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Johnnie Turnage: Detroit Could Be America’s Premier Black Tech Ecosystem

My name is Johnnie Turnage. Less than a year ago, I founded Black Tech Saturdays with my wife Alexa, and the results have been out of this world!

We grew from five people in a coffee shop to over 6,000 Detroiters, Michiganders, and visitors from all over the world. We’ve supported founders as they worked to gain traction, revenue, and capital faster than ever. We’ve also supported over a hundred people in their quest to get jobs, and we’ve witnessed more of our community find pathways into the tech industry, as entrepreneurs, as talent, and as true contributors. It’s rare to see your efforts create so much impact in such a short time, especially when there are huge gaps in resources, but where there is true community, there is an opportunity to make a big impact.

Detroit is the city of innovation. It’s the original Silicon Valley; there is no place more innovative, creative, and resilient than Detroit. We make a way out of no way, and because of that very spirit, we have watched our tech ecosystem come alive in ways that has never been experienced by Black tech founders and professionals.

Because of the traction, momentum, and excitement around Black Tech Saturdays, we were invited to the world’s largest tech conference, South by Southwest (SXSW). SXSW began in Austin, Texas, as a small group and has grown to be a two-week event often seeing north of 350,000 attendees.

For my wife Alexa and me, this was a humbling and life-altering experience. We took the national stage this week with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and talked about what it means to be “Building America’s Premiere Black Tech Ecosystem.”

So, I’m sure we all have to ask the question:

What does it mean to be building America’s Premiere “Black Tech Ecosystem”?

Well, to me, it’s a bold declaration and call to action to leverage technology and innovation and to create a level playing field that’s never been seen before.

The purpose of technology is to meet a human need or solve a human problem. Very successful tech companies solve problems. To be America’s premiere Black tech ecosystem, you have to solve problems for Black tech founders, Black tech talent, and remove barriers for the Black community to not only enter tech, but to thrive in it.

So why technology? Tech is one of the fastest ways to generate wealth. By having America’s premiere Black tech ecosystem, we are opening the doors for wealth creation and closing the racial wealth gap. What’s good for the Black tech ecosystem will be great for Michigan’s tech ecosystem.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” 

~Franklin D. Roosevelt

In the months leading up to South by Southwest, I spent time deeply reflecting on that upcoming conversation. “To whom much is given…much is required.” I knew once we hit that stage, we couldn’t just talk about it, we had to embody it!

To make such a bold declaration, at times like these…

Today, we stand just on the other side of a Texas judge siding AGAINST an agency with 55 years under their belts and a proven track record of closing the gap for underrepresented communities.

We live in a world where The Fearless Fund is in the middle of one of the biggest assaults against entrepreneurship and economic freedom for women and people of color. Women entrepreneurs only receive 2% of venture capital dollars, and the stats decrease for Black women. Did you know that the founder of the Fearless Fund is a Black woman from Detroit? Not many people do.

Generative AI is already here and rapidly advancing. Its potential to widen the racial economic gap in the United States by $43 billion each year is a pressing concern.

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize address, 1964

Michigan is on a path to becoming a major tech hub. As it progresses, it’s drawing people from around the globe. I dare to dream that we will address the challenges affecting ALL people and enhance their quality of life.

I’m a big believer in ambitious goals; you can’t get far without reaching far. This is a monumental opportunity with an upside that could impact generations. I’m not crazy enough to think I can do it alone. But, I am hopeful enough to believe that a lot of us working together can move the needle.

I learned a long time ago, if you want to change the world, you have to first change yourself. If we want to become the next great tech hub. We have to first hold up a mirror and look at what we need to improve.

In my opinion, in order for Detroit to be the premier Black tech ecosystem, we need to:

  • Flip the numbers on its head. Two-thirds of Detroiters make less than $50k
  • Increase the number of Black-owned businesses; with much higher annual reoccurring revenue
  • Increase the number of active and early pre-seed investors, and patient capital
  • Increase the amount of culturally competent support
  • Foster an environment where business creation, growth, and sustainability are all a part of the success metrics
  • Meet every idea with a process of how we support it
  • Regard “entrepreneurship” as a protected civil right
  • Remove the hurdles that Black and all underrepresented communities have when trying to break into the tech industry
  • Encourage our home-built and grown tech companies to lead the charge on diverse teams and access
  • Create policy that fosters innovation and ecosystem building
  • Create a sense of pride in the ecosystem of Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Community abroad
  • Increase the pipelines to contracts.
  • Greater access to deal flow and wealth-building opportunities
  • Establish a destination for tech innovation, research, and implementation
  • Create pipelines for job creation and upskilling
  • Create pathways for the next generation of talent to see themselves in the future

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I am afraid of the results if we don’t do something drastically different really soon. The gaps we see in wealth and digital equity will only get wider if we don’t take this moment to turn the tables. It’s only going to keep getting worse for my community — the community where I live and work; the community where the many people who I care about live and work; the community that belongs to the many people who call this place HOME. The Detroit community.

It’s 2024; when I dreamed of the future as a kid, I kind of thought that by now we would have all this cool technology that would mean people wouldn’t have to suffer. Even though we don’t have that now, I feel like we can still reach that dream if we all work together.

But in order to achieve this dream, we need ALL the problem solvers, the good-hearted people, the great ideas, the politicians, the business leaders, the foundation leaders, and the leaders of our communities to step in and step up! If we do this, we can all get FURTHER…FASTER…TOGETHER!

#BlackTechSaturdays started in Detroit, and everything we are learning, we want to share with tech ecosystems across the world. We have an opportunity and yes #TOGETHERWECAN change the narrative for the future.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t do it alone. Detroit is nearly 80% Black and for years has held the spot for the “BLACKEST CITY IN AMERICA”

The culture of Detroit, shaping what tech looks like here — it’s a culture of community, grit, hustle, and impact.

Our best bet is to bet on our people to do extraordinary things. Investing in the people and rooting for them to win is what makes a thriving tech ecosystem. Our team can’t win unless everybody is winning. We have all the power to make that happen.

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