All too often, the Midwest is overlooked when it comes to conversations about innovations in tech. If the West coast locals of Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Portland don’t first come to mind, then the East coast hustle and bustle of New York, Boston, or Washington DC are often up next.
However, the traditional home of America’s blue collar-heavy industries seems to be shaking off the old rust belt image. As the coastal cities reach their saturation point, tech firms and venture capital are looking for new ideas, applications, and talent. While there is no shortage of recent articles highlighting the rise of Midwestern cities in the tech space, the recently held AfroTech Detroit placed a much finer point on this growing trend.
Started in 2016 by the black-owned media site Blavity Inc., AfroTech has been at the nexus of conversations concerned with not only the new waves in tech but furthering the conversation of diversity within the tech industry. When 75 percent of the technical jobs are held by men and 95 percent of the industry workforce is white (Forbes.com), it’s hard to think of a more relevant discussion that needs to be had. Given the ubiquity of technology in modern life and business, this is a glaring problem that will lead to further inequities.
For the first time since its inception, the largest black tech conference left the tech Mecca of the Bay area and brought that conversation to Detroit. In partnership with many of the companies leading the city’s economic resurgence, AfroTech Detroit brought together nearly 400 of the regions black techies, entrepreneurs, students, and even bureaucrats.
Highlighting Detroit’s vibrant tech community, the day featured panelists and speakers who were CEOs, developers, and business founders to not only share their personal success stories, but also to speak about the challenges of navigating the industry. However, like most conferences, the real value came from the individual networking and personal conversations.
While the focus was mainly on the Detroit scene, there was a strong West Michigan/Grand Rapids contingent of city employees and entrepreneurs present throughout the conference. Naturally, thoughts and conversations turned on ways to bring back some of the ideas and energy of that event to our local spheres of influence.
An obvious takeaway was the emphasis on economic growth and opportunity through the leveraging of technological innovations. It was no coincidence that the main underwriters of the event, such as Quicken Loans, Venture Catalysts, TechTown Detroit, and even Google are also some of the same companies leading the economic revitalization of Detroit. These companies have seen success in Detroit and the region by merging the innovation inherent to the tech world with the Midwest sensibility of building an economy on practical services and products.
To that point, there was discussion on not only what hot apps or digital platforms had been developed, but how these technical advancements could be applied to our local context. Whether it be furniture manufacturing, beer brewing, or health care services; the feeling was that these were tools that could be used to further grow traditional industries as well as launch new ventures.
For those who come from historically disadvantaged communities, this takes on a special kind of significance. While many of the panelists and conversations addressed the leveraging of technology in entrepreneurship, businesses, and governance, there was a significant focus on not merely being consumers of tech, but also producers.
This is something that is often overlooked. More than becoming adept at using new technology or applying it to new scenarios, it was noted that the lack of diversity also existed amongst creators of tech. Given the growth of the sector and the overall job security it provides, this is an oversight that cannot persist.
For Grand Rapids, a city regularly and rightly maligned for its lack of economic opportunity for African Americans, these are things that cannot be ignored by policy makers and industry leaders. On the one hand, using technology to further grow economic opportunity in all industries — especially with entrepreneurs — should be standard operating procedure. Additionally, educating our workforce — especially our future workforce — to not only be prepared to participate in the new digital economy, but to be leaders in innovation in that economy, is a must.
These are mutually reinforcing propositions that would ensure the City’s upward trajectory.
Still, it must be noted that the event is called AfroTech for a reason. The same reason that they decided to have their first out-of-town event in Detroit. Because when it comes to those that are left behind, it is often in the same communities time and time again. For Grand Rapids, a city that beat the odds of the Great Recession and came out the other side renewed, this means that the same level of commitment and investment must come from public and private entities when addressing inequities.
There are community initiatives, companies, and individuals doing this work right now. They must be funded and championed not just as an aspect of the work that the City, school system, or industry does, but they must be in the DNA of how business is done here.
Conversations around equity inevitably reveal hard truths about what we, as a society, really value, and over the past few years, these conversations have almost reached the point of being scripted. However, if there is one thing known about Grand Rapids, it’s that it will find a way to not only survive, but thrive. 10 to 15 years ago, who would have guessed that breweries would be one of the main selling points for this town, or that conversations around mobility would go beyond parking to include a vibrant biking culture? These changes in perspective came about because serious leaders decided to push the issue, challenge themselves, and hold each other accountable.
That is what is needed in this space. Tech is one industry and just one tool, but it must be viewed and applied with the same commitment. Creating a world-class city that is inclusive of everyone.
Photos courtesy of Kyama Kitavi.