Mike Green wants black America in the 21st-century tech economy. He plans to start the revolution in one of the country’s whitest cities.
Every weekday morning, Mike Green gets up at 6 a.m. to feed his 14-month-old son, Josiah, a banana. Then he hands his son off to his wife, Emily, and is on the computer by 7:30, at which point he starts making conference calls and Skyping. He begins with his East Coast contacts and works his way west as the day progresses.
By the afternoon, he’s moved on to Portland and Silicon Valley. He usually works until late at night and into the early morning hours. Sometimes he works through the night.
The 50-year-old Green, who has been following a version of the same routine for more than a year, has yet to earn much money for his 24/7 labors. He works out of his home office: the living room of a three-bedroom rented apartment in Medford that he shares with Emily, Josiah and 12-year-old daughter, Madison.
Green’s financial circumstances may be modest, but the task he is working on is ambitious and wide-ranging. A cofounder of the America21 Project, an Ohio-based national nonprofit launched 18 months ago, he aims to correct what he considers one of the critical problems facing this country: the disconnect between black America and today’s tech-driven economy.
In the past decade, much of the new wealth creation and job growth in the United States has occurred in the startup technology sectors. “But those types of innovations and market disruptions are not happening across black America,” says Green, who is also a part-time blogger. The reasons “are systemic, historical and institutional, and someone has to address it.”
Programs that try to correct the economic inequities plaguing African-American communities are nothing new. But America21 is one of the first groups to target high-tech and Internet ventures, and to try and create a comprehensive solution focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, as well as access to risk capital and “high-growth” entrepreneurship.
In the past year, America21 has generated a remarkable amount of attention and excitement locally and nationally — from community leaders in cities around the country to White House policymakers. The group’s rapid ascension is due in no small part to Green’s ability to wrap together disparate phenomena, from the achievement gap in K-12 education to the dearth of black angel networks, into a sweeping aspirational narrative about 21st-century wealth building in America’s inner cities.
“No one in recent memory has come out with such articulate, explicit connections,” says Patrick Quinton, the executive director of the Portland Development Commission (PDC), who met Green this past winter at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by The Skanner newspaper at the Oregon Convention Center. Green, the keynote speaker, came to Portland after local business and community leader James Posey read what he described as a “very exciting” editorial that Green had written a few months earlier for The Oregonian. “There’s a synergy to this idea, a way of putting things together, that is unique,” Posey says.
America21 is a national organization with national objectives. But the America21 story is also a singular Oregon story, about a black man helping orchestrate a leading-edge urban economic development movement from a “cow patch,” as Chad Womack, Green’s Philadelphia-based America21 colleague, describes Medford. In the coming year, the team also hopes to launch one of the organization’s breakout initiatives — an “urban innovation roundtable” — in Portland, a city often described as one of the whitest metropolitan centers in the country.
Organizing a movement from a rural Oregon home office — or coffee shop — is no easy task, acknowledges Green, who moved from Houston to Medford in 2004 to be closer to his wife’s family. But his physical, demographic and economic isolation also spotlights the issues America21 seeks to resolve.
“I’ve always been disconnected,” says Green, who grew up on Houston’s poverty-stricken south side, the child of a single mother with five kids. “We are all disconnected. And the problem we see across the country is that this is not just the pattern, it’s institutionally the way it is.”
The time has come to change the paradigm, says Green, whose speaking style is part Martin Luther King Jr., part Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. “If the United States wants to be globally competitive, we must connect the disconnected.”
To understand the problem Green is trying to address, start with a few facts about venture capital, job growth and African-American entrepreneurship. Last year, angel and venture-capital investors sank $52 billion into roughly 70,000 companies, according to data compiled by the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire and CB Insights, a New York private company research firm. A study by the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based group dedicated to entrepreneurship, also showed that young high-growth companies, those whose revenues grow quickly, were the primary source of new job growth in the United States.
