When Target acquired Birmingham’s same-day delivery platform Shipt in 2017, the exit set off a lot of positives and gave local entrepreneurs in the region hope for similar success.
Birmingham’s tech ecosystem has been on the rise for the past few years, with some specific educational initiatives and funding opportunities pushing the community forward. But with all of this advancement in a rapidly growing sector, are Black founders and technologists in the area being served and given the same opportunities as everyone else?
TechBirmingham, an 18-year-old association, is on a mission to make Birmingham the most robust and inclusive technology hub in the southeast. Deon Gordon, president and CEO of TechBirmingham, said the organization is working to do this in three ways: promoting Birmingham as an emerging tech hub, growing the ecosystem by bringing in tech companies and talent from outside of the region and by providing that “connective tissue” for different tech programs and initiatives.
“[The organization was created] to really serve as the voice of the technology ecosystem here in greater Birmingham,” Gordon said.
The association’s work really ramped up in 2018, according to Gordon, when a ton of synergy and positive momentum in the tech ecosystem began to happen. In April of that year, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin convened a group of regional leaders in economic development, education and business to meet with Apple executives in Chicago. The Birmingham Can Code month-long summer bootcamp program was born out of this conversation. This initiative is led by the City of Birmingham in conjunction with Birmingham City Schools and Lawson State Community College and welcomes grade school students to learn about different coding topics. TechBirmigham raised close to $100,000 from local private sector entities to support the new program and get it started over a two-month period.
“I think Apple was impressed with the speed with which we operated and the impact,” he said. “I think that opened the door for further conversations.”
Innovate Birmingham, a grant-funded tech training program, was also created to amp up and sustain the city’s tech talent pipeline. This program was created during the Obama administration as a response to projections showing a significant increase in the amount of tech jobs in the Birmingham region.
“While that was a good thing it also highlighted a problem which was that we were not producing enough tech talent to take advantage of those tech jobs that would be opening.”
Some of those jobs include in-demand information technology positions like help desk personnel, data analysts and front and backend website developers.
A big win that came out of Birmingham’s tech ecosystem was when Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour visited the region in May 2018. This initiative supports emerging startups and tech communities outside of major hubs such as San Francisco and New York. Women-owned Mixtroz secured $100,000 in funding at the pitch event that took place at the conclusion of Rise of the Rest’s visit. The company –– launched by mother-daughter duo Kerry Schrader and Ashlee Ammons –– developed an app focused on making business networking experiences more productive and valuable.
Gordon said Birmingham’s tech ecosystem has been able to thrive because of other programs like TechAlabama, a nonprofit organization promoting residents to pursue STEM careers, and Bronze Valley, an accelerator program for growing startups in Birmingham.
“More of what we’re doing,” Gordon said about what needs to be improved in Birmingham’s tech ecosystem. “We need to double down and continue to do those things that put Birmingham on the radar.”
Another organization that’s heavily involved in building up Birmingham’s tech ecosystem is Ed Farm, a nonprofit that equips educators with innovative tech tools and strategies to cultivate more active learning for students. The idea for Ed Farm was birthed during that trip to Chicago that had such a big impact on the city’s tech community. The nonprofit receives hardware, software, funding and professional learning support from the tech giant and also teaches educators and community members how to use Swift, a general-use programming language developed by Apple.
“21st Century technology is where the workforce is going, it is my belief that everyone needs to know how to code or have digital skills and be digitally fluent in the workplace,” said Waymond Jackson, Ed Farm’s CEO.
The nonprofit was founded in February of this year. Gordon, who is an advisor to Ed Farm, describes the organization as a “transformative idea.”
“Entrepreneurship has to be what really drives our future economic development [and] the future growth of our community” Gordon said.
One thing Ed Farm is focusing on is addressing how to build a better skilled workforce to supply startups with the employees that they need. Similar to what Gordon spoke on, Jackson said his nonprofit is promoting more home-grown tech employees in Birmingham. The minority founder community has even come up with its own solution to address this with the creation of the Black Techies meetup group.
The community is really starting to galvanize around one, what was missing in the ecosystem, which was a lot, and then now, [being] more focused on what’s missing in our community for founders of color,” he said.
Black Girls Ventures –– which recently started a chapter in Birmingham–– Bronze Valley and the Ed Farm accelerator are a few initiatives Jackson named that are focused on increasing capital for Black founders.
Although Ed Farm is a major tech resource in Birmingham, the nonprofit is still a startup itself. Jackson said the organization’s path was “unique” because of the level of corporate support from the city and Apple ahead of its launch. He’s hoping this level of support will increase for founders of color in Birmingham.
Above all, Jackson and Gordon both attested to the fact that Birmingham doesn’t just have it’s own tech ecosystem, but the community runs all throughout Alabama. Initiatives like TechBirmingham and Ed Farm are making sure Birmingham’s tech ecosystem doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Whatever you think about the south or whatever you think about Alabama, you gotta come to Birmingham to see what is going on,” Gordon said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to increase opportunities that allow all people to learn, to take risks, and to own their success. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect at www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.