The tech industry isn’t exempt from the phrase, “There’s enough room for everybody to win.”
According to a Dice report, over 375,000 tech jobs were posted in October 2022 and were up by 25% from the previous year period (January 2021-October 2021). One of the U.S. cities creating an influx of opportunities in the tech sector is Detroit, MI. Last year, the “Motor City” ranked No. 1 on the list of top 100 emerging startup ecosystems in the world, per a report by Startup Genome.
Among the Michigan-based organizations leading the charge to create tech jobs for its residents is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The state’s marketing arm, it has especially been active in its efforts to support Black entrepreneurs to excel as the state makes progress within the tech industry. Resulting from its pressing mission, the MEDC has sponsored initiatives such as Lightship Foundation’s Black Tech Week, an annual conference that empowers Black founders, creators, and innovators. In addition to its collaborations, the MEDC is behind Michigan’s talent attraction campaign, which has a combined effort of $59 million, per a press release.
“I think where we are today in Newlab at Michigan Central epitomizes making sure that people who have great ideas, are innovative, and are willing to hustle [are supported],” Spencer Lucker, director of strategic talent initiatives at MEDC, shared with AFROTECH. “Detroiters have been hustling for generations. If you’re willing to hustle and you have a great idea or a great passion, we’re going to wrap our arms around you and make sure you’re successful.”
The MEDC’s talent action team has also partnered with universities in Michigan by creating programs with a focus on electrical engineering, software development, and EV/mobility. The mission is to create a pipeline early on for Michigan youth to secure tech jobs.
“One of the things we are really excited about is those targeted programs have allowed us to increase accessibility to [tech] industry partners and information about the industry to Black and brown students that are on campus,” Lucker said. “It’s created a community that is inclusive while also being diverse beyond those Black and brown students that might otherwise not have the network to network into that industry.”
In the same breath, as Detroit is making waves in tech, there are still naysayers who speak negatively of the city. The lack of awareness about what the city has to offer motivated Johnnie and Alexa Turnage to take matters into their own hands to shift the narrative.
The Detroit couple are co-founders of Black Tech Saturdays, which is also sponsored by the MEDC. What started off as a group of around five people meeting together has transformed into hundreds gathering in Newlab at Michigan Central (a local innovation hub), along with a following of thousands on social media. The first official event was held in April 2023, and in just six months, it has become a success in fostering innovation to aid in the growth of Black tech and wealth.
“We’re an 80% Black city, but until we started having [Black Tech Saturdays], most of the tech entrepreneurs weren’t in predominantly Black spaces,” Johnnie told AFROTECH during the first-ever Black Tech Weekend held in Detroit in October 2023.
Across generations, Detroit residents are eager to join the community and learn within the safe space.
“Community is the most important thing,” Alexa said. “Everybody showing love and respect for one another on a weekly basis and growing with each other. I think that’s really what’s contributed to [Black Tech Saturdays’] growth because people are paying attention and checking on each other in a different way.”
She added, “I feel like sometimes Black people get labeled as lazy or not willing to learn or grow. And I feel like the fact that hundreds of people show up every Saturday — to grow, innovate, and literally sit here with paper and pen and taking notes and ready to learn — it just shows that Black people in general who are curious about tech are really ready to take their careers and their knowledge and what they’re thinking about to the next level.”
Within a short timeframe, the Turnages have not only been able to host workshops, networking opportunities, and mentorship programs alongside guest speakers but also have helped founders secure deals and provided access to funding. For example, in August 2023, it was announced that JustAir, an air pollution monitoring company co-founded by Darren Riley, became a partner in Wayne County’s $2.7 million initiative to install air-quality monitors to track air pollution, according to Michigan Central. In addition, Riley was awarded $33,000 by the Michigan Central Scale Fund to scale his efforts — marking him as the fund’s first recipient.
Believing that “it’s Detroit’s time to shine,” the Turnages hope to aid in keeping the momentum going for the progress being made within Detroit’s tech ecosystem.
Despite being a “super under-resourced city,” locals have still been able to bring their visions to life. However, the Turnages emphasize that even more innovation can be created if founders and entrepreneurs can receive the backing and financial support. For Johnnie, along with having a deep focus on training, he hopes for the state of Michigan to use federal funding — comprised of hundreds of millions of dollars — to partner with Detroit-based entrepreneurs.
“There’s a different life [here in Detroit],” he said.” “Highlighting it and all the things that we want to see change in Detroit, I’m like, there is somebody here with a lot of heart and a lot of passion. Let’s find them, support them, and let them solve the problem because truth be told, there is not enough money in the world to fix most of the things we want to change in the world… That resiliency, that creativity, it gets it done.”