Can Atlanta’s Black Tech Founders Avoid Silicon Valley’s Mistakes?

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Written by Dana Sanchez
black tech founders
Jewel Burks Solomon sold her company, Partpic, to Amazon, but kept it in Atlanta. Photo: Anita Sanikop

Atlanta is attracting the majority of migrants in a “reverse Great Migration,” where Black Americans are leaving expensive northern cities for the same Southern cities many of their ancestors fled.

Atlanta’s population has increased fivefold since 1970 and the city is becoming a mecca for tech jobs, but its economic growth could stall if it doesn’t prepare residents to work in the new industries it’s attracting, according to a recent report from the consulting group McKinsey & Company.

The Atlanta metro area has the second-fastest-growing economy in the country after San Francisco thanks to its tech industry, which is 25 percent Black. San Francisco’s tech industry, by comparison, is 6 percent Black.

Technology represents more than 12 percent of Atlanta’s revenues, according to CompTIA. Companies are attracted Atlanta by the talent coming out of Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University Center Consortium — four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

African Americans left the Jim Crow South in the early 1900s looking for jobs in northern cities, Curbed reported. The Great Migration helped make Chicago home to the country’s largest urban African-American population. By 2030, Chicago’s African-American population is expected to shrink from a high of 1.2 million after World War II to 665,000, the Urban Institute predicts.

San Francisco’s high cost of living, inaccessible rents “and emphasis on ‘culture fit'” are turning away enterprising talent,” wrote J.J. McCorvey in a Fast Company report. “New innovation hubs are emerging across the country to threaten its dominance. But Atlanta stands apart­—and is uniquely positioned to fundamentally change the trajectory of entrepreneurship in this country—thanks to the community of Black founders that have been coalescing here over the past decade.”

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Bevel founder Tristan Walker moved his company from San Francisco to Atlanta this year. Jewel Burks Solomon sold her company, Partpic, to Amazon, but kept it in Atlanta. Ryan Wilson, founder of Atlanta’s Gathering Spot, runs an invitation-only private club and co-working space that’s open 24/7. Paul Judge, Rodney Sampson and other founders are part of a startup revolution that’s bringing VC money, tech talent and serious change to Atlanta.

“I do think Atlanta is the best place for black people to build any business,” Burks Solomon told McCorvey. “There are people here really trying to build something special, and it’s a work in progress.”

Atlanta’s Silicon-Valley-like issues

In neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward — Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching ground — some long-term residents are being displaced. Home prices have more than doubled in the past five years. The community has changed from Black and elderly to young, white, and affluent, Fast Company reported. The median home sales price in Atlanta increased by 16 percent in the past year — four times the national average, according to Remax.

Some feel the city’s tax incentives and concessions to lure businesses will create economic divisions. The city council approved a $2 billion package in November for a downtown revitalization project proposed by San Francisco–based CIM Group. Councilman Andre Dickens voted no. He founded the Atlanta chapter of TechBridge, a nonprofit that teaches coding skills and financial literacy to low-income communities. Companies opening offices in Atlanta need to dedicate resources to job training for locals, Dickens said.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms has been criticized for her inability to tame gentrification. In May, Georgia passed one of the strictest abortion bills in the country, prompting calls for boycotts by the entertainment studios that Bottoms and her predecessors have tried to woo to Atlanta.

Atlanta’s black tech entrepreneurs seem driven by a sense of urgency, McCorvey wrote. It’s like they’re “girding themselves, putting things into place, before something more powerful arrives.”