“Look at this, man,” Tristan Walker says as he leans into a wooden lawn chair in his backyard.
He forms his thumbs and index fingers into a rectangle and squints through it at the seven-bedroom literal house on a hill before us. It’s a warm April afternoon, too early yet for Georgia’s notorious swelter. Blues singer Tyrone Davis’s “Baby, Can I Change My Mind?” plays from a glowing Bluetooth speaker that doubles as a sleek outdoor light. “When I was 20 years old, and I was like, ‘What does the vision of [my] world look like?’ ” he recalls. “This frame is it.”
Walker and his family have been in this house, in Atlanta’s northern Buckhead neighborhood, for all of two weeks. It’s the first time the Queens, New York, native has had a backyard, and he’s been stringing lights, planting hydrangeas, and kicking around a soccer ball with his 4-year-old son, Avery James. In the fall, Avery James will attend a nearby private school with a black headmaster who, Walker informs me, is a patron of Bevel, the shaving system geared toward men of color that Walker launched in 2013. Walker’s wife, Amoy, steps out of the kitchen to greet me and announce that she’s making salmon burgers. In a month—on Mother’s Day—she’ll give birth to their second son, August Julian. “I’ll have a kid born in Palo Alto, and a kid born in Atlanta,” Walker tells me. “It’s a reset moment!”
Atlanta is where the Walkers were supposed to end up after they graduated from New York’s Stony Brook University, on Long Island, 14 years ago. Amoy had hoped to start their married life surrounded by a like-minded community in the southern city. Instead, Tristan took a risk on Silicon Valley, lured by its promises of meritocracy and innovative business thinking. He interned at Twitter and attended Stanford University’s business school; after making his name as the business-development lead for Foursquare, he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Menlo Park–based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, then raised more than $30 million to create Walker & Company, a hair-and-skincare-product company focused on solving the needs of people of color. As a rare black founder raising money on Sand Hill Road, he got a lot of attention—including a 2014 Fast Company feature—and smartly used it to raise awareness for his brand and advocate for inclusive hiring and product development in the Valley. (Palo Alto, where Walker was headquartered, is only 1.9% black; San Francisco’s black population has dropped from 9% in 2017 to just 5% today.) He also cofounded the not-for-profit Code2040, which trains black and Latino college students in STEM and places them in Bay Area internships.
By 2018, though, Walker realized that he’d been recruiting other young minorities to a place he was no longer so keen on himself. He had difficulty raising additional capital, even as his investors sowed hundreds of millions into mass-market competitors like Harry’s. Meanwhile, as the Bay Area’s inequity came into fuller view, Big Tech was doing little to address racial bias on its platforms or within its walls. Google, which continues to be plagued by racist results in its auto-complete feature, has been struggling to retain its 2.5% of black employees. Facebook—already criticized for its meager 4% black workforce and mired in a sea of privacy-related transgressions—is facing lawsuits over programs that allowed lenders and landlords to exclude minorities when advertising on its platform. It had become clear that Silicon Valley did not speak either Walker’s or his customers’ language. “Walker & Company should not have been built in Silicon Valley,” he says.
Over the years, Tristan and Amoy had flirted with the idea of leaving the West Coast. Last August, while visiting friends in Atlanta, they went house hunting, out of “curiosity,” Walker says. Within four months, that curiosity had given rise to a headline: Walker was selling Walker & Company to Procter & Gamble, staying on as CEO, and moving the company to Atlanta rather than to P&G’s corporate headquarters, in Cincinnati. Reports placed the acquisition price somewhere between $20 million and $40 million (which would mean investors didn’t generate a return), but Walker seems pleased with the outcome. “In a world where you can’t raise money and you need to ensure that your vision remains true, you gotta do what’s in the best interest of the company,” he says. Already, Atlanta has Bevel’s highest per capita concentration of customers. Now, with the backing of P&G’s corporate infrastructure—including its $2 billion R&D budget—Walker is laying plans to learn from the nation’s black capital, and to send those findings back to his new parent company.
The Walkers have joined an exodus—what some have called the “reverse Great Migration”—of black Americans who are leaving dense and expensive northern metropolises to seek harbor in the same Southern cities that many of their ancestors fled. According to the Brookings Institution, the Atlanta area has attracted the majority of these migrants, the population quintupling since 1970.
