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‘An overnight success 10 years in the making’: Atlanta is the future for Black leaders in tech

"It takes so long for successes to emerge, and now we have a lot of results to point to."

‘An overnight success 10 years in the making’: Atlanta is the future for Black leaders in tech

Jewel Burks Solomon left Google for Atlanta; now, she's back with Google, helping Black startups.

Photo: Google for Startups

For more than a decade, Atlanta's leaders have liked to call the region "the tech capital of the South." This year, the tech industry is starting to see it the same way. VCs and companies like Google and Microsoft have recently made serious commitments to invest in the region, publicly acknowledging that the country's "Black mecca" is also the place where the industry can begin to fulfill its promises to create a more diverse, inclusive and innovative future.

It started in 2008, an unlikely beginning for a city's success story. The financial crisis devastated Atlanta just like every metropolitan area, but the disaster also laid bare untapped potential: Atlanta had the busiest airport in America; more Black college graduates than anywhere else in the country; practically limitless cheap land; the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS and a big chunk of Fortune 500 companies; friendly corporate tax and union policies; and the largest numerical population gains of any American city over the previous seven years. And so, when the country's richest and brightest turned their eyes to tech during the recovery from 2008, Atlanta's did the same.

The city's leaders were certain that Atlanta could grow into an essential tech capital. And so, they acted accordingly, building startup incubators, expanding engineering and computer science programs at HBCUs, bringing corporate innovation centers to the city and redeveloping midtown Atlanta into a physical hub. It brought about both economic and cultural change: Joe Biden appears to have won the state because of unprecedented Democratic political engagement in the broader Atlanta region, and the Georgia Senate runoffs will determine control of Congress.

But when the political zeitgeist moves on, the tech companies' attention will not. While Silicon Valley has been the heart of tech innovation for the last 50 years, the city's leaders think Atlanta could become one of several centers for the industry's more mature next 50.

"We've got the critical mass already, and we've got the never-ending pipeline by way of the universities," said David Cummings, a key player in the Atlanta tech scene and the founder of Atlanta Tech Village, one of the startup incubators launched during the recovery from the 2008 crisis. "It's one of those overnight successes 10 years in the making. It takes so long for successes to emerge, and now we have a lot of results to point to: That's a really big difference."

Jewel Burks Solomon is one of Atlanta's success stories. In 2012, when the then-early-twenty-something left her job with Google in Mountain View to be closer to ailing family in the South, she hadn't the faintest idea that her move would mark the beginning of an eight-year rise to tech's upper echelons. In a way, though, her cross-country trip had been a lifetime in the making. As a girl, she said, she would sit in the passenger seat for the nearly four-hour drive from Nashville to Atlanta, fantasizing about a future in the big city. Atlanta was the dream, the place to be something: the place to call home.

She was more than capable of making her fantasies a reality; she launched her own business, Partpic, in 2013, when she was still in her early 20s. "I didn't have a lot of peers [in Atlanta], and definitely not a lot of mentors," Burks Solomon said. But she figured things out quickly: Amazon acquired Partpic in 2016, and she stayed with the corporate behemoth for years, pondering how to help the startups in the community where she'd found her own success. "I've decided to make Atlanta home," she said, sitting in a bay window in Atlanta, backlit by that dust-flecked afternoon sun you can only find in the South. "I can really be a leader in the community, and more specifically in the tech community, that's grown over the course of the time that I've been here."

When Google for Startups began looking for a leader, Burks Solomon sensed a perfect opportunity. Its mission aligned with hers, and she could remain in Atlanta and focus on the founders in her own community. She became a Googler (again) in January, and spent most of 2020 committing Google to investing half of its Black Founders Fund in Atlanta-based startups alone.

The city's startup ecosystem has grown significantly in the last decade. Startups in Atlanta used to struggle for traditional financing, instead bootstrapping or relying on local angel investors. Now, new and bigger investors are noticing the reputation of homegrown brands like Black-owned Calendly (which got its start at the ATV) and LeaseQuery, and tracking impressive funding rounds like the most recent at Greenlight. Cummings also cited investor interest in recent acquisitions like Splunk's purchase of Rigor and Walker & Company Brands' move from Palo Alto to Atlanta. These companies have thrived in part because they serve Atlanta-based customers critical to tech growth over the next couple of decades: mainly corporate entities (think UPS and Home Depot) and historically underserved consumer populations (think African-American beauty customers).

Investors are increasingly eager to get in on the action. Over the last year, Burks Solomon said she has had more conversations with VCs looking to open new offices and hire partners in Atlanta than ever before. Venture capital "has been that missing link, and we're almost there," she explained, rattling off a long list of new and growing investors in the area, including Outlander Labs, the Fearless Fund, SAIC Capital, Zane Venture Fund, Engage Ventures and Collab Capital, a fund Burks Solomon co-launched to help Black founders buy back shares in their companies as they grow. Cummings thinks that so many Atlanta startups are ripe for acquisitions and exits that there will soon be an additional influx of homegrown wealth.

