4 cities show how to boost Black entrepreneurship and help close the racial wealth gap


Fashion photographer Nikki Gomez was born and raised in New York City. But in November, on a tip from a friend, she joined Tulsa Remote, a one-year program that gives eligible workers a $10,000 grant if they relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I was like, why not?" Gomez said. "I'm sure I can make a living in Tulsa doing what I do." 

Gomez, 43, now spends her days on the streets of Tulsa, camera in hand, working with models in front of vibrant red walls or capturing customers in the essence of their everyday lives.

Moving to Tulsa has given her room to grow as an entrepreneur, she said, and she's already thought of three additional business endeavors that would work in the city.  

"For a long time, the narrative was, if you wanted to do anything in your career or your life, you need to be on either coast — LA or New York," she said. "Tulsa is a place where dreams come true. All of the things that I would think I wanted that I couldn't really grasp in New York, I'm able to attain here and really thrive." 

In three years, the Tulsa Remote program has drawn about 500 workers to the city, whose history is steeped in Black entrepreneurship. (The program doesn't collect information on race or ethnicity.)

Once home to Black Wall Street — a thriving, self-sufficient Black community in the time of Jim Crow laws, before a white mob burned it to the ground 100 years ago — Tulsa has become one of several case studies in how America can better support its Black-owned businesses. 

Small businesses make up 99% of American companies and employ nearly half of the country's workforce.

But of the 2 million Black-owned businesses in America, fewer than 125,000 employ any workers at all, Fundera found, which means they're almost entirely "solopreneurs." And professor Robert W. Fairlie found that 41% of Black-owned businesses shuttered in the first two months of COVID-19, compared to 17% of white-owned businesses.

A Federal Reserve survey found that white-owned small businesses were twice as likely to be fully approved for financing as Black- and Latino-owned businesses last year. Of those who applied for the the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, minority-owned businesses struggled more than white business owners. 

Building Black wealth is crucial to solving racial inequality, and research shows that entrepreneurship is a powerful tool in doing so. The Federal Reserve found in 2019 that families with a self-employed breadwinner had a net worth more than four times that of families headed by someone employed by another company. White families are more likely to have equity in a private business than Black families — 16.9% versus just 4.8%.

Insider's reporting suggests there are four key levers local governments can pull on to transform Black entrepreneurship from a grassroots effort into a national priority. Those levers are providing fast, affordable internet access; strengthening forms of community support; awarding more government contracts; and decreasing the cost of living. These priorities have never been more urgent for small-business owners, and Black owners in particular.

There are four US cities creating a blueprint for the rest of the country on how to address the most pressing issues: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Here's how they're doing it. 

Internet access: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga
Drone Trekkers / Shutterstock

Panic coursed through Felicia Jackson's body. She sat in her makeshift office in Austin, Texas, desperately trying to connect her computer to the wireless printer so she could fill an order for Walmart — a game-changing customer for her first-aid startup CPR Wrap, which sells tools that help perform CPR. 

She didn't have the time — or the money — to waste on a slow internet connection. 

"You want to put your best foot forward," said Jackson, who had temporarily relocated to Austin to participate in the accelerator program Techstars. "It has to go perfect so they can see you, see what you are compatible with, so you can get that business and grow. If we don't grow, then our community doesn't grow." 

Felicia Jackson, founder of CPR Wrap
Felicia Jackson is the founder of CPR Wrap.
Courtesy of CPR Wrap

Nine hundred and thirty miles away, in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she had founded her business five years prior, Jackson was used to the benefit of a crucial 21st-century public resource: affordable, fast, reliable fiber-optic internet service.

Before Chattanooga introduced broadband nearly a decade ago, it was becoming another postindustrial town losing its appeal. Its comeback, in part through accessible internet, has reinforced how important a city or town's resources are for entrepreneurs — and Black business owners especially, as the US ethnic group is the most likely to start businesses but the least likely to stay afloat.

They are increasingly bucking the brick-and-mortar model and are more likely than any other groups to have online-only businesses. A survey by GoDaddy Venture Forward found 72% of Black business owners reported that having a business website helped them during COVID-19.

"I grew up in a low-income community as a child," Jackson said, adding that some of those families don't have access to reliable internet.

