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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.

Protocol | China

Everything you need to know about the Zhihu IPO

The Beijing-based question-and-answer site just filed for an IPO.

The Zhihu homepage.

David Wertime/Protocol

Investors eager to buy a slice of China's urban elite internet will soon have the chance. Zhihu, a Beijing-based question-and-answer site similar to the U.S.-based Quora, has just filed for an IPO to sell American Depositary Shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

What does Zhihu do?

Zhihu is China's largest online Q&A platform — the name comes from the expression "Do you know?" in classical Chinese. It was founded 10 years ago by Yuan Zhou (周源), a former journalist, and spent two years as an invite-only online platform. It quickly built a reputation as a source for quality answers and has drawn a community of elite professionals, including ZhenFund managing partner Bob Xu and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee, also an early investor.

Over time, the Chinese-language Zhihu has become more mainstream, and now says it hosts 315.3 million questions and answers contributed by 43.1 million "creators." (Quora, about one year older than Zhihu, had almost 61 million questions and 108 million answers by the end of 2019). The website has grown into a content platform where people also keep diaries, write fiction and blog as social media influencers.

Zhihu users do not look like China as a whole. Most than half are men, most live in "Tier 1" cities and more than three-quarters are under 30 years old.

Zhihu continues to emphasize the quality of its content. "Zhihu is also recognized as the most trustworthy online content community and widely regarded as offering the highest-quality content in China," its prospectus says.

Zhihu's financials

Zhihu registered for its IPO via the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a.k.a. the JOBS Act, which has reduced disclosure requirements for companies with less than $1.07 billion in annual revenue. Zhihu's revenue doubled from 2019 to 2020, but still only reached $207.2 million, and the company is short of profitability with a 2020 net loss of $79.3 million. The company says it's "still in an early stage of monetization" with "significant runway for growth across multiple new monetization channels."

Trend lines are good. Zhihu has managed to double revenue while keeping expenses largely constant, with selling and marketing aimed at growing Zhihu's user base as the biggest single expense.

The company is trying to diversify its revenue streams. In 2019, 86.1% came from advertising. 2020 saw advertising account for 62.4% while "content-commerce" — meaning native advertising — took in 10%. The rest was mostly paid memberships.

What's next for Zhihu

After years of evincing a relaxed attitude toward monetization, Zhihu is putting itself in the hot seat to do just that. Zhihu is betting that monetizing Chinese web users will get easier over time. The prospectus describes "significant growth potential" in China's "online content community market" and says average revenue per user in China is expected to more than triple from about $55 in 2019 to about $199 in 2025, with revenue in the overall market reaching a projected $200 billion in 2025.

The company looks like it will basically try everything to monetize, and see what sticks. It plans to "ramp up our online education service" and to "continue to explore other innovative monetization channels, such as content e-commerce and IP-based monetization."

The prospectus also mentions AI frequently, touting Zhihu's AI content moderation tool wali as well as a "question routing system" and "feed recommendation and search systems." However, the depth and quality of content remains far more important to Zhihu's success. Users have joked on Zhihu about the poor quality of its wali filter.

What could go wrong?

Zhihu could fail to turn a profit. Like most content platforms, Zhihu has found it hard to monetize its traffic and the vast amount of free content at its core. The platform was built on the premise that anyone can acquire professional knowledge easily, which means users are not inclined to pay.

Since 2016, Zhihu has tried many monetization models: paid physical/virtual events, online courses taught by its top creators, premium memberships and paid consulting services. None have been a hit. Zhihu Live, the paid virtual event product, attracted a lot of public attention in 2016 and 2017, but since then its popularity has waned. According to the prospectus, Zhihu currently has 2.4 million paying members, or only 3.4% of its monthly active users.

