It is just past 6pm when the conversation at the coworking space turns to Amazon HQ2, tech jobs, and gentrification. Around the table are four technologists: one just launched a lesbian dating app; another recently exited his first start-up and is working on a second; and the other two are freelance full-stack developers with packed portfolios.
That might sound like a scene straight out of Silicon Valley, but we are in Atlanta, at the black-owned “next-generation private membership club” called The Gathering Spot.
Here, the start-up ecosystem is a photo negative of the glaringly white tech scene in the San Francisco bay area. Everyone around the table is black, and as an added bonus, instead of the kombucha and spa water of Silicon Valley’s ubiquitous WeWork, this coworking space has a full bar and table service.
“This is the place,” said Barry Givens, an entrepreneur and engineer who founded the robotic bartender company Monsieur and is working on a company that aims to connect affluent African Americans with opportunities to invest in start-ups.
“You have the money, the skill-set. If there was a Wakanda, this is it,” he said.
Indeed, with its burgeoning talent pool from area universities, significant social infrastructure thanks to a long-established black upper middle class, and a bumper crop of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Atlanta’s black tech community feels poised to break out.
Iziah Reid, founder of the local software development company NuraCode, compares the evolution of Atlanta’s black tech scene to its hip-hop scene, recalling a time when local rappers were still trying to imitate the sound of successful artists from Los Angeles and New York.
“Atlanta rap didn’t become a thing until they stopped imitating everyone else and went: ‘Hey, the south got something to say,’” Reid said. “Hopefully we’re the OutKast of black tech.”
It was not always like this. Paul Judge, whom several techies described as one of the “godfathers” of the Atlanta tech scene, recalled the early, dry years of trying to garner respect from Silicon Valley investors over lunch at Bytes, a local gastropub where the food is southern, the menus are iPads, and the location is perfect for the engineers and entrepreneurs of Georgia Tech, one of the highest ranked public universities in the US.
Judge said that Atlanta is poised to compete with Boston, Los Angeles and New York to fill out the US’ top three tech cities behind Silicon Valley, thanks to its airport (“I can leave here at 10am and be at a lunch meeting in San Francisco,” he boasts), bevy of Fortune 500 corporations and concentration of engineering talent — in addition to Georgia Tech, the city is home to Georgia State University, Emory Universityand the historically black Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.
However, Judge said that in the early 2000s, investors would hear that a company was from Atlanta and immediately say: “No.”
By 2007 or 2008, the investors might take a meeting, but they would demand that the company relocate to California.
“Now they’re saying: ‘We’ll come to you,’” he said.
That shift was apparent on the morning of Oct. 19 when a bus full of Silicon Valley venture capitalists stopped by the offices of digitalundivided, an incubator for start-ups founded by black and Latina women.