Chattanooga was the first city in the US to reach gigabit speeds citywide, providing an example of how a municipally owned fiber-optic network has bolstered its economy and business community. A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga study found that the fiber-optic network had helped create and retain 40% of all jobs in Hamilton County since it was deployed, and had helped create $244 million in equity and crowdfunding for entrepreneurs.

Marcus Shaw, CEO of CO.LAB
Marcus Shaw is the CEO of CO.LAB
Courtesy of CO.LAB

Marcus Shaw, CEO of CO.LAB, a nonprofit startup accelerator in downtown Chattanooga, said EPB's fiber network provided a reliable and affordable resource for Black entrepreneurs who otherwise may not have had the resources to weather the pandemic. 

"Two hundred years ago, you wanted to build your city on a river because that enabled commerce," he said. "Today that natural resource is broadband." And, he adds, being municipally owned means there's no redlining neighborhoods from access.

Jackson felt that urgency firsthand in Austin. Now back in Tennessee, she no longer has to worry about calls being dropped, and can depend on reliable television service to entertain her patrons as they come to her office. And to Shaw, basic access is crucial for maintaining a sense of dignity in the work of running a business.

"Black folks, white folks, and everybody in between — communities need to be unapologetically supportive of underserved businesses," he said. "We don't need to be fearful or embarrassed, or self-conscious about the fact that we are saying we want to support Black-owned businesses."

Now we're seeing the conversation reach the national level. In April, President Biden proposed $100 billion to fund affordable broadband internet access for all Americans, as part of his larger infrustructure plan.  

Community success: Atlanta, Georgia  

Atlanta, Georgia
Tetra Images/Getty Images

Jay Bailey does not want the startup accelerator he runs in Atlanta to be "a unicorn shop." 

"I've got a T-shirt that says, 'Exit is not my strategy,'" he said. 

Instead, his aim is to see more businesses generating six-figure revenues in Atlanta, creating jobs, and keeping their success in the community, rather than moving away when they make it big.

Venture funding for Atlanta startups reached a five-year high, putting the city on the short list for Silicon Valley rivals. It's also home to Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Delta.

Jay Bailey, president and CEO of The HJ Russell Center
Jay Bailey at the 2018 Hosea's Heroes Awards in Atlanta, Georgia.
Paras Griffin/Getty

"This is ground zero for Black entrepreneurs," said Bruce Berger, a professor at Clark Atlanta University and director of its Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development. "We have the universities here that are historically Black universities."

But it has more to offer than billion-dollar valuations. The Metro Atlanta Chamber found that 6.2% of employer firms in the 29-county metro Atlanta region were Black-owned. 

"Small businesses, make no mistake, run our economy," said Bailey, president and CEO of The H.J. Russell Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. "We may be searching for the next billion-dollar company and passing over a thousand $2 million companies that will create thousands of jobs in the community."

The center was named in honor of Herman J. Russell, who founded the real-estate developer H.J. Russell & Company in 1952 and built its headquarters down the street from three HBCUs — CAU, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. Bailey credits Russell with inspiring new generations of Black entrepreneurs.

"H.J. Russell is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs this city has ever produced," Bailey said. "Those students in real time could see the physical manifestation of what was possible for people that look like him."

Bailey wants to carry that legacy forward so that younger Black entrepreneurs can, in turn, make money, hire staff, and help Atlanta's Black business community thrive. For many young founders, this starts with startup money. The Russell Center helps founders understand the type of funding that's right for their company and what they need to get it, such as writing a business plan to get a bank loan. 

"If I've got a relationship with Chase, a venture fund, an angel investor , or CDFI, I know their underwriting criteria. I know their investment platform," Bailey said. "I know all 15 things that they need. Not only is that access, but it also is self-esteem and self-confidence built in that company because now they're going prepared." 

Government contracts: New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans, Louisiana - Famous Decatur St French Quarter New Orleans USA.
Education Images/Getty

Government contracts are the holy grail for many small-business owners. They tend to be a long-term, reliable source of income, amounting to $132.9 billion a year nationally. That is, if you can land them. The city of New Orleans is working to make them more attainable to Black business owners.

"Government contracts tend to go toward incumbents, companies that have won them before, or have some kind of long, established track record with the government," said Victor Hwang, the founder of Right to Start, a nonprofit supporting policies and initiatives that make entrepreneurship more accessible.

