Over an iPad and a cup of tea, Marcus Blackwell Jr. is talking up his mobile app that uses music to help kids learn math. Sitting across from him at a sleek wood table is Jewel Burks Solomon who, after selling her startup to Amazon, invests time and money in helping other entrepreneurs make their mark in the tech industry.
As Blackwell shows off how algebra formulas in Make Music Count play melodies and chords from popular hip-hop and pop songs, Solomon counsels him on everything from how to get exposure to how to land funding for his app.
This kind of informal coaching session happens hourly in cafes all over San Francisco and Palo Alto, California. The difference here: Nearly everyone in this room is black.
Welcome to the city that’s emerging as the nation’s black tech capital. For a growing number of African-Americans in the tech world, Atlanta is beckoning. Weary of coastal hubs that don’t reflect America’s growing diversity, they are packing up their lives and careers for a city with a rich history of entrepreneurship, a booming black middle class, affordable quality of life and a small but growing tech scene.
Nowhere is Atlanta’s cresting wave of black innovation more evident than here at The Gathering Spot, a members-only, co-working and business networking hub on the site of a turn-of-the-century railway yard west of downtown Atlanta. You never know who you might run into: Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 race for governor of Georgia, rappers T.I. and Killer Mike, the cast of “Greenleaf” from the Oprah Winfrey Network, and a who’s who of the local digerati, like Solomon.
“I don’t think there is a better place in the country if you’re a black entrepreneur to be,” Ryan Wilson, co-founder of The Gathering Spot, says of Atlanta. “I definitely stand as an example of what’s possible in this city if you really stay rooted here.”
Even as tech companies pour money into increasing the diversity of their work forces, African-Americans remain sharply underrepresented in tech jobs nationwide. But not in the city that’s been dubbed Silicon Valley of the South.
One in four tech workers in the Atlanta metropolitan area are African-American, significantly more than San Jose, California, where 2.5 percent of the tech workforce is black, and San Francisco, where 6.4 percent of the tech workforce is black, according to a Brookings Institution study on black and Hispanic under-representation in the industry.
Opportunity isn’t distributed equally at all levels, however, even here. Though Atlanta’s black workforce in tech is much larger, so is the equity gap. Black workers’ representation in technical positions in the region is 8 percentage points below their presence in the workforce, the Brookings Institution found.
Like in Silicon Valley, white men dominate the leadership of tech companies in Atlanta. Blacks make up 5 percent of executives and 11 percent of managers at area tech companies, according to regional data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And venture capital dollars aren’t much easier to come by in Atlanta than in Silicon Valley for black entrepreneurs.
For years, investors mostly flew through – not into – the city. Winds have begun to shift southward, sending a sprinkling of venture capital Atlanta’s way. More than $1 billion was raised in 2017 and nearly $1 billion in 2018, four times the amount tech financiers invested in the area a decade ago, according to data from the analytics firm PitchBook.
Still, the volume in Atlanta barely registers on the scale of the massive wealth-generating machine of Silicon Valley, and little of that money is reaching black entrepreneurs.
“There isn’t a lot of early-stage investment flowing into African-American startups,” says Kathryn Finney who runs an organization, Digitalundivided, which prepares black and Latina tech founders for pitch meetings with venture capitalists. “So Digitalundivided teaches Atlanta-based founders to focus on building a solid business and then seek funding for growth.”