Zhihu also faces intense competition. Defined narrowly, it has no rivals, with would-be contenders like Baidu Zhidao and Wukong, owned by ByteDance, falling by the wayside. But Zhihu has positioned itself as something more: a community for diverse content. In this regard, it's competing with big public-facing social media platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo and Bilibili. While Zhihu's 68.5 million monthly active user base is growing fast, Weibo has over 500 million and Bilibili over 200 million. Zhihu differentiates itself with the quality and depth of its content, but maintaining that creates inevitable tension with the business imperative to expand.

Like every content platform in China, Zhihu is subject to rigid state censorship and faces harsh penalties for failing to police speech itself. Politically-sensitive questions are nowhere to be found on the platform, while other topics including transgender rights have been censored in the past. Even so, in March 2018, Zhihu was taken off every mobile app store for seven days at the request of Beijing's municipal Cyberspace Administration. Authorities did not specify why, but the suspension probably related to subtle criticisms of Xi Jinping on the platform; Zhihu promised to "make adjustments."

Zhihu's prospectus is largely mum on the censorship question, perhaps because the company feels it's gotten good enough at doing it. Zhihu says it has a "comprehensive community governance system" that combines "AI-powered content assessment algorithms" with the ability of users to report each other as well as "proprietary know-how." These resemble the same tools most big Chinese social media platforms use to censor content and keep in Beijing's good graces.

Who gets rich?

Here's what we know:

  • Founder, CEO and Chairman Yuan Zhou currently owns 8.2% of Zhihu, with another 8% worth of options, which he can exercise within 60 days of the IPO, held in a separate holding company controlled by a trust of which he is the beneficiary. Following exercise, Zhou will have the vast majority of aggregate voting power.
  • Innovation Works, beneficially owned by Peter Liu and Kai-Fu Lee, owns 13.1% of Zhihu. According to corporate database Qichacha, Innovation Works invested about $153,000 in an angel round in January 2011, then made follow-on investments in the C and D rounds.
  • Tencent owns 12.3%.
  • Qiming Entities owns 11.3%. According to corporate database Qichacha, Qiming invested $1 million in Zhihu's series A, then made follow-on investments in the B, C and D rounds.

Kuaishou, Baidu and Sogou also own stakes, as does SAIF IV Mobile Apps Limited.

Innovation Works' Kai-Fu Lee and Peter Liu, and Qiming Ventures, both of which invested early and often, look like the biggest winners besides founder Zhou.

What people are saying

"Zhihu, if it ever wants to be a truly massive platform, will need to go out of the hardcore knowledge-sharing space, and become more mainstream, more entertaining, and yes, even less intellectual. But to capture that market, who better to partner with than Kuaishou, who built its business on exactly those characteristics?" —Ying-Ying Lu, co-host of Tech Buzz China.

"After separating video content into its own feed, Zhihu is now in competition with Bilibili and [ByteDance-owned] Xigua Video. Education-themed videos used to be one of the important growth drivers for the latter two apps. Now [Zhihu], the app that specialized in educational content, has joined the game." —Lan Xi (pen name), independent tech writer.

David Wertime

David Wertime is Protocol's executive director. David is a widely cited China expert with twenty years' experience who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, founded and sold a media company, and worked in senior positions within multiple newsrooms. He also hosts POLITICO's China Watcher newsletter. After four years working on international deals for top law firms in New York and Hong Kong, David co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a website that tracked Chinese social media, later selling it to the Washington Post Company. David then served as Senior Editor for China at Foreign Policy magazine, where he launched the first Chinese-language articles in the publication's history. Thereafter, he was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2019, David joined Protocol's parent company and in 2020, launched POLITICO's widely-read China Watcher. David is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China, a Member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a Truman National Security fellow. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Diane and his puppy, Luna.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | Enterprise

Tony Bates hears the call at Genesys

Running a contact center company isn't as sexy as his previous gigs. But this company could be the best chance for him to make a lasting mark.

Tony Bates arrived at Genesys as CEO after hopscotching through various parts of the tech industry.

Photo: Genesys

Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.

He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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