Anthony Edwards Jr. grew up in Saugerties in the Catskills, one of only five Black people in town and graduated from a high school with only 10 Black students. After a stint in the Army, he earned a computer science degree at Fordham University, where he was the only Black student in his computer engineering classes.
“You know I have never had a Black teacher,” Edwards told THE CITY.
Later, as he was getting his start in the tech industry, Edwards was one of the few people of color at the companies he worked for.
Now, Edwards and his wife are building EatOkra, a tech platform they started in 2016 to support Black-owned restaurants, which have seen an infusion of interest and investment alongside the rise of racial justice movements.
Mariam Braimah was born in Brooklyn, grew up in the Rockaways and on Long Island, graduated from Harvard and moved to San Francisco because she wanted to be a tech product designer. She joined Netflix at age 24. There, she says, “there weren’t a lot of product designers who looked like me.”
In 2016, she decided that would be her last corporate job. She later founded Kimoyo Insights, which helps companies figure out the market for their products across Africa.
Edwards and Braimah are among a growing number of Black startup founders seeking to claim a stake in New York’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, which has far outpaced other sectors in terms of job growth. While the industry is more diverse than the city’s traditional finance and professional service companies, it has a long way to go before it reflects the city’s demographics as a whole.
Still, Black entrepreneurs like Edwards and Braimah are part of a wave of talent that has made New York City’s tech sector far more diverse than its urban counterparts. Black and Hispanic workers comprise some 21% of New York City’s tech sector compared to less than 10% in the Bay area and in Boston, according to a recent analysis by the Center for an Urban Future.
But, Black tech leaders here note, they still face daunting hurdles: they mostly don’t come from economic backgrounds that allow them to raise seed capital from friends and family; venture capitalists regard them with far more skepticism than their white counterparts, and many of the promises from large corporations to help minorities have gone unfulfilled.
“In the last two years there was a lot of talk about supporting Black and women founders, but the numbers have not changed much,” said SaLisa Berrien, the entrepreneur behind COI Energy, a startup that aims to help companies eliminate energy waste.
Improving those numbers will depend in part on creating a larger number of Black-owned startups. While no one knows the number of Black startups in the city, companies receiving money from the Google Black Founders Fund are concentrated in New York, Georgia and Texas, says Danny Navarro, head of U.S. marketing for Google Startups. (A year ago, THE CITY profiled four Black tech startups that received help from the Google fund as part of a look at the challenges Black-owned firms faced.)
Tinder and Okra
A significant number of Black tech entrepreneurs are focusing on Black markets.
Edwards’ EatOkra was the result of coincidental timing. He met his wife-to-be on the dating app Tinder around the time that Donald Trump was elected president.
“There was a lot of conversation about social justice, and she said to me why don’t you create an app to help black businesses,” he recalled.
The venture really got off the ground in 2018 and had seen about 3,000 downloads when George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. In June of 2020, 150,000 people downloaded the app which makes it easy to find Black-owned restaurants.
In January, Edwards left his job as a senior software engineer at a company called BuildingBlock to devote all his time to EatOkra, which now boasts 15,000 restaurants, five full-time employees and a couple of contractors.
The company recently started its first crowd-funding effort, hoping to raise $2 million to kickstart Edwards’ ultimate vision of a $100 million company that supports Black-owned restaurants by helping people plan trips to those eateries, buy food products from them and take cooking classes.
Braimah, who is of Nigerian descent, started her journey by launching a boot camp to train people in Africa to be product designers. A whopping 90% of attendees to the first two sessions have since landed full-time jobs in tech in Africa. When COVID accelerated the use of platforms rather than in-person research to collect consumer views, Braimah noticed that none of the existing platforms served the African continent.
She’s raised $325,000 so far for Kimoyo, including a $100,000 commitment from Google, and is seeking additional initial seed-round funding. She’s betting that Africa will continue to see explosive growth even as most of the West may face an economic downturn next year.
Other Black tech startup founders are drawing on their personal experiences to reach Black and POC markets.
Start It Up
Mita Carriman was working as a freelance lawyer in Brooklyn and looking for something new when her lease ended in 2017. She decided to try working remotely from abroad in Medellín, Colombia. The product of a family from the Caribbean, Carriman grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, attended private school in Manhattan, Clark University in Massachusetts and earned a law degree from Touro College.
Working remotely abroad for five years, Carriman found that while she was much more productive, she was also lonely. So she launched Adventurely, an app to connect so-called digital nomads that has so far established outposts in three cities in Mexico. She has raised $100,000 in the six months before the pandemic and now has an infusion from the Google Fund. Eventually, Carriman wants to expand to more locations, as well as to tap into the local nomad groups that have sprung on platforms like What’sApp and Telegram.
Tiffany Kelly grew up in Louisiana. A successful high school athlete, she graduated from Nova Southeast University and landed at ESPN as a data scientist, where she caught the media bug. While working there, she came up with the idea of a company that would enable content creators on platforms like YouTube and TikTok to build their businesses.
Kelly eventually settled on targeting the roughly 40,000 online sports and fitness creators there. A 2021 Supreme Court decision ruling that the NCAA violated antitrust laws opened the door to college athletes receiving endorsement deals — and provided a big boost to Kelly’s business model.
She launched Curastory in February 2021 and has already raised $3.3 million, well on the way to meeting a $5 million target.
To get there, Kelly will have to overcome the bias she often encounters when approaching venture capitalists.
“Some VCs have asked me whether we just serve Black creators,” she said. “I feel like it is always this assumption that if you are a Black founder you are only serving Black communities. It is super frustrating.”
The racial wealth gap means that many Black founders don’t just face an uphill climb in raising money from family and friends, it also means that making the startup leap changes those very dynamics.
“In the past I’ve been a pretty wealthy person in my family and the financial backstop for the family,” Kelly said. “Leaving my cushy corporate job means I don’t have the same capacity to help my family.”
The biggest hurdle remains raising capital. After a spurt in 2021 when funding for Black startups jumped to $4.3 billion from $1.2 billion in 2020, investment is slowing again with only $324 million invested in the second quarter of this year, according to Crunchbase, the lowest amount since the depth of the pandemic in 2020.
The founders interviewed for this story all say they remain skeptical that the many promises major corporations made after George Floyd’s killing will ever be fulfilled.
“Obviously people didn’t deliver on their promises,” said Berrien. “There were a lot of commitments from corporations on contracts with Black founders, and I don’t think folks have gotten to the finish line.
Google, however, insists it will persevere. In the last three years, it has given 176 Black tech founders $15 million in cash and a cache that has allowed them to raise $130 million from other sources.
“When we launched the Black Founders fund we were aware that we could not launch and let it be a flash in the pan because that’s how it would be perceived in the community,” said Navarro, the U.S. marketing lead of Google for Startups. “We knew we had to be committed for the long-term because the issues we are facing cannot be solved in a year or two years.
Others at least agree on that timeline.
“There is a lot of reason for optimism. There are more Black individuals in tech,” said Jason Myles Clark, executive director of the trade group Tech:NYC. “But there is way more than needs to be done. We are struggling to scale the help that is needed.”
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