The black community is not sharing in this new wealth creation. Between 2002 and 2007, black entrepreneurship spiked 60% compared to 18% in white America. But a closer look at these statistics reveals a gloomier picture: 1.9 million of those new black-owned businesses produced less than 1% of the gross domestic product, and 1.8 million were sole proprietors with no employees. “The reality is there has been zero job growth in black America,” says Green.
A 12-year Navy veteran, Green began researching black entrepreneurship in 2009 when he left his job as content editor at the Ashland Daily Tidings to start out on his own as a digital-tech entrepreneur, experimenting with 3-D gaming platforms for e-commerce. After experiencing first-hand the challenge of building a company and attracting investors, he began to delve deeply into the literature on black innovation. Some of the data confirmed what he already suspected: An entrenched achievement gap in American public schools meant African-American kids were ill-equipped to participate as job seekers or job creators in the rapidly expanding Internet and tech-based sectors.
From left, Ben Berry, CEO of AirShip Technologies Group, Jaymes Winters, president of Blue Leopard Capital, and Andres Montgomery, CEO of Dreem Digital.
The three are among Oregon’s few African-American technology and investment capital entrepreneurs. “Venture capitalists need to take note,” says Berry. “If they are not talking to the African-American community, they’re leaving a lot on the table in terms of return on investment.”
Green also located one black angel group — “just one” — and found that all minorities combined represented only 4% of all angel investors nationwide.
“We do have innovators; we are very creative people,” says Green. What’s lacking are the mentors, the capital and the accelerators necessary for the black entrepreneurial community to grow. The venture-capital space took off in the 1960s, a time when African-Americans were still fighting for civil rights, Green says. Today, the black tech sector has yet to catch up. Lacking access to risk capital, Green says blacks are “in the valley of death.”
That kind of analysis resonates with Andres Montgomery, a 15-year Microsoft veteran and CEO of Dreem Digital, a Salem-based startup that builds mobile software for education. Montgomery also is one of Oregon’s few black tech entrepreneurs. “I’ve seen fortunes made and seen a lot of people sharing in the prosperity of the industry,” says Montgomery, who met Green last fall, an encounter that has since led to meetings with potential investors. “But I didn’t see that with African-Americans.”
Even when African-Americans succeed in the marketplace, they typically don’t invest in the technology space. Instead, the largest black-owned companies in the country revolve around cars, banks and entertainment — “industries that don’t return the kind of investment that technology does,” says Montgomery.
In 2010 Green wrote a series of articles for The Huffington Post called “Innovation Crisis in Black America.” That series was a “catalytic, seminal event,” says America21 cofounder and chief strategist Johnathan Holifield, an Ohio-based founder of the Trim Tab System, a personal development and organizational leadership methodology.
“Mike took the crisis in black education and connected that crisis to our inability to form capital and create growth enterprises to create jobs,” Holifield says. “Nobody has done that the way Mike has.”
It was while Green was writing the Huffington Post series that he met both Holifield and Womack, the latter a biochemist and STEM education advocate. Together, the trio came up with the concept and tagline that distinguishes America21: a comprehensive “pipeline through productivity” framework, with STEM education as the pipeline that fuels the productivity of high-growth entrepreneurship and access to capital.
At stake is more than African-American prosperity, Green and his colleagues are careful to say. “We are not talking about a problem that just rests with black America,” says Womack. “It’s an American problem. The larger issue is how metropolitan centers and urban communities connect to the job and wealth engine that is the innovation economy.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, their world-historical approach, the group has accomplished a remarkable amount since launching America21 in January 2011. The trio have become an authoritative voice on the subject of black innovation and have produced or participated in dozens of events aimed at building the innovation ecosystem, including holding the nation’s first Minority Gathering of Angels, a partnership with the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers Business School, leading a panel on inclusive competitiveness at a White House Summit on Entrepreneurship, and producing the nation’s first Minority Biomedical Entrepreneurship Conference, held in Cleveland this past spring.
