A crop of homegrown tech entrepreneurs is hatching new ideas and startup businesses in uptown Manhattan. And even Silicon Valley is taking notice
Everybody’s talking about the “digital divide” in technology.
Black and brown people over-index as technology users and are more likely than whites to tweet, surf the internet for information and post photos using their cell phones. On Twitter and Instagram, people of color have rapidly become tech leaders, as drivers and influencers. But primarily as users: the number involved in creating technology remains embarrassingly low. Tech companies are filled with young white men; even they admit it. On average, at seven technology companies that recently released staffing numbers -- including Google -- only 2 percent of employees were black and 3 percent Latino.
Increasingly, big tech companies have been shamed into opening their doors and have created diversity initiatives especially at the entry level. But creative would-be entrepreneurs who want a piece of the action now, often find themselves left out of the money loop. Though statistics about funding remain scarce, a study by a research firm called CB Insights found that black entrepreneurs received only 1% of venture capital in 2010. Because black and brown tech startups rarely attract the attention of investors, and are often left out of the hottest accelerators and incubators, entrepreneurs of color find it hard to get a toehold in the wild, wild West of the tech landscape or see themselves reflected in popular devices and services.
The founder of a diversity education organization put it bluntly: “In the tech community, you have white men funding white companies. They're interested in a certain kind of product. But you can only have so many apps telling you where to eat dinner."
But a scrappy group of tech entrepreneurs of color is working and networking to bridge the digital divide and disrupt the lily-white fraternity of Silicon Valley in an unlikely community -- Harlem. Though it’s unclear exactly how many startups have launched or moved to Harlem, tech fever has spread. It’s early days in this movement, but recent Harlem technology forum have boasted hundreds of participants and weekly tech meetups hosted by Silicon Harlem, the community’s de facto cheerleader for techies, attracts many more including officials such as Congressman Charlie Rangel and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as well Grammy Award Winner/Tech Entrepreneur Ryan Leslie. And growing numbers of accelerators, incubators and community organizations are nurturing a new generation of tech entrepreneurs who have been shut out of Silicon Valley and are creating apps, devices, business and social ventures that would never bubble up from Stanford or MIT.
The industry is taking notice. Later this year, WeWork, the $5-billion co-working company, will open a 3,000-square-foot space in East Harlem to accommodate the flurry of entrepreneurs. It will join Harlem Garage, which launched in 2013 as the first startup hub, and others.
Our story, Harlem 2.0, will look at the players who are bringing some much needed color into the technology industry and money uptown as they birth ideas typically overlooked by both Silicon Valley and Alley. Though the characters in our piece are uniquely New York, what’s brewing in Harlem represents a growing multi-cultural movement around the country -- in Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Durham, N.C. and other U.S. cities.
We will introduce you to a growing uptown roster, including:
“If we do our job in creating an environment that is conducive to business, then a company like BuzzFeed, a company like Tumblr a company like Airbnb is going to want to come here,” Henry recently told DNAInfo.
• Cofound/Harlem, a non-profit tech accelerator, offering resources, mentorship and office space. The three energetic 20-something year-old co-creators – one black, one white and one latino – embody the racial diversity of the neighborhood. The de facto leader, John Henry, a cute-as-a-button, smart-as-a-whip 22-year- old self-described “black nerd,” recently caught the eye of Google, which supports the venture. Cofound has managed to secure partnerships with Artemis Real Estate Partners, Macarthur and English law firm and Fordham University.
• Madiba Harlem at MIST, has become Harlem’s gathering place for young professionals, especially those in the tech industry. The South African themed restaurant/bar/cafe/event hall plays hosts to tech meetups, informal meetings or after work drinks. The hi-tech, fully green facility has become the social and event hub of Harlem 2.0 hosting everything from entrepreneurial conferences to performances from Lauryn Hill and Common.
• Harlem Biospace, a biotech incubator that’s providing 24 STEM companies with access to affordable labs, microbench space, specialized laboratory equipment, mentorship, business support, programming and a K-12 STEM education initiative. The founder, Sam Sia, a Harvard-trained, Columbia University biomedical engineering brainiac, has brought in big-name funding, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics to his 2,300 square foot STEM hub.
• Digital Undivided was launched several years ago in Harlem by the indomitable Kathryn Finney, the “fairy godmother of women of color tech entrepreneurs. Describing herself as “big hair, even bigger ideas” she has become a darling of SXSW, TEDTalks and even the White House with her girl power message and business savvy. Her educational workshops, online and off, have attracted over a million participants, and she has helped women of color founders drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars through her Project Diane and #rewritethecode campaigns and other fundraising schemes.
• The Zahn Innovation Center at City College nurtures a quirky, group of Harlem and CUNY-connected do-good entrepreneurs. The Center supports about 50 founders, who have cooked up ideas ranging from a wearable device for the visually impaired to technology that creates a safer bike ride for uptown food delivery workers and a clean-water education program for a community in Nigeria.
Along with interviews and photographs, our piece will also feature:
• Short 3-5 minute video for the showing the journey of Silicon Harlem’s and Harlem BioSpace’s local high school programs.
• Interactive map showing the locations of the major tech players in and around Harlem.
• Graphic comparing the demographic in the technology industry.