Black Tech Saturdays Bridge the Racial Wealth Gap

    Black Tech Saturdays are building a community seeking to help close the racial wealth gap by opening doors for innovators

    Alexa and Johnnie Turnage are helping Underrepresented entrepreneurs break into the tech world.

    With a global value of around $5 trillion, the tech industry is widely viewed as the 21st century’s gold rush territory—but if that’s the case, Black Americans aren’t sharing equally in the riches.

    Though they comprise 13% of the American workforce, Black Americans account for just 8% of tech employees—a disparity that is only expected to grow. Last year’s McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility report forecast that while tech jobs will increase by 14% over the next seven years, the number of Black Americans in tech will grow by only 8%.

    Moreover, reporting from business insights database Crunchbase indicates that investment in Black-founded companies is disproportionately declining at a rate nearly twice that of the broader venture capital market. That widening gap means Black households could lose out on more than $350 billion in tech earnings by the end of the decade, the McKinsey report added, and missing out on those earnings will be catastrophic to efforts to close the generational wealth gap.

     “We want to see those numbers change and increase so it’s inclusive and equitable to Black and brown founders,” says Alexa Turnage. With her husband, Johnnie, she is the co-founder of Black Tech Saturdays (BTS), a fast-growing Detroit-based movement aiming to open doors of opportunity for startups and to accelerate innovation and investment for Black Americans interested in technology.

    “Black and Brown [tech] founders . . . need lower barriers of entry.”

    Johnnie Turnage

    Launched last year with a handful of participants, the networking and learning events have since drawn thousands of attendees and is now expanding to similar groups in other emerging tech hubs like Baltimore. “Black and brown [tech] founders, whether they be in Detroit, in Baltimore, in cities around the country, need lower barriers of entry to just figure out the stuff,” Johnnie tells WayMaker Journal.

    For him, the Black Tech Saturdays events are ultimately about access—“whether it be access to capital, access to relationships, access to opportunities.” Too many people feel excluded when they hear words like “tech,” “innovation,” and “entrepreneurship,” he says, because they have never experienced it.

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    Innovating Together

    In 2021, the Knight Foundation found that white men manage 98.6% of the $82.24 trillion managed by the U.S. asset management industry, of which venture capital is a subset, leading to overconfidence of white male managers and lower investment in Black founders.

    As Johnnie has learned, “Early capital is important. And if you’re an entrepreneur of color and you want to have investors who look like you, who come from your background, you’re not going to get that early capital, that early check, or even have people who are in a certain space who can validate you.” 

    A critical component for Black Tech Saturdays has been continuing to build up support for founders.  “It’s humbling to know that these communities need us and they want an activation where tech founders and entrepreneurs can come learn and grow and innovate together,” says Alexa.

    Among those who have welcomed the Black Tech Saturdays effort is Luke Cooper, founding general partner and managing director of Latimer Ventures, one of the few emerging African American-owned venture capital firms in the United States (others include Union Heritage in Detroit, 100KM Ventures in Washington, D.C., and Collab Capital in Atlanta).

    The significance of these firms’ entrance into venture capital goes beyond the investments they make in individual companies. It marks a trend of successful Black professionals transitioning from angel investing to venture capital, with a goal of filling the widening disparity of investment in Black entrepreneurs.

    Cooper, who helped bring the Black Tech Saturdays community to Baltimore last December, says it has been “tremendously successful in creating the right environment for Black tech founders and basically all founders to voice their needs, learn about new avenues of entrepreneurial success and share in the joy of being accepted as their most authentic selves.

     “BTS is making a place that is genuinely accessible and welcoming to all.” 

    U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves visited a Black Tech Saturdays gathering recently during a visit to Detroit to learn more about the city’s Black tech community. He told the Michigan Chronicle that the Turnages’ effort to “help create opportunities and pathways for entrepreneurs who haven’t had that in the past is fantastic. It’s exactly the thing that we need to replicate around the country.”

    Tech founders and entrepreneurs can come learn and grow and innovate together

    Alexa Turnage

    Building community

    Whether it’s in Detroit, Baltimore or other majority-Black communities like Atlanta, Johnnie stresses the importance of “building the entire ecosystem up of diverse investors, diverse support systems, diverse coaches and mentors—and more entrepreneurs who’ve been through the journey and understand it.”

    Johnnie tells Waymaker Journal that many [high performers] are “hidden in corporate America, or they’re hidden at home.” He notes that “they’re really talented; they’ve got a lot of skills. They just don’t know who to go talk to.”

    Shalanda Armstrong, 100KM Ventures General Partner, is one example of pivoting from a career in corporate America to professional investing. “As an angel investor, I first saw the economic potential provided by entrepreneurship and how essential it is for Black Americans to close the wealth gap,” she says. 

     “Now as a fund manager, there is an opportunity to leverage my experience as an operator at multiple Fortune 500 companies in supporting high-potential entrepreneurs who are creating sustainable, scalable technology companies.”

    While “tech” is in the name, BTS is a community that extends beyond those with experience or current involvement in the tech and entrepreneurial world. The value to its participants results from the learnings of attendees’ diverse expertise and experience.

    It was a surprise to some Black Tech Saturdays participants that, similar to a professional venture capitalist like Cooper and Armstrong, aspiring angel investors can invest in these same companies and build an angel investment portfolio in the same kind of way they may have built a real estate portfolio. “I’ve met more individuals who are interested or curious about becoming angel investors,” says Johnnie.

    While real estate has been a primary path to generating wealth for many Black Americans, through their increasing exposure to technology companies, more BTS participants have begun learning about the process of investing in these types of companies, and are following more formal pathways to become angel investors.  

    Alexa agrees when Johnnie says that the hardest part for Black and brown entrepreneurs, “really all underrepresented entrepreneurs, is that unless you have good examples in front of you, you don’t know all the stuff you don’t know.”

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    Change agents

    The Turnages bring diverse experiences to Black Tech Saturdays. Beginning at the age of 12 Johnnie was a voter registration volunteer, and with his tech skills, later became “the young guy playing with the tools and figuring out how to make them work for people, especially in under-resourced situations.”

    Early in his professional career, he was a full-time organizer with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. The more he learned about tech, the more he saw it as “a pathway to change.” George Floyd’s killing in 2020 stirred in him the sense he needed to do more, so he and Alexa co-founded EvenScore, a platform aiming to facilitate small-dollar donations to candidates and causes.

    As for Alexa, she grew up watching her parents run one of Michigan’s most successful Black-owned real estate offices for more than 20 years. “I learned so much from being in that environment every day and just picking up on little things here and there,” she says. She earned her real estate license at 18, graduated from Oral Roberts University with a degree in theology, and worked for Delta Airlines for six years.

    Through Black-Tech-Saturdays the Turnages want to provide a pathway and a place for people to discover new talents and skills while building community. With the crossover of technology and innovation into attendees’ existing careers, participants are beginning to think differently about entrepreneurship and wealth creation.

    Ultimately, the Turnages see entrepreneurship as a parallel to civil rights. Too often, success “has less to do with the entrepreneur and more to do with the support systems and what those support systems look like,” says Johnnie.

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