Last fall the group also sponsored screenings and panel discussions of a CNN series called Black in America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley. That event, which was held in several cities, including Portland, explains one of the mysteries behind Green and America21: why the group chose a white city like Portland to seed a black economic development initiative. For his part, Green says he never intended to target Portland but changed his mind after Posey contacted him, saying, “You are a black man in Oregon doing these things around the country, and you’re ignoring your own back yard. Your own people are right here.”
Green responded by saying, “Really, how many are you?’”
In the end, about 70 people showed up to the screening, most of them African-American. That’s when the idea of the urban innovation roundtable was born, a local organization that would bring together policymakers, educators, investors, tech entrepreneurs and representatives from disadvantaged communities to begin implementing the different pieces of the America21 framework. A couple of months later, Green delivered the MLK keynote at the convention center, where the PDC’s Quinton, in front of an audience of 1,000 people, pledged the agency’s support. “That’s when the excitement took off,” says Green.
When Green was in the ninth grade, his mother had him take a test that would allow him to enroll in a summer math and science institute at a private school located an hour’s bus ride away. During those summers — he attended the following year as well — Green conducted chemistry experiments, surveyed and went on field trips to Exxon. “I understood from that experience that my little paradigm, my world, wasn’t even competitive with what the real world was like,” he says. “It scared me and it made me angry.”
Thirty-five years later, Green is making the personal political, seeking to transform what he describes, in typically lofty language, as “20th-century economic narratives” into awareness of and engagement with the 21st-century knowledge-based economy. That transformation, he says, will require a shift in the sociopolitical as well as economic attitudes and behaviors manifest in disadvantaged communities.
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.
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.
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.”
For his part, Langeler says he recently was appointed to the Oregon Growth Board, a new umbrella group designed to coordinate activity at the state level to promote business growth and development. The urban innovation group “should absolutely have a place at the table,” he says.
Six months after the roundtable was first proposed, funding challenges have already led a number of community leaders to suggest Green define his objectives more clearly and consider separating out the education and entrepreneurship aspects of the project to better target and attract potential donors and participants, including foundations, universities and investors.
The roundtable “is very novel and worthy of pursuit,” says Jaymes Winters, CEO of Blue Leopard Capital, Oregon’s first minority-owned private-equity fund. “But it’s a tough row to hoe if you’re expecting the investment community to invest in something that is a matter of public policy or a think tank.”
Green says he is open to different options. “The mission is so important, we cannot allow the lack of funding to undermine or restrict our progress,” he says. “Between the time we started and now, we have exploded. We are drinking from a fire hose of opportunity across the nation.”
So back in Medford, where seeing another black person “is an unusual sighting,” he is going about the business of connecting the disconnected, working with Womack and Holifield on a second Minority Gathering of Angels event this fall, this time in Silicon Valley, and hooking up Montgomery to a FundingPost.com pitching event. And when New York-based television production company Al Roker Entertainment was looking for an African-American entrepreneur and family guy to feature, Green put them in touch with Ben Berry, CEO of AirShip Technologies Group, a Lake Oswego startup developing drones for the commercial market.
Green does have a long-term plan in mind for the roundtable, one that includes a clear organizational structure — a governing board and three working groups — and a national launch party, the National Urban Innovation Conference and STEM Expo that would be held in Portland and feature thought leaders from all over the country, including the White House, Silicon Valley and Silicon Forest.
Eventually the urban innovation roundtable pilot would be replicated in cities across the country, resulting in a nation transformed. “We see an innovation nation connecting an entire community: investors, innovators, all the way down to high schools,” Green says.
If that vision comes true, America21 will be an Oregon story for the ages, about an African-American man in Medford, a white city and the 21st-century black tech revolution.
Correction: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction. Between 2002 and 2007, 1.9 million black-owned businesses produced less than one percent of the gross domestic product and 1.8 million were sole proprietors. In the original article, those figures were reversed.