100 years after the Tulsa race riots left hundreds of Black people scattered and the thriving entrepreneurial district of Black Wall Street burned to the ground, a new chapter is being written by those most closely connected to its legacy. Black Tech Street, founded by Tyrance Billingsley II, is part of a new global tech hub for black entrepreneurs in the city of Tulsa, carrying a heavy and hot torch.
“What could Black Wall Street have been if it had been supported and not destroyed?” asks Billingsley reporter of 3BL CSRWire. “When I thought about the tenacity it took for these entrepreneurs to build these incredible companies during Jim Crow, it really reminded me a lot of the tech industry.”
As a direct descendant of those who built the original Black Wall Street, Billingsley feels personally responsible for fulfilling this mission. But he doesn’t pick at the block alone. In partnership with innovation company SecondMuse, Black Tech Street is able to facilitate investment in black startups, encourage large tech companies to open centers in the city and hire black workers, and provide black entrepreneurs with resources to grow their businesses. Other groups working with the organization include Build in Tulsa, an accelerator network made up of ACT Tulsa, Techstars and the Lightship Foundation.
“This is a true collaboration between the city, local organizations like our regional chamber, and entrepreneurs,” says Arthur Johnson, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve never seen that kind of intent when it comes to developing not just Black-owned companies, but also developing Black tech talent.”
Build in Tulsa has one primary goal and that is to close the racial wealth gap in Tulsa and beyond. “We want to build intergenerational wealth, and the fact of the matter is that the fastest tool to increase wealth in this country is technology,” says Ashli Sims, executive director of the organization.
What we do know is that technological advances over the past 30 years have been responsible for most of the wealth creation during that time. What we also know is that Black entrepreneurs and creatives are severely excluded and underrepresented across the industry, leaving us little chance of ever sharing in that wealth. According to a 2022 report by the Kapor Center and the NAACP, while 13% of American citizens are black, only 3% of them are technology actors. But along with cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati and Birmingham, Tulsa is making efforts to change that, attracting big tech companies and investing in black entrepreneurs while boosting its own economy.
“Tulsa’s story prepares us more than any other place to have a meaningful conversation about the lack of access for black entrepreneurs and the inequality of venture capital dollars,” says Sims.
Black Tech Street and its staff not only invest in the city’s entrepreneurs, but also in their students and teachers. “Technology has become at the heart of so many different industries, and it’s only going to accelerate,” says Johnson. “Skills are shifting, so you don’t necessarily need a four-year computer science degree, but you do need some level of technical know-how, and that education needs to start early.”
This year saw the partnership between HP and the Digital Promise organization, the HP Teaching Fellows Program, which aims to help North Tulsa educators use technology in innovative ways.
For Tulsa and Black Wall Street’s legacy, all roads lead to gold, or at least accessible capital for black entrepreneurs.
“We’re transforming the notion of what a tech entrepreneur looks like and who can be successful in tech,” says Billingsley. “You have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I am what a tech CEO looks like,’ or ‘I am what the founder of a billion-dollar company might look like.”