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Tech beyond Silicon Valley

Atlanta is America’s new startup capital, and the best workplaces for innovators aren’t all in the Bay Area.

Tech beyond Silicon Valley
Photographers Rog and Bee Walker, aka Paper Monday, captured Tristan Walker (no relation) for this issue. [Photo: Paper Monday]

Five years ago, Fast Company published a profile of entrepreneur Tristan Walker, a Foursquare veteran who was building a shaving and skincare business called Walker & Company. Written by contributor J.J. McCorvey, it was a candid portrayal of an African American founder trying to make his way in Silicon Valley, a place with a grim record on racial inclusion, despite the fact that so many of the iconic companies founded there consider themselves to be models of meritocracy. McCorvey revealed the complexities of navigating Sand Hill Road while black: Did the venture capitalists throwing “entrepreneur-in-residence” offers at Walker really value his potential as a founder, or were they looking for a quick way to diversify their ranks? For Walker, was it reckless of him, after earning a Stanford MBA, to bypass steady, lucrative gigs in management consulting for the uncertainty of startup life? “As a black man, you don’t take risks like that,” Walker’s wife, Amoy, told McCorvey. She also admitted to him that Silicon Valley was not her first choice as a location to put down roots. “We would have fit into Atlanta like a hand fits into a glove,” she said at the time.

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So when Walker recently decided to relocate his family and his business (now part of Procter & Gamble) to Atlanta, McCorvey caught up with him to learn why—and to investigate what is happening within the city’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. McCorvey’s story, with photos by Paper Monday and Matt Odom, is encouraging, though there are tough issues facing the black business elite. How do they keep Atlanta from resembling the Bay Area, where wealthy tech carpetbaggers are displacing longtime residents? Do founders of color have an obligation to make sure that job opportunities and wealth are more equally distributed? These aren’t merely theoretical questions: If the community’s business and political leaders can figure out a way to ensure that its growth is truly inclusive, other cities could follow suit. “There should be 50 Atlantas,” Walker tells McCorvey. We couldn’t agree more.

The tale of Atlanta’s rise serves as a centerpiece for an issue that is packed with stories highlighting Fast Company‘s editorial focus on innovation. Our inaugural list of the Best Workplaces for Innovators recognizes 50 companies that have created cultures where employees throughout the organization can put their ideas into motion and make meaningful contributions to their businesses, and beyond. We’ve also produced, with the support of SAP, a deep dive into the so-called experience economy, a term coined by a couple of management advisers who determined that the concept of “services” wasn’t sufficient to capture an entirely new and distinct economic offering. A typical grocery store offers a service. Stew Leonard’s, a Connecticut-based retailer, sells food and features a petting zoo in the summer, hayrides in the fall, and free coffee or ice cream (with purchase) all year long. It shows that applying just a little bit of innovation can elevate a company into a completely different category.

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