Cleveland Spears, president and CEO of Spears Group.
Cleveland Spears is the president and CEO of Spears Group.
Courtesy of Spears Group

A recent McKinsey report found that Black-owned businesses procure available government contracts less often than white-owned businesses, both in the number of jobs and dollar value. The Minority Business Development Agency reported that barriers can contribute to this disparity, such as networking and last-minute requests for bids. 

Hwang wrote in a recent article for Inc. that granting just 5% of government contracts to small businesses — a core piece of the Right to Start campaign — would contribute to economic recovery in communities across the country. 

Getting this money to small businesses is one hurdle; making sure local and federal funds are set aside for Black-owned and minority businesses is another. Kim Folsom, the founder and CEO of Founders First Capital Partners, said she has yet to see an effective model in the US.

Funding may help a business grow, but a government contract provides the customers and partners needed to sustain that growth, she said.

New Orleans' Regional Transit Authority has pledged a minimum of 31% of its federally funded contracts to local, certified minority-owned businesses, which are also called disadvantaged business enterprises. This was in response to a lack of government contracts granted to Black business owners, despite the city's high Black population, a Brookings report found. 

"That 31% goal is just an acknowledgment we need to be assertive and do everything we can to make sure that all firms, and in particular DBEs, have the ability to compete for work," Alex Wiggins, CEO of RTA, said. "We really want to share the wealth essentially across the board."

Ideally, he'd like to see small firms start out on small contracts and grow their capacity and staff over time to eventually bid on larger projects as they become bigger companies.

One of the companies that landed work with the RTA is Spears Group, a communications firm founded by Cleveland Spears. He said it's also important for private companies to provide more viable opportunities for women and people of color. "Ultimately, it makes that company more competitive because we get a broader and more diverse slate of people to work with," Spears said. 

Cost of living: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa
Sean Pavone/Getty Images

In 2018, Tulsa launched Tulsa Remote, and to date 90% of the 500 sponsored members are staying beyond their yearlong commitment, a spokesperson told Insider. A key part of the value proposition is Tulsa's affordable cost of living: Median rent on a one-bedroom is $546, compared to $2,475 in Gomez's home city of New York.

"The quality of life is also just that much better," Gomez said.

After all, it takes money to make money. And if people struggle to afford rent, they're less likely to start businesses.

Nikki Gomez, photographer
Nikki Gomez is a fashion photographer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Josh New

A report by the Kauffman Foundation found that people with a higher household net worth tend to land more funding. When you factor in a nationwide wealth gap, Black entrepreneurs are less likely to have friends and family with money to lend or invest to start a business. The average entrepreneur takes $23,000 from family and friends. 

"The ability to take some time off to start a business is really impossible for many people because when you start a business, at least in the beginning, you're losing money," said Hwang. "The playing field is tilted against people who don't have the ability to take that risk." 

When someone has a stable income and growing network, it gives them better odds to start a business. "It's not just the cash that people find most valuable," Hwang said. "It's actually the network they put you into. They give you a space at a coworking space, so you're actually embedded into the entrepreneurial community right away."

The 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre is May 31, and Black entrepreneurs have since come together to rebuild the district that was violently taken from them. There's Fulton Street Books, a bookstore and café seeking to provide space for marginalized communities. There's also the Black Wall Street Gallery, founded by Tulsa native Dr. Ricco Wright, which seeks to preserve Black history. 

Venita Cooper, whose streetwear-inspired art gallery Silhouette Sneakers & Art is also on Black Wall Street, isn't part of Tulsa Remote, but she said the city offers other programs that have helped get her company off the ground. "The access in Tulsa is just mind-blowing," she said.

She was able to take part in the Tulsa startup series and pitch her business idea for grant money. She took classes at Tulsa Economic Development Corporation and also went through the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Black upStart, a program that allows emerging entrepreneurs to take classes and refine their business pitches.  

Honest conversations are essential for any city to improve economic growth and development, Bailey said. "Without the courage to have a conversation about race, then we're being intellectually disingenuous in our approach," he said.

"I want Black Wall Street to be bigger," Cooper said. "It used to be 40 blocks of booming economics and culture all driven by Black entrepreneurs, creators, artists." And though she conceded Tulsa still has work to do, she remained optimistic.

She said, "I certainly think progress has been made."