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Despite increased social acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement and incremental gains in political representation, the racial wealth gap continues to impact Black America. While the call for reparations has only grown and become more achievable in recent years, a panel of Black tech leaders in Tulsa highlighted how crucial it is for Black folks to enter the tech industry as a way to build generational wealth.
The Black Wall Street Legacy Fest is an annual event that commemorates the last three known living survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Organized by Dr. Tiffany Crutcher of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, one of the panels on Friday, May 27 focused on the underutilized opportunities that the tech industry presents.
“Black Wall Street was about two key things. It was about collaboration and wealth building,” said panelist Tyrance Billingsley, who was born and raised in Greenwood. Recently featured in Forbes, Billingsley launched Black Tech Street, an initiative that aids Black entrepreneurs in the community. It also seeks to create a tech ecosystem to support these self-starters.
Billingsley said the idea was conceived after asking the question, ‘What would Black Wall Street look like today if the 1921 Massacre had never occurred.” The city-sanctioned White mob destroyed 36 square blocks, hundreds of businesses, over 1,200 homes, and killed upwards of 300 Black men, women and children, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.
Creating generational wealth starts with the youth
The pandemic laid bare many disparities across the economy, with millions transitioning to re-skill themselves for other industries like tech in what has become known as the Great Resignation.
Notably, “the median annual wage for computer and information technology occupations was $97,430 in May 2021, which was higher than the median annual wage for all occupations of $45,760,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mikeal Vaughn is founder and executive director of the Urban Coders Guild, an organization that provides Computer Science education to children from underserved and underrepresented communities in Tulsa.
“Our youth being able to take the time now to develop talent for this workforce” is crucial to creating generational wealth, Vaughn said at Friday’s panel. He said that all of us utilize tech in some way, whether we realize it or not. But he’s interested in seeing kids become more than consumers of content on someone else’s platform. He wants them to be platform producers.
Currently an afterschool program, Vaughn said he hopes to eventually enter the schools and reach even younger kids through teaching skills such as: web development, mobile app development, game design and cybersecurity.
“When we struggle day to day to make ends meet, it narrows our choices. Being able to be in a position to make $70,000 to $200,000, I’m no longer worrying about how to eat. At that point I can think about investing assets,” he told the audience.
Generational wealth to combat Racial wealth gap
Due to centuries of racist policies, vigilante terrorism, and exploitation, the median net worth of a Black household is 10 times less than that of their White counterparts, according to the Brookings Institution. To make matters worse, a 2017 report from Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies predicts the wealth of Black and Latino communities will reach zero by 2053.
“We are clearly as Black people behind, right?” said panelist Cedric Ikpo, executive director of the Thunder Fellows program in Historic Greenwood District.
Established in 2021 from a partnership between the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team and Creative Arts Agency, Thunder Fellows addresses the racial wealth gap through teaching Tulsa’s Black high school students skills that can be utilized toward careers in the sports and entertainment industries.
Ikpo says people look up to sports leaders the most. He wants to lift up Black tech leaders and create an image that young people want to aspire to be. A data analyst or program manager represents just a couple of the jobs these kids had previously never considered.
From Black Wall Street to Black Tech Street
Ultimately, Black tech leaders on the panel spoke in the spirit of the original Black Wall Street. O.W. Gurly, one of the wealthiest Black men in the 1920s, purchased land in what is now called Greenwood. Notably, he only sold land to other Blacks, which spurred the growth of Black Wall Street and helped the dollar to remain in the Black community.
Lawrence Watkins is an investor at Atento Capital, an investment firm in Tulsa that supports entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. Speaking on the panel, he compared today’s tech surge to Henry Ford’s Model T, the first car to be produced for the average consumer in the early 1900s.
“What makes this different is the fact that internet technology is infinitely scalable,” Watkins told the audience on Friday. He said a teenager could start a business from scratch online with virtually no start-up cost, something that would’ve been impossible decades ago.
Watkins said it’s not enough to gain skills that can be used to work for someone else.
“Ownership at the forefront of innovation,” is a motto he said he holds to heart. He said owning your own assets is the truest way to establish generational wealth.
“You owning assets is what’s going to create that wealth for you long term,” he said.
Changing the narrative
Ultimately, leaders like Tyrance Billingsley are envisioning the future, with tech innovations today just as revolutionary as oil was at the beginning of the 20th century.
For Billingsley, it starts with changing the narrative of who a tech entrepreneur looks like.
“When you think of a successful tech entrepreneur, how many Black ones even come to mind? They do exist, but are they in the narrative?” he asked the audience, referring to well-known tech entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“I tell kids you can be the founder of a multibillion dollar company.”
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