Building An Inclusive Tech Future: Are Black Tech Ecosystems Sustainable?
Last week the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation announced 19 organizations awarded grants in the Inclusion Open challenge. The annual grant cycle funds organizations that show promise in “leveling the playing field” for those disproportionately left out of the fray of entrepreneurship (read: women and minorities).
Among the top of the list includes Black Girl Ventures (BGV) With two years of traction under its belt, BGV’s community pitch competition model now has a whopping $450,000 in hand to expand its programming from their native to Washington, D.C. to Houston, Birmingham, Miami, Philadelphia, and Durham.
Over the next two years, founder Shelly Bell will be able to stay on mission to invest in Black women-led businesses across the country through microgrants ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 at a time.
For the remaining 731 applicants who were not selected, they’ll return to the grant scramble, continuing the ongoing search for support. While big wins like annual grant dollars are much to celebrate, Black tech ecosystems are disproportionately challenged by underfunding–akin to overall underfunding of Black entrepreneurs.
Without a long-term viable plan for sustainability, ecosystem leaders may rely too heavily on scarce dollars and risk unavoidable constraints when funding priorities shift.
How the Black Tech Ecosystem Is Defined
Black tech ecosystems are comprised of organization, private, and governmental support efforts that play an interdependent role within a city’s unique startup and entrepreneurial frameworks with particular activities working to advance Black technical talent development and entrepreneurship.
More succinctly, the Black tech ecosystem is an amalgamation of assets and may include the presence of:
- an annual Black tech conference;
- one or several Black-owned co-working spaces;
- the number of Black STEM talent matriculating from two-year, four-year, or vocational institutions;
- programming exclusively supporting Black entrepreneurship and training;
- the presence of Black investors or funds aimed at Black startups.
How the Black Tech Ecosystem is Assessed
The framework for Black tech ecosystems differs from city to city. Research on their operations and impact rarely expands beyond general studies on Black entrepreneurship or high-level labor statistics identifying people employed in STEM jobs by race.
In 2017, think tank group Black Tech Mecca (BTM), also a Kauffman grantee in this year’s cycle, began their effort to assess the infrastructure of the Black tech ecosystem despite the “limited information directly focused on how the experiences, relationships, and contexts of Black technology workers and entrepreneurs and how they collaborate within Black tech ecosystem along dimensions”.
In an interview with ThePLUG late last year, Fabian Elliott, co-founder and CEO of think tank Black Tech Mecca said that over the last three years, BTM has worked to refine their research methodologies and indicators. Last year, that work included hiring Dr. Fallon Wilson as director of research to help cities think through where challenges, gaps, opportunities exist to advance local Black tech ecosystems. Thus far, the think tank has provided assessments for the city of Chicago.
“We’re at this point where [many] cities have put together these cross-functional committees and coalitions on how we can take the tech sector to the next level,” explained Elliott. “They are all writing and giving speeches about being advocates for inclusion and equity. But the missing key is that they don’t have a way to assess that participation for hitting that mark.”
How the Black Tech Ecosystem Survives
The following matrix funding table demonstrates how not all efforts to advance Black tech ecosystems are treated with equal balance. The model of the activity determines the command of dollars and resources for either short or long-term support.
“What we know is that when people who work with entrepreneurship support organizations look like the entrepreneurs they serve, the outcomes are always better,” said Natalie Self, program officer at the Kauffman Foundation.
“We also look at organizations and models that can teach foundations locally how to engage, as there are not enough grant dollars in the world to support entrepreneurs left behind.”
The road to economic sustainability and long-term investment is hard-won among Black tech ecosystem leaders and supporters. Creative and strategic approaches to longevity often require a latching on to an institution, corporate funder, or large grant.
Bell partnered with Google for Startups to scale BGV to host competitions in their offices across 9 cities prior to being awarded grant dollars by Kauffman.
While leading Black Tech Mecca, Fabian Elliot continues to work full-time at Google while navigating grants and contracts in an effort to building capacity and expand research to clients in other cities. Other Black tech leaders may have a spouse working full-time or they maintain a consulting practice, speaking engagements, or short-term contracts to stay financially solvent.
For some, they shutter their programming operations altogether.
Fighting Another Day
For Black tech ecosystem leaders and efforts of all types, struggling to survive is the norm.
Rodney Sampson, founder and chairman of Atlanta-based Opportunity Hub, recently announced an investment from the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City to develop a minority accelerator in Kansas City. The $1.2 million dollar funding commitment per year will go to operate the OHUB.KC Future of Work Accelerator.
Sampson also shared a spreadsheet of his company’s funding thesis detailing the minimum dollars required to execute activities like conferences, seed funds, and other support efforts.
Bell’s strategy for long-term sustainability is to go where she is called, namely the cities that are coming to the table with resources and communities ready to play ball. She also referenced a tool-kit approach that will allow her team to stay small while equipping volunteer chapter leaders training to maintain their support of Black women entrepreneurs year-round. Not just when BGV hosts its annual pitch competition.
While there is no one answer to whether or not those advancing Black tech ecosystems should follow a specific formula to ensure long-term support, Sampson argued vehemently against Black tech ecosystem leaders taking small checks where long-term commitment is required.
What could sway the tide are efforts to centralize activities and strengthen investment is through connected networks where Black tech ecosystem leaders work in tandem across cities, leveraging each other’s blueprints and collaborating on fundraising efforts. Both Black Tech Mecca and Opportunity Hub leadership teams have hinted at creating associations for national collaboration.
*An earlier version of this story stated that the Opportunity Hub expansion in Kansas City was supported by the Federal Reserve Bank. Funding support came from the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City. We regret the error.