“We Don’t Bluff!” Memphis, Tenneessee, colloquially known as the Bluff City, plays no games about building its entrepreneurial base. It’s becoming a true hub for tech and innovation, and it’s addressing the racial opportunity gap among tech gurus and business owners. As the city proactively underscores the need for equity in all spaces, Memphis is creating a national standard for other cities to emulate as it works to be more diverse and inclusive in tech and business communities.
It’s no secret that there’s a racial disparity in these industries. However, Memphis is ahead of the game with 37% of tech-related jobs being held by Black or Hispanic individuals, compared to only 17% in the nation. Among competing metropolitan areas, Memphis is ranked number one in Black tech talent. The growing diversity in the tech and business industry is a result of building strong networks and cultivating tech and business ecosystems that are pivotal for continued growth and development among underrepresented communities.
Collaborating organizations like Epicenter and the City of Memphis’ Department of Business Diversity and Compliance are doing their part by creating a nexus of resources that equip entrepreneurs at every stage with resources for funding. They also provide access to capital, community programming and networks for collaboration.
Realizing there was a need for more pipeline-building programs, Epicenter developed and funded the Vital Report — a comprehensive tool that outlines nine lessons learned from building a culture-shifting entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s the hope that the nine truths identified will spur the creation and growth of new businesses in the city.
In addition to resources like the Vital Report, the Black Tech Futures Research Institute launched in Memphis during December 2020. The institute’s mission is to conduct research on local Black tech ecosystems and determine how its work can be leveraged to influence policy and other long-term impacts on local tech communities.
At the forefront of this important work are people like Code Crew’s Meka Egwuekwe and Kela Jones (Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director, respectively) and Michael Hoffmeyer of the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis.
The New, Thriving Hub for Tech Talent
Code Crew is an organization that’s changing the way students understand computation, information and how digital systems work.
Interested in the big picture, its goal is to make Memphis the new Wakanda — a place where Black and Brown boys and girls can see themselves in industries they didn’t think were available to them. Serving 500 students, Code Crew’s programming base is made up of 91% of Black and Latinx youth, 41% of which are girls who code.
The organization understands that, for underrepresented communities to compete in the ever-changing tech world, Memphis needs specific programming that provides the right information. “If the lucrative cities of today and tomorrow are producing tech creators, how is Memphis ever going to achieve prosperity if we don’t ever specifically target underrepresented groups?” asks Meka Egwuekwe. “We see this as our gift to the country — to show other regions and employers and colleges as a model for increasing diversity in this [tech] space.”
With programs that now reach K-12 students and adults, Code Crew is addressing poverty and increasing education by helping participants understand early that the tech industry is not exclusive.
The organization wants to make tech just as interesting and popular as hip-hop, and it’s positioning Memphis to become the industry standard for diversity. By bringing the right voices to the table and getting children involved in tech earlier, it’s actively building the ecosystem for tech aspirants of all levels to thrive.
“Memphis can be a tech city. With the Power Four in the city (FedEx, International Paper, AutoZone and Service Master), we can be a hub that retains and recruits great tech talent,” says Kela Jones.
A Business Development and Entrepreneurial Incubator
While Code Crew is doing its part to build a sustainable tech ecosystem, the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis is working to ensure the business ecosystem accelerates.
The Crews Center exists to inspire and empower aspiring and active student entrepreneurs. Specifically, this work is done through its ImagineU Summer Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program. ImagineU brings together a diverse pool of participants from local colleges and universities to start a business over the course of 12 weeks while also learning about the holistic approach to entrepreneurship.
“What we’ve learned over time is that it is much more impactful to give students a real-world experience and force them to work on real-world problems in teams that are incredibly diverse,” says Michael Hoffmeyer.
Breaking up the seemingly one-dimensional business world is at the core of the Crews Center’s mission. A large part of its work is to encourage and foster environments where people of different cultures, ethnicities, identities and economic backgrounds can collaborate and understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in the Memphis business and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
One of the noted Black alums of the Crews Center program is Kareem Dasilva. Kareem was in a Crews Center group that started a business. After it dissolved, he came back to the Crews Center with different partners and developed the app Edesia, which was designed as a food truck radar. Kareem progressed from the Crew Center to being a resident of the University of Memphis’ Research Park program for more mature entrepreneurs. “I am most proud of him because he’s done it exactly the way we have envisioned it,” says Hoffmeyer.
When visiting Memphis, your first thought may be getting world-famous BBQ and enjoying Beale Street, but there’s so much more to it than that. And Code Crew and the Crews Center are making sure you take notice that Bluff City is where you want to be if you’re looking for opportunities in tech and a community that supports small business and Black entrepreneurs.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Epicenter and We are Memphis.