On the 7th floor of Atlanta's historic Biltmore Hotel, high above the Bird and Lime e-scooters below, Paul Judge stands by a window. He points toward nearly every building within a few-block radius. "Five years ago, these spaces were all dirt," he says.

Now, they're full of startups--and Judge, a serial entrepreneur who's been on the tech scene for 21 years, is responsible for much of that growth. The cybersecurity firm he co-founded in 2011, Pindrop, occupies office space on three floors of the Biltmore. Judge's early stage venture capital firm, TechSquare Labs, is a five-minute walk away--and as he passes by, a man leans out the front door. "Hey, Paul!"

Judge is practically a celebrity in Atlanta's entrepreneur world, partly because he's the most accomplished black tech founder in the city. The 41-year-old Baton Rouge native moved here in 1995 to attend Morehouse College, and never left. After a few successful startups, he started using his capital to help other Atlanta-based entrepreneurs get off the ground. Now, a new generation of young and ambitious black founders are working to craft their own versions of his career path.

Atlanta has a 52 percent black population, according to census data, and it's brimming with entrepreneurs who benefit from what Judge describes as the "three Cs"--colleges, corporations, and culture. Atlanta's schools--including Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and black universities like Morehouse College and Spelman College--are churning out talented black developers and engineers. Pair that with the city's thriving black culture--from actors and musicians like Tyler Perry, Donald Glover, and Outkast to politicians like John Lewis and current mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms--and the result is what Mike Ross, a local black angel investor, describes as an atmosphere "like Harlem was in the '20s."

Three years ago, entrepreneurs Ryan Wilson and T.K. Petersen opened The Gathering Spot, a private membership club created to build community between black entrepreneurs from local colleges, Atlanta's celebrities, and executives from corporations like Coca-Cola and Home Depot. "The Gathering Spot, humbly, has become one of the places in town where people know that important conversations are going to be held," Wilson says. "We've been fortunate that other people have come to see this space as one of those central places where you can connect with people."

His proof: The club has more than 1,000 members, including founders of black-led startups like consumer robotics maker Monsieur, political engagement app Empowrd, and visual recognition tech company Partpic, which was sold to Amazon for an undisclosed sum in 2016.​​ In particular, Partpic co-founder Jewel Burks Solomon, 29, is one of the city's most recent success stories.

Growing up in Nashville, Burks Solomon dreamed of moving to Atlanta and starting a business. Upon doing it in 2013, she found plenty of like-minded black entrepreneurs experiencing a common challenge: difficulty securing funding. Of the $2 million Burks Solomon raised for Partpic, only $25,000 of it came from a local source--Ross, one of the city's few black angel investors.

"Atlanta has a high population of black entrepreneurs. The investor landscape doesn't necessarily look the same," explains Burks Solomon. "I'm a black person, and I'm also a woman--and if you look at the numbers, we don't get invested in at the same rate as our white male counterparts."

Shawn Wilkinson, founder of blockchain cloud storage company Storj, faced similar hurdles when he was trying to fundraise in 2015. "Then I brought on an older, white co-founder," says Wilkinson, who's 27 years old and black. "And suddenly, we're just getting so many more leads and actually closing deals." The company has since raised $33 million over seven funding rounds, according to Wilkinson.

Some of Atlanta's black founders believe they can change that equation by building or selling successful companies and then investing in other black founders. "We're trying to create this momentum where we can start having major exits or major growth in our businesses to really start shaping the ecosystem," says Candace Mitchell, 31, founder of Atlanta-based digital hair-care startup Myavana.

Burks Solomon is already leading the way. She's helped fund five minority-led startups since selling Partpic, including a surplus food management platform called Goodr and The Gathering Spot. And successful companies are emerging--the increasingly popular online scheduling tool Calendly, for example, was founded by Tope Awotona, an Atlanta-based native Nigerian.

Black entrepreneurs in other parts of the country are taking notice. In December, Tristan Walker sold his personal care business, Walker & Company Brands, to Procter & Gamble. Rather than relocate his operations from Silicon Valley to P&G's Cincinnati headquarters, he threw a curve ball: The company would be moving to Atlanta. "I've been spending more time over the past year in Atlanta, and I get this feeling that I had back in 2008 when I came to the Bay Area where you knew something was about to pop off," Walker explains. "I feel that way in Atlanta now across every industry."

Morgan DeBaun, founder of Los Angeles-based Blavity, agrees. "There's more diversity of ideas, industries, thought, and ethnicities in Atlanta," she says of the southern city, where she opened her black media company's new technology office in June. "Even if I didn't have a black company, I would still probably put my company in a place that has diverse people. Which does not happen in San Francisco--which I lived in long enough to know."

Published on: Jan 28, 2019