How a New Generation of Black Entrepreneurs Built Atlanta’s Hot Startup Scene

Major corporations like Delta and Coca-Cola have become synonymous with Atlanta (Inc.‘s No. 18 Surge City), but it’s the southern city’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s taking its identity for a spin.

Working to Build a More Diverse Investor Scene

Serial tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Judge is perhaps the best-known black founder to emerge from Atlanta, but he’s more the exception than the rule. According to census data, the city is 52 percent black, but many venture capitalists here are white men who tend to fund companies they find relatable. Jewel Burks Solomon co-founded visual-recognition tech startup Partpic in 2013, and sold it to Amazon for an undisclosed sum in 2016. But of the $2 million she and her co-founders raised, only $25,000 of it came from local sources. Burks Solomon is part of a new generation of Atlanta’s black entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s who are succeeding, in part, because they’re finding ways around the venture capital issue–constantly traveling to secure funding from other parts of the country, often relying heavily on crowdfunding and angel investments. Says Candace Mitchell, who, after graduating from Georgia Tech with a computer science degree, founded Myavana, a digital hair care startup for people of color: “We’re trying to create this momentum where we can start having major exits or major growth in our businesses to really start shaping the ecosystem.”

Black Founders Playing the Long Game

The Gathering Spot, a private membership club in downtown Atlanta, was founded two years ago by Ryan Wilson and T.K. Petersen, who curate their membership list to foster balance between entrepreneurs from local colleges, representatives of Atlanta companies like Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A, and celebrities from the city’s entertainment industry. It caters primarily–but not exclusively–to Atlanta’s black community.

Jewel Burks Solomon (left), Candace Mitchell, and Horace Williams are part of Atlanta’s thriving black entrepreneur scene, which is grappling with how to expand funding opportunities for founders of color. As Williams, who launched political engagement tool Empowrd in 2015, put it: “It’s like the ultimate black conundrum: I want to help people, but I really want to make some money, too.”CREDIT: Lynsey Weatherspoon

How to Connect a Sprawling City

After David Cummings sold his marketing startup Pardot for $95 million in 2012, he decided to invest in filling a void in his city. Today, Cummings’s Atlanta Tech Village, a six-floor building on Piedmont Road, is a co-working space that 300-plus startups call home. It also helped birth a startup movement throughout the city’s sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, which had historically existed in isolation. Soon after ATV launched, Switchyards Downtown Club and FlatironCity arrived downtown. Then, in 2016, private club the Gathering Spot set up shop between Atlanta’s trio of historic black schools–Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta–and Georgia Tech. “By having these hubs, we have way more density of startups,” says Cummings, “and, big picture, we have a lot more success stories in the community.”

Home Depot, CNN, and … Mailchimp

Home Depot’s Arthur Blank and CNN’s Ted Turner have been the entrepreneurial faces of this city since the 1980s, largely because no one else has since made a big-enough splash. Finally, they have some heirs: Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius, the relentless (and idiosyncratic) co-founders of Mailchimp. At this for nearly 18 years, the 40-somethings are now running a $4.2 billion email marketing company of which they still own 100 percent. When Chestnut, who hails from nearby Augusta, and Kurzius, an Albuquerque transplant, founded Mailchimp following the dot-com crash, they decided to emulate larger locals like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and CNN to create a B2B tech company with consumer company flair. “This isn’t just a product, it’s not just a business,” says Chestnut. “It’s a global brand.”

Atlanta’s Best Kept Secret: Tech Talent

Georgia’s business-friendly tax credits are a lure, but the city’s best-kept secret is a rich tech-talent pool. Georgia Tech’s computer science program is world-renowned, while Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta also feature top engineering and computer science programs for people of color. It’s largely why Square, Pandora, and Opendoor all set up offices in Atlanta this year–joining Google, Twitter, Salesforce, and Facebook. It’s also why Blavity founder Morgan DeBaun, whose L.A. media company serves black Millennials, opened an Atlanta office in June. “There’s more diversity of ideas, industries, thought, and ethnicities in Atlanta,” she says. “Even if I didn’t have a black company, I would still probably put my company in a place that has diverse people. Which does not happen in San Francisco, where I lived long enough to know.”