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To say the auditorium inside Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum was full of Black excellence on Thursday would be an understatement. Black investors touted the success of several Black-owned startups and founders whose companies have experienced incredible growth over the past year in a city that boasted the wealthiest Black business district in the country 101 years ago.
Lightship Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Lightship Capital, is a Black women led organization that connects Black and women-owned founders with the corporate partnerships, mentorships and capital investment needed to scale their companies in a short period of time.
Started in 2017 in Cincinnati, CEO Candice Brackeen said Lightship Foundation is “excited to play a meaningful role in rebuilding and reimagining” Tulsa’s entrepreneur ecosystem. Through support from the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Atento Capital, Lightship planted its feet on Tulsa soil.
Brackeen’s husband, Brian Brackeen, is general partner at Lightship Capital, which invests in women and minorities across the Midwest and the South but exclusively Black founders in Tulsa.
Comparing the showcase on Thursday to a Real Housewives reunion show, Brian Brackeen led a discussion with several of Lightship’s partnering Black founders on their growth and why Tulsa is special for Black entrepreneurs.
Black founders see exponential growth through partnership with Black investors
For Chandler Malone, CEO of Bootup, Tulsa’s tech ecosystem is still somewhat of a blank canvass that he’s excited to support. Bootup connects individuals to tech training programs that help them land jobs in the lucrative industry while also offering companies a nontraditional talent pipeline. He said going through Lightship’s Bootcamp was rewarding, and the data proves it.
Since launching in July 2021, Black-owned Bootup has reached over 1,000 people, helping them to earn a combined $76 million in income. He said 50% of his users don’t have a college degree, and he’s reached individuals as young as 18 and as old as 65.
Boddle Learning founders Edna Martinson and Clarence Tan also highlighted their success on Thursday. Boddle is a gamified education platform that helps content providers such as teachers and publishers transform digital learning content into interactive and personalized experiences using 3D games and adaptive technology.
Edna told the audience on Thursday that Boddle had 50,000 registered users when she came to Tulsa in August of 2020. As of June 9, 2022, the company now boasts more than 2 million registered users across the country.
“I believe in the vision of what Tulsa is becoming,” Edna said.
Rebuilding Black-owned startups in the spirit of Black Wall Street
Many are familiar with how the city of Tulsa deputized thousands of White mobsters to burn down 36 square blocks of Historic Greenwood District in 1921, home to the original Black Wall Street. Yet, what’s often overlooked is how entrepreneurs just one generation removed from slavery, like O.W. Gurly, made a conscious choice to purchase land and sell it to other Blacks, creating an enterprising community that drew the envy of White Tulsans.
For his part, Lightship Capital investor Brian Brackeen admitted that venture capitalists aren’t always seen as the good guy. “But when you use it for good you can use it to effect positive change,” he said.
Bee Law, founder of QuirkChat, said Tulsa feels like home. Since partnering with Lightship, she’s moved to the city and recently purchased a home in north Tulsa. She’s lived in L.A. and San Francisco “and it’s never felt as close as Tulsa.” QuirkChat is a communications platform that enables underrepresented fans of anime and “geekdom” to connect with the community.
As a Black woman who loves anime, Law said those spaces can often be unwelcoming to people like her, so she created a solution to give Black women more representation in the community. Experiencing accelerated growth, Bee Law said she is excited to also be a sponsor for Black Queer Tulsa’s first ever Black Pride taking place June 10 – 12.
Other founders on the stage included Nash Ahmed, founder of Undock, and Kelsey Davis, founder of Cllctve. Undock is an innovative scheduling platform that automatically suggested meeting times based on preference and availability. Meanwhile, Cllctve is an online “creator community” that enables users to create portfolios and connect with other niche creatives.
“Tulsa is a redemption story and there’s something poetic about what’s happening here today,” Undock founder Ahmed said.
Echoing his thoughts, Cllctve founder Kelsey Davis added “the legacy of Black Wall Street presented opportunities 100 years ago in the name of freedom. They had an ecosystem. Belonging. Economy. My mission is to reignite that alongside the work that’s already happening here.”
The power and love of Black investors
For Lightship Foundation CEO Candice Brackeen, Thursday night was about more than showcasing the success of Black founders and Black-owned companies. It was validation.
“I sat behind everyone in the back right corner and I got really overwhelmed because I don’t know if people realize it takes a lot of work to raise money for something” that not everyone finds the value in immediately,” Brackeen told The Black Wall Street Times.
“And so tonight just means it’s just validation that funding Black companies matters. That we can grow an economy that way.”
Earlier that day, Candice Brackeen took her children on a tour of the Greenwood Rising Museum and Black Wall Street, where she noticed the plaques that described the businesses that used to reside there. She also noticed some plaques were defaced or missing.
“To be able to do this work in this city right now, as Brian said earlier, was humbling. We pour our souls into this work for these people. And it just matters that they succeed. That’s all that maters.”
Acknowledging that the Greenwood community continues to wait for reparative justice 101 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Candice Brackeen said there’s more to be done.
“We have a very small amount of capital that we can invest in five companies a year. And so that’s not meaningless, but it’s not meaningful enough. And so we still need to do more. But I think we’ve proven to people in the audience, and some of those folks being our founders, that this was the right decision.”
Correction: Brian Brackeen is general partner for Lightship Capital, not general counsel.