AfroTech: Could Detroit Be the Black Tech Capital of the Country?

Take a walk through the downtown core and it’s obvious the Motor City has mounted a comeback.

Downtown Detroit is unquestionably benefitting from significant private investment, and witnessing its growth in the past decade has been truly impressive: Tech companies large and small have established offices here, buildings have been carefully renovated, the landscaping has vastly improved, and there are no longer trees growing from the roofs of abandoned skyscrapers. There’s way more to do, and there is once again steady foot traffic. The energy and passion of the entrepreneurial community is high.

These are all positive changes. But if one travels a few miles from the greater downtown area, there is a stark change in the environment. It looks like the same old Detroit, and it’s obvious the level of investment and revitalization has, for the most part, not reached the areas outside of the city’s central core—which make up the majority of the city.

The lack of inclusion and diversity in the tech sector is a national problem, but it feels especially acute in a city that is 83 percent African American. However, there are many hardworking people and organizations in Detroit committed to making change and increasing inclusion. On Saturday, Detroit is set to host the first AfroTech conference held outside of the Bay Area to celebrate and spotlight the city’s black tech community. Olivia Guterson, who organized AfroTech’s Detroit conference, says she’s pushing for nothing less than the Motor City becoming the black tech capital of the country.

AfroTech coming to Detroit validates the city’s growing entrepreneurial community, honoring the work done in the past and tapping the enormous amount of potential ready to be activated locally. That activation would require the regional ecosystem to double down on existing inclusion programs and tweak the way it approaches investment, but it would allow Detroit to fully capitalize on its homegrown creativity and passion, and, perhaps more importantly, it would extend opportunities to those outside of well-worn investor networks.

One of Detroit’s changemakers is Paul Riser Jr., a lifelong resident and managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown Detroit, an organization working to advance startups. (TechTown is one of AfroTech’s sponsors, along with Blavity, Quicken Loans, Venture Catalysts, Google, Duo Security, New Economy Initiative, Invest Detroit, Ford, and OneBlockDetroit.) As the ecosystem matures, he says, the challenge is to increase representation while preserving the entrepreneurial momentum that has exploded in Detroit over the past decade.

“The question I ask is whether the investment and entrepreneurial community is committed enough to support and invest the social and educational capital to make it happen,” says TechTown’s Riser. “Interest, excitement, and passion [in the startup community] is near an all-time high, but we still have diversity and inclusion challenges.”

Of the $179 million in venture capital invested in Michigan startups by Michigan VCs in 2017, a paltry $11.4 million went to eight companies led by a diverse founder—a woman, person of color, or member of the LGBTQ community—according to state venture capital data. That’s slightly more than in 2016, when $6.8 million was invested in 13 local companies led by a diverse founder. Just nine percent of Michigan’s VC-backed startups were led by a person of color in 2017.

“Fact of the matter is that for communities of color to have a leading role within the tech space, there has to be leadership and excellence on both sides of the table—investment-worthy startups and decision-making investors that represent these communities,” Riser maintains. “For this to happen, doors have to be opened up that traditionally have only been cracked for a small few [so] the value, benefits, and value proposition of diversity [are] on both sides of the investment table.”

Investors are becoming more aware of unconscious bias, and that’s the first step, Riser says. “There are programs and initiatives that we didn’t see a few years ago, and more people are talking about building an inclusive ecosystem. As an African American, I’ve known and lived the numbers relative to participation, and you can’t do it part-time. You have to be mindfully consistent in outreach and goals.”

To that end, TechTown hired Marlin Williams to focus on diversity in the local tech community about a year ago, and Riser says his organization has seen an increase in women and people of color in TechTown programs as a result.

“It shows what happens when you’re being intentional,” he says. “People are beginning to learn that inequity and divisiveness are negatives for our ecosystem.”

That brings us to AfroTech, which bills itself as the largest black tech conference in Silicon Valley. Guterson, who has worked for Microsoft and Duo Security, is the woman who set the Detroit event in motion. She says she was blown away when she attended AfroTech last year.

“Being surrounded by bright, brilliant, and generous people and connecting with mentors—I wanted it to be year-round,” she says. “Immediately after I got back, I wanted to hijack it and bring it to Detroit.”

She spent three weeks “listening to everyone I know in Detroit’s black tech space,” talking to them about the barriers they had experienced. “Everyone was interested in AfroTech. Detroit should be the black tech capital—we have all the pieces, but we haven’t worked together.”

She points to the Black Tech Detroit Slack channel as a “really vibrant community. There’s a disconnect between black brick-and-mortar startups and black tech startups, but the Slack channel breaks down silos.”

All of the content for the Detroit event has been crowdsourced, Guterson says, and it revolves around how one can find success.  “For me, creating vibrancy in the black tech community is important, but it doesn’t stop there. I also want to fold in other marginalized people. Diversity and inclusion should be deep and wide.”

Guterson sees a lot of “incredible companies” paving the way for more inclusion in Southeast Michigan. “Diversity of thought is really important, especially in entrepreneurship and innovation,” she adds. “There’s a lot of room to grow, but the framework is there.”

Fiscal support for diverse entrepreneurs is top on the list of things that need changing, she says. “People of color often have no access to friends and family funding, which is crucial to getting a business off the ground and testing ideas to scale.”

She hopes that by hosting AfroTech, Detroiters will have an opportunity to tell their own stories and counter the negative narratives that often surround the city, creating a platform to elevate the local tech community.

“Detroit is not Silicon Valley, but it could be better than Silicon Valley,” she says. “I want to position the city as a black tech hub. If Detroit can grow, attract, and retain talent, VCs will have no choice but to support. I’m recklessly optimistic.”

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