Now, the heavyweight outsiders have started to home in on that local success. In May, Microsoft committed to opening a 523,000-square-foot facility (mostly focused on AI and cloud services) in 2021 in midtown Atlanta, where it plans to hire 1,500 tech workers. In September, buyers reported to be affiliated with Microsoft bought a tract of land called Quarry Yards for $127 million, in what could become one of the largest investments in the city's historically Black neighborhoods in more than a decade. (Though it has been reported, Microsoft "had nothing to share" about the Quarry Yards purchase.) "They bought a huge tract of unbuilt land that's in a historically Black neighborhood and community that's been underserved for decades," said Katie Kirkpatrick, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "That investment shocked us because they could have a real substantial impact on the Black community and Black neighborhood that is there."

BlackRock and Mailchimp are among those that have already made long-term commitments to the city, convinced that attracting diverse talent will catalyze creative and powerful ideas. "They're a step ahead of everybody because they're here," Kirkpatrick said.

And in October, Alphabet's Sundar Pichai pledged to double the number of Black workers at Google by 2025 — and a hiring push in Atlanta is part of that strategy. Under Burks Solomon, Google for Startups not only invested in more than 30 Black founders in Atlanta this year, but also launched the Atlanta Founders Academy, which provided support for about 40 Black-founded companies in the region. "We're very intentional about going deep in Atlanta. Google had a presence in Georgia for the last 18 years," she said. "We always had a plan to focus our work on Atlanta-based founders."

But there are plenty of diverse cities just bursting with opportunity, the Nashvilles and Denvers of the world might say: What really makes Atlanta worth it for a place like Google or Microsoft? Microsoft offered one answer: it's the schools — and the Black engineers who attend them.

Clark, Spelman, Morehouse, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Savannah College of Art and Design: These are just some of the colleges congregated around the city, and they produce more Black engineers every year than any other region in the country. The combination of HBCUs, an MIT competitor in Georgia Tech and an accessible education for first-generation students at Georgia State has created a pool of Black tech talent that continues to expand, an important draw for companies like Microsoft. Only a few cities can compete in terms of sheer tech talent numbers, and none produces classes as diverse as the Georgia schools.

"That continual pipeline and technical talent, and having the proven success of it, is something that's a huge component of Atlanta being the capital of African-American tech in the country indefinitely," Cummings said.

Burks Solomon joked that within largely Black communities, "everyone has a cousin in Atlanta." Those ties lured her to Atlanta, and they could also help tech companies address their retention problem for Black engineers. The majority of Black people in the U.S. live in the South, and Atlanta is the unofficial capital of the region. "You're going to have a lot of people who frankly don't want to leave," said Art Hopkins, a tech company consultant for Russell Reynolds Associates who's based in Atlanta. "They like living there. Spoiler alert: Not everyone wants to move to Palo Alto."

This spring, once companies allowed people to work from home, many who had long fantasized about moving to Atlanta relocated there temporarily. "[Over the last few months,] I've talked to several people who are going to be leaving these large companies to start their own, and plan to stay in Atlanta to do it," said Joey Womack, the CEO and co-founder of Goodie Nation, Google's Atlanta-based partner for its Black Founders Fund. The draw could be a benefit for companies with offices there and a problem for those hoping to retain Black talent in places like Silicon Valley, he explained.

Cost of living is also too high in Silicon Valley for those without any inherited wealth, support or family in the region, a reality that disproportionately affects Black Americans. "If I'm in Silicon Valley and I'm making $250,000 a year, I'm still not not on easy street. If I'm making $250,000 in Atlanta, I'm doing OK," said Jay Bailey, president and CEO of the city's Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

A tech future in Atlanta could help address that generational wealth problem. That's the long game for both Bailey and Burks Solomon. Bailey grew up in Georgia, idolizing the region's earlier generation of Black leaders like Herman J. Russell, whose namesake foundation Bailey now leads. But aside from Russell and a few other powerful businessmen, the founder community was mostly absent in 2013 Atlanta, when Burks Solomon launched Partpic. That experience drives her work at Google, where she's ensuring that the founders who follow her will never be alone.

In the next few months, Burks Solomon said she'll be focused on making sure the relationships built this year aren't one and done. It's the long-term, socially transformative potential of these startups that matters for her. "I've gotten a lot of outreach from other folks with similar roles at corporations. It's just been nice to explain to them, and their eyes light up," she said. It's a subject that gets the words flowing for Burks Solomon; in our Zoom call, she returned constantly to the power of Black-founded startups to transform this country's racial wealth gap, and what big tech companies can do about it.

"I'm proud of showing up for founders in the way that we have this year, and activating our corporate friends to do the same thing," she said.

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