Black Enterprise TechConneXt Summit Panel Recap
Yesterday, I was honored to moderate a panel at the Black Enterprise TechConneXt Summit. The topic was Tech Hubs Replicating Silicon Valley and it featured panelists Earl Robinson, CEO of PowerMoves.NOLA, Rodney Sampson, Cofounder & CEO of Opportunity Hub (and a veteran tech entrepreneur with 2 exits), and Jill Ford, Head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the City of Detroit. The three panelists represented the three different cities of New Orleans, Atlanta, and Detroit. All three cities in their own right can claim the nickname of ‘Chocolate City’, with black populations of 60%, 55%, and 84% respectively.
Earl was the first to kick off the panel by suggesting that tech hubs should not be replicating Silicon Valley, but instead leveraging its own strengths and unique opportunities to build its own tech hubs. And as the CEO of PowerMoves.NOLA, he has the done that. New Orleans is known for its rich culture which includes jazz and great food. The city itself hosts the Essence Music Festival, a music festival that attracts roughly 500k African American festival attendees each year. For the past two years, PowerMoves.NOLA has partnered with the festival to host startup pitch competitions and technology bootcamps during the three day celebration. As a result, the partnership has leveraged the unique culture of New Orleans in a way to expose minority attendees to the benefits of tech entrepreneurship.
Jill Ford added to the panel by reminding us that the tech startup ecosystem includes not only technology companies, but tech-enabled companies. In Detroit, they work with both to build up the local tech community. Jill also spoke about Detroit’s Motor City Match as an example of government’s role in building up local tech hubs. Motor City Match program matches local entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs looking to relocate with existing properties in Detroit. The program offers grants for the purpose of starting and/or attracting businesses to Detroit.
Rodney concluded the panel by taking initiative and action. He launched a black angels investing group right from the stage. Before Rodney dropped the bomb about the angel group, we were discussing the balance of black dollars vs white dollars being invested into the community. There was an agreement from the entire panel that there was a need for more in-community investment. However, leveraging outside investment to build up these tech hubs is a valid strategy until more “black dollars” are available.
Overall, the conversation was filled with valuable insight from the panelists about their experiences and contributions to their local tech hubs. The media often points to cities such as Portland, Seattle, or Austin as being the next ‘Silicon Valley’. These are all cities with < 8% black population. But there are growing (and not to be ignored) tech hubs inside America’s black cities. These cities are not striving to become the “Next Silicon Valley,” but instead creating parallel hubs and earning their own recognition by playing to their strengths.