Portland Incubator Experiment general manager Rick Turoczy says about 10% of the 300 applicants to PIE’s first class of startups were African-American, most from out of state.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
To illustrate the point, Green recounts a story about the national Congressional Black Caucus, a group he claims hews to the old ways of thinking, and the Obama Administration, which “speaks the language of commercialization, tech transfer and investment in R&D.” Last summer, says Green, the CBC held job fairs in five cities to show there were thousands of people out of work. Around the same time, another movement was taking place geared toward the tech-based crowdfunding and JOBS Act. “One movement flies through both houses of Congress and is signed by the president,” he says. “The other disappears off the communications cliff.”
With limited or no access to business loans and investment capital, African-Americans historically relied on the government for employment. Today, says Green, many in the black community are still wedded to that public-sector model to the detriment of new business development. He isn’t the only one espousing that gospel. “Why is the power structure and leadership of the Portland black community aligned around nonprofits and nonbusiness entities?” asks Posey. He cited a recent Urban League report showing Oregon’s black community is in many ways worse off today than 30 years ago. “If we don’t do better in how we engage the future,” he says, “we won’t have a future.”
Dwayne Johnson, CEO of a digital marketing company and chair of the Oregon Small Business Advisory Council, is another Portland leader eager to see the roundtable take shape, holding daily phone conversations with Green to help make that happen. “I’m getting complaints I have a house husband,” he says ruefully. A former angel investor — he can count the number of black angel investors he knows on one hand — Johnson touts the education pipeline as the critical link necessary to fuel technology and innovation-oriented high-growth entrepreneurship. But if the concept is compelling, the path to implementation is unclear. A key question for the roundtable, says Johnson, is how to get African-Americans and other marginalized communities onboard with STEM education.
A dearth of African-Americans with high-powered science and engineering credentials may explain why OVP Venture Partners, a Seattle- and Portland-based investment group, has yet to back any African-American-owned companies, says managing partner Gerry Langeler. But he also says that 15 years ago, OVP rarely backed companies founded by women, Chinese or Indian entrepreneurs. Today 15% to 20% of OVP’s portfolio companies are run by those demographic groups.
“Changes are taking place,” says Langeler, acknowledging African-Americans may face unique cultural impediments. “They are one of the last groups to move.”
Langeler’s insights lead to the question: What role will Portland’s white tech leaders play in helping speed up that movement? And what role will they play in the roundtable? One of the unique features of the America21 project is that it is a black-led endeavor and not, for example, one of PDC’s in-house economic development initiatives. At the same time, the participation of established white-owned companies and venture investors is crucial for a program designed to connect black tech entrepreneurs not just with each other but with mentors and capital.
The reasons Green has yet to recruit the institutional power players turn out to be both mundane and telling. The roundtable may be a grand-sounding, game-changing project, but like so many startups, it suffers from a decidedly down-to-earth problem: no money.
So far Green has landed $35,000 in in-kind PDC support providing general staff assistance, group facilitation and help developing an “asset map” identifying resources in the community. Other than that, he is bootstrapping the entire labor-intensive enterprise, relying on friends, family and his church, the Church of Nazarene in Medford, for financial support. Once Green and other community members identify seed funding for the project, the team will have more time and leverage to engage the Portland Angel Network and the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). “All these people we know want to be there,” Green says.
They do want to be there. “Anything I can do to accelerate it would be great,” says Rick Turoczy, PIE’s general manager. He says the roundtable initiative bears some relation, at least in theory, to a partnership PIE recently entered into with an accelerator in Nairobi, Kenya. “There’s a tendency for Portland to be very homogenous. If we want to build products that are globally accessible, we need to look beyond our town.”