Technologists and entrepreneurs alike assembled at The Gathering Spot for the latest installment of the Atlanta Black Tech Startup Ecosystem event. Trailblazing founders took the stage, along with other influential ecosystem builders for a candid conversation on progress, pitfalls, and potential. In what felt like a truly pivotal moment, the room filled to capacity within 26 minutes with almost 1,000 registrants.
Organized by Joey Womack, CEO of Goodie Nation and Amplify 4 Good and Marcellus Haynes, founder of Technologists of Color, there is a lot to celebrate the third year in. “I’ve never seen anything like it for inclusive tech in Atlanta,” said Womack, in reference to last week’s event. “I think everyone can feel tech, culture, and corporate is on a collision course, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 60-90 days with this momentum.”
Atlanta’s black tech scene has recently welcomed a blitz of national, and even international, media coverage. Metro Atlanta is even being touted as “America’s new startup capital” that’s home to a “new generation of rising black founders.”
The first panel of the night discussed the major wins supporting such a designation with Charlton Cunningham, co-founder Vertical404, and Kunbi Tinuoye, founder and CEO of UrbanGeekz. They touched on success stories such as 35-year-old Jasmine Crowe, who’s received her fair share of press coverage for Goodr, which has diverted over one million pounds of food from landfills. Atlanta Tech Village’s pre-accelerator program It Takes A Village was also highlighted. Exclusively for women and minority founders, It Takes A Village has graduated 30 early-stage startups who have collectively generated $2 million in revenue.
But soon they turned their attention to how to keep the momentum going. “These last 12 months have been pivotal,” said Tinuoye. “In terms of where we should go now, I think we now need to start highlighting more amazing people, untold heroes like Mike Ross who have been behind the scenes investing in numerous startups.”
Veteran angel investor Ross has invested in a slew of Atlanta-based minority-led companies such as Luma, PartPic, and Myavanna. “I think the content was extremely informative and the attendance was off the charts,” said Ross, who was a VIP attendee. “The ecosystem continues to develop new companies, new ideas, and new energy. It is no doubt that Atlanta will continue to lead the way as it has done in other sectors.”
Organizer Haynes echoed this sentiment. “As an engineer and someone focused on technology, I was amazed at all of the real tech talent in the room,” he said. “I hope everyone understands that this amazing scene true representation of black tech in Atlanta.”
The “Wins” panel also highlighted innovative technology that’s being birthed out of Atlanta.
Moderator Candace Mitchell, co-founder and CEO of Myavana, announced new tech coming out of her startup. Using artificial intelligence, Myavana now can take a photo of your hair and get instant product recommendations through their mobile application. Tinuoye talked about Aquagenuity, an Atlanta-based startup that uses blockchain and data analytics to help consumers, corporations, and municipalities predict and prevent water shortages and water-related public health crises. Cunningham also mentioned Storj Labs, decentralized cloud object storage that is affordable, easy to use, private, and secure.
The black tech scene in Atlanta is on the rise. Though it’s not as impactful as the city’s cultural influence and global footprint in the realm of hip-hop and rap music. But it can be, especially if the community works together in tandem. At least, that’s what was said during the second panel on ‘Strengths and Opportunities in Atlanta.’
Moderated by Kylan Kester of Startup Atlanta the panel featured local influencers such as Ryan Wilson, co-founder and CEO of The Gathering Spot; Justin McLeod, founder of Surthrive and D&I Program Manager at Atlanta Tech Village; and Sheoyki Jones, Program Manager of Creative Industries at Invest Atlanta.
One of the city’s biggest cultural exports is music, said McLeod. Indeed, entertainers, as well as athletes, are looking to invest in promising ventures. These people don’t necessarily occupy the same space as software developers and techpreneurs, though Atlanta’s changing that.
“That’s the opportunity in our market,” said Wilson. “That proximity as a culture to the people who are really driving global culture is one of the advantages that we have here. You have a tech company or any company honestly, our proximity to people that are pushing stuff I think is something that we have to harness in a different way.”
“I think the content was extremely informative and the attendance was off the charts. The ecosystem continues to develop new companies, new ideas, and new energy. It is no doubt that Atlanta will continue to lead the way as it has done in other sectors.”
Understanding this potential, Wilson has recently acquired a majority stake in the A3C music and hip-hop festival with serial entrepreneur Paul Judge. The goal, he says, is to bring even more visitors to the city for the October event, in hopes that A3C will soon become Atlanta’s very own SXSW.
