannot become upwardly mobile when they don’t have jobs in high demand areas and skills.”
In fact, the disparity between certain parts of the metro (particularly between the southside and the northside) has been a key stumping point for many of the candidates. Furthermore, Atlanta is one of the most unequal cities in America, with a huge disparity between its wealthiest and poorest residents. Households in the richest percentile in the city make more than $288,000 dollars compared to under $15,000 dollars for those in the poorest percentile, according to a report by the Brookings Institution.
With gentrification in many parts of the city, the cost of living going up, residents are being priced out from their communities. Transportation also plays a part. A study by the Equality of Opportunity Project found that cities with a lot of traffic and congestion like Atlanta were likely to have issues around upward mobility.
Indeed, these issues were brought up during the pitches. Still, these concerns, while important, don’t quite answer the question, what about tech and startups in the city?
Most of the candidates used their time to repeat their pledges, speaking on the need for better transportation to alleviate the traffic, affordable housing, increasing livability through a better education system and youth-centered programs. Still, no one actually identified the key issues surrounding tech and brought up viable solutions to them. In the end, all of the judges felt that the pitches fell short of expectations.
The points that the candidates are missing include exclusion in higher education and discrimination in the workforce. Here are some of the highlights of what the candidates had to say:
Cathy Woolard, “Atlanta’s secret sauce is diversity. Tech has a problem with diversity.”
John Eaves, “Number one, we need to provide opportunities for our young people.”
Ceasar Mitchell, “A seventh period can take these kids from being at risk to being at promise.”
Glenn Wrightson, “I’m in tune with this concept.”
Rohit Ammananachi, “I will revolutionize civic engagement.”
Kwanza Hall, “Let’s disrupt some things.”
These suggestions were not enough for the judges who in the debriefing brought up issues such as Atlanta Public School students not getting into Higher Education STEM programs due to their preparation at Atlanta Public Schools, organizations like ATDC not funding enough women and minorities, and also getting tech companies/ employers to hire from here.
“We didn’t get into a deep conversation about some of the inequities,” Sampson said. “The momentum of the campaign at this point is also moving like a rocket ship, so for them to kind of make a detour through tech rather it being a priority is what the challenge was. I think in the future, hopefully, future candidates, our city council, our government leaders will see this as a priority.”
After the event, the judges commented that this was the beginning of a conversation that would have to be revisited once the city crowns its next mayor. Election Day is on November 7.