How a New Black-Owned Tech Ecosystem Is Taking Shape in Tulsa
A century after Black Wall Street was burned to the ground, Black Tulsans unite to create something new.
More than 1,700 miles away from Silicon Valley, Tyrance Billingsley II is leading the charge to create a new, global technology hub in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His goal: To build a thriving economy of Black-owned businesses in an industry where Black innovators have been historically underrepresented and in a city with a legacy of Black entrepreneurialism.
In the early 20th century, the Greenwood neighborhood in the northern part of the city was home to a bustling commercial center of Black-owned businesses, known as Black Wall Street. But in 1921, a mob of White residents attacked in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, killing hundreds of residents, destroying businesses, and leaving Black business owners and the Black Tulsa community with nothing but the knowledge that they weren’t welcome.
“What could Black Wall Street have been, had it been supported and not destroyed?“ Billingsley asks. “When I thought about the level of tenacity that it took for these entrepreneurs to build these incredible businesses during Jim Crow, it really reminded me a lot of the tech industry.”
Billingsley, whose relatives had a hand in building the original Black Wall Street, founded the initiative Black Tech Street in 2021, the centennial of the massacre, to answer that question. In partnership with the global impact and innovation company SecondMuse, Black Tech Street is facilitating investment in Black-owned startups, encouraging large tech companies to open local hubs and recruit remote employees in Tulsa, and connecting Black entrepreneurs with resources to build their businesses, with an emphasis on technology and long-term wealth creation. Other groups such as Build in Tulsa and an accelerator network that includes ACT Tulsa, Techstars, and Lightship Foundation have the same goal and are forging partnerships with entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and corporate businesses to make it happen.
Together, the initiatives and programs underway in Tulsa are designed to build an ecosystem that’s not only rebuilding what was lost in the past, but also establishing a more inclusive path forward for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds.
“This is a really collaborative effort among the city, local organizations such as our regional chamber, and entrepreneurs,” says Arthur Johnson, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve never seen this kind of intentionality around not only developing Black-owned businesses, but also Black tech talent.”
Creating a more inclusive tech economy
Build in Tulsa — a 2021 finalist in the HP-sponsored Anti-Racist Technology in the US category of the MIT Solve Challenge for social entrepreneurs — has one primary focus: to close the racial wealth gap in America. “We want to build multi-generational wealth, and the fact of the matter is, the fastest tool to grow wealth in this country is tech,” says Ashli Sims, managing director of Build in Tulsa.
The tech industry has been the source of massive wealth creation over the past 30 years, but Black tech employees have long been excluded and are still underrepresented across the industry. The Black community represents 13% of the United States population, but only 3% of workers in tech are Black. The percentage of venture capital funding that goes to Black-founded startups has been abysmally low for years — hovering around 1% since 2017. Tulsa is one of several cities — including Atlanta; Cincinnati; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Birmingham, Alabama — making strides to boost its local economy by attracting tech businesses while unlocking wealth-building opportunities for the Black community.
“Tulsa’s history makes us more poised than other places to have a significant conversation about lack of access for Black entrepreneurs and disparity around venture capital dollars,” says Sims.
To date, Build in Tulsa has secured more than $20 million in funding to train and invest in Black entrepreneurs. In 2021, Build in Tulsa helped 30 entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses through boot camps and residency programs, and hosted networking events with more than 200 people in attendance. Two startups in the Build in Tulsa Network — Boddle, an educational platform, and Bootup, a tech talent-matching platform — have gone on to raise more than $4 million in funding.
Helping entrepreneurs build their businesses
Build in Tulsa supports entrepreneurs at every stage of their journey, from developing a business idea to securing major funding. The organization also connects startup teams with mentors and hosts events to connect entrepreneurs with potential funders, partners, and customers.
“We know that we’re building a community of Black and brown entrepreneurs to rely on one another, but we’re also trying to make sure that they are in the rooms they need to be in to be successful,” says Sims.
Tim Butler, a founder who’s part of Build in Tulsa’s Entrepreneurs in Residence program, says the network he’s built in Tulsa has been critical to his success. Butler started his grant-writing and fundraising tech business, Freelance Soul Professional Services, in 2019 and since then has scaled the business to a six-figure company that’s continuing to grow.
“Sometimes in the tech space, it’s not just what you know, but who you know, and for Black and Brown individuals, that can be a disadvantage,” Butler says. “Thank God for organizations like Build in Tulsa and this entire ecosystem, because they’re allowing folks that look like us to be able to get in the room and talk with folks that historically we wouldn’t even meet.”
Educating the next generation
A crucial component of the multifaceted effort in Tulsa is preparing young people for careers in tech by building technology skills and confidence among Tulsa’s students — and their teachers. According to a 2022 report on diversity in tech, nearly one in four Black students lack access to computers or reliable high-speed internet at home.
“Technology has become core to so many different industries, and that’s only going to accelerate,” says Johnson. “The skill set is shifting so that you may not necessarily need a four-year degree in computer science, but you do need some level of technical know-how, and that education has to start early.”
This year, the HP Teaching Fellows program, a partnership between HP and Digital Promise that recognizes teachers using technology in innovative ways, launched a special cohort for educators in Tulsa. The program worked with Black Tech Street to identify teachers for the cohort, with a focus on North Tulsa, an area where one-third of the population is Black.
“It’s all about finding out-of-the-box ways to do things,” says Australia Brown, a first-grade teacher at Mayo Demonstration School in her second year of teaching. “We are teaching them how to work with paper and pencil, but we also want them to have technical knowledge.”
The program includes a combination of professional development workshops, where teachers have a chance to learn from each other (e.g., how to create a podcast or how to use the video discussion app Flip) as well as one-on-one sessions, where teachers can dive deeper into specific areas they want to learn more about. Currently, Brown is exploring new ways her first graders can present information using video editing skills they’ve learned or by creating a PowerPoint presentation.
“The biggest thing for me, on top of the technology component, is being able to ask other teachers questions about how they do certain things,” Brown says. “That has been very helpful.”
Together, all of the various efforts in Tulsa are paving the way for a new era of Black entrepreneurship in the city and the tech industry as a whole.
“We’re transforming the narrative of what a tech entrepreneur looks like and of who can succeed in tech,” Billingsley says. “You have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m what a tech CEO looks like,’ or ‘I’m what the founder of a billion-dollar company could look like.’”