Because of the large number of creatives already in the city, another key point was brought up. “You don’t have to be a developer to be in tech,” said McLeod. “I didn’t know I was doing diversity and inclusion until somebody told me, ‘hey, this is D&I,’” he said. “That’s great opportunity for all of us in this room. You want to get into tech, you don’t have to be a developer. You can be marketing, creative, whatever. You can still have those transferable skills and transfer them over to a tech company.”
In fact, one of Atlanta’s biggest selling points is its reputable colleges, including a cluster HBCU’s, that has created an ambitous black middle-class. For example, 25% of black people work in Atlanta’s tech industry compared to just 6% in Silicon Valley. Indeed, the general consensus on the next panel was that black people do belong in tech.
“Black people are the original disruptors,” said Burunda Prince-Jones, MD of The Farm accelerator program. “We have changed everything, every place and everywhere we go. We know how to do this startup thing better than anybody else because we’ve had to know how to do this thing better than anybody else.” This perhaps was the most poignant point made during the event.
She also added that its common knowledge that diversity boosts the bottom line, something numerous studies have confirmed. “If you don’t have black people or people of color or diversity, you’re missing out on the very thing that you say that you want,” she added. “Because we know how to do this. We know how to bring that to you.”
Still, black people face specific hurdles. During the panel Prince-Jones along with Sheena Allen, CEO of CapWay and Nate Washington, CTO of Qoins, talked candidly about difficulties raising capital in Atlanta, particularly as a minority founder. Other issues discussed were challenges faced when disrupting traditional industries using innovative technologies.
The need to educate and provide “tech” exposure to students and underserved communities was a major talking point. Access, opportunity, and exposure is needed early and often, said Prince-Jones. Industry-wide, filling technical roles relies on closing the gap in cities like Atlanta (currently ranked number one for income inequality).
The last panel of the night was on ‘Raising Capital’ featuring Silicon Valley darling Tristan Walker, who relocated to Atlanta just four months ago. The well-known CEO of Walker & Company Brands, Inc. talked about the benefits of living in “the black mecca” not just for himself but for his young impressionable sons.
Wilson was joined by Barry Givens, co-founder and partner of Collab LLC, and Dr. Roshawnna Novellus, founder and CEO of EnrichHER. As moderator Kornelius Bankston, Managing Partner of techPLUG put it, everyone wants to know where’s the money and how to get to it. Still, the panelists explained, getting VC funding is not that simple. “You have to be specific about how your model matches the type of capital that you’re raising,” said Walker. “You should raise it if you understand what the trade-offs are.”
Instead, the panelists challenged founders to dive into their business models and honestly ask themselves if they really need venture funding. Many can get by and succeed without it. Not to mention, there are alternative financing options available like EnrichHER, which is serving women founders across all industries. Private equity and grants are other options that founders can explore, said Novellus.
“Venture capital is the most expensive capital that you can access,” said Novellus. “So if you have other forms such as debt or some revenue-sharing agreement that you can offer to that investor, you are often in a better place. I recommend to everyone to do an assessment of why you need money, really think about how you’re going to pay that money back, and do what’s best for you and make sure you are in control of the deal. There are so many people who take bad deals because they are in a desperate position.”
In actual fact, there are other metrics to consider when accessing business success. “I don’t know if that’s the right metric,” said Wilson. “We spend so much time talking about how much money people have raised. Let’s look at some other statistics [like] employment. There are other metrics that we can be proud of and other success stories in Atlanta that’s not just correlated with how much money was raised. We have been fortunate with this business to raise millions of dollars. I am more proud of the fact that we employ a 100 black folks than that. That gets me up in the morning in a different way than the cash we raised previously.”
Saving the best for last, Womack ended with an overview of his newly launched The Intentionally Good Project, fueled by a $100K grant from Kapor Center’s The Tech Done Right Challenge. His goal, he says, is to provide the resources, networks, and community for scalable diverse-led and social impact startups based in Atlanta.
Finally, throughout the night panelists were consistently asked, what do they envision the ecosystem looking like in five years? To summarize everyone’s answer, a transformative community of innovators breaking the status quo of what exists by working in synergy in a well-run system.
Related Video: UrbanGeekz CEO Kunbi Tinuoye interviews CODE2040 co-founder Laura Weidman Powers, at the 2015 Platform Summit in Atlanta. Tristan Walker co-founded the non-profit CODE2040 with Weidman Powers in 2012.