The Atlanta metro area also has the second-fastest-growing economy in the country (behind San Francisco), spurred by its tech industry, which accounts for nearly 12.5% of the city’s revenues, according to CompTIA. Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines, the Coca-Cola Company, and Equifax are headquartered here. Twilio, Salesforce, and Pandora have all recently set up outposts, drawn by the talent coming out of Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University Center, the largest and oldest consortium of historically black colleges and universities. And here’s the kicker: In Atlanta’s tech industry, an astounding 25% of employees are black. In San Francisco, it’s 6%.
As San Francisco’s high rents and dusty emphasis on “culture fit” repel enterprising talent, new innovation hubs are emerging across the country to threaten its dominance. But Atlanta stands apart—and is uniquely positioned to fundamentally change the trajectory of entrepreneurship in this country—thanks to the community of black founders that have been coalescing here over the past decade. Some are homegrown; others are transplants, like Walker, who are seeking literal greener pastures and new opportunities. “Atlanta is just so black, like blackity-black,” says Iris Nevins, a 26-year-old software engineer for Mailchimp, the email-marketing platform. In February, she left the company’s Oakland, California, offices to join its Atlanta headquarters. “And I love that.”
Is it really a wonder, then, that technologists of color looking to launch or join an exciting new company would consider Atlanta—where trap music and Martin Luther King Jr. were born; Spelman and Morehouse colleges rise; a mayor named Keisha presides; Black Panther was produced and filmed; and more than half the population looks like you—a modern-day Wakanda? How long it can remain that way is another question.
After a 15-minute drive from Walker’s home, my Uber driver—one of several during my Atlanta stay who will try to sell me a piece of real estate—lets me off at KR SteakBar, a chic restaurant with a friendly maître d’ who guides me to a heavy curtain near the rear of the building. He pulls it back to reveal my first true glimpse of why the city is so often called the “black mecca”: Dozens of African American executives, tech entrepreneurs, influencers, and politicians, many of whom are millionaires several times over, are here for a private dinner.
A sunglasses-laden Tricky Stewart, the super-producer responsible for hits like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” is chatting with Russell Stokes, president and CEO of GE’s energy-generation business. Ryan Glover, who sold his African American–focused digital broadcast network, BounceTV, to Scripps in 2017, shares a joke with Kasim Reed, Atlanta’s mayor until 2018. Jewel Burks Solomon, cofounder and CEO of Partpic, a computer-vision startup that Amazon bought in 2016, is here too. (She negotiated to keep her team intact and in Atlanta.) In another corner of the room, I spot Walker sharing daps and shaving advice with George Azih, founder and CEO of LeaseQuery, an accounting app with more than $100 million in revenue.
“Everybody in this room, we’ve either been in the trenches together building companies or brought in the wee hours of the morning together . . . or we’ve done both,” says Paul Judge, the event’s host, as he settles people into their seats. Judge is the cofounder and chairman of eight-year-old Pindrop Security, which develops voice-based anti-fraud technology, and one of the city’s most prominent venture investors. The firm he cofounded, TechSquare Labs, has poured millions into some 30 seed-stage companies that specialize in everything from blockchain and finance to marketing technologies.
Judge is also a master networker, and he has orchestrated tonight’s gathering with a very specific goal: to show two Bay Area visitors that there is a thriving tech scene in Atlanta, with a wealth of young companies worth investing in. Judge stands at the head of the table and introduces the 30-odd guests to Lisa Gevelber, Google’s former VP of marketing who now runs Google for Startups: “Lisa wanted to come into town, learn more about the ecosystem, diversity, and how Google can help level the playing field.” His other guest of honor is Chris Lyons, an Atlanta native who heads up Andreessen Horowitz’s new Cultural Leadership Fund, which makes tech investments with a group of prominent African American limited partners. (Judge is an investor in the fund, alongside Shonda Rhimes, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Girls Trip producer and fellow Atlantan Will Packer.) Judge then urges the rest of the attendees to say something about themselves.
“I moved here 14 days ago, because I believe in us—and by us, I mean black folks,” Walker says, when it’s his turn. “Our ability to influence culture, our buying power, our influence on the world, is palpable and important. This,” he says, “looks different than Palo Alto.”
If Walker sees opportunity in Atlanta, Judge is, in part, to thank. Known locally as the Godfather of Tech, Judge grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and drank in the power of the C-prompt tool when his mother, an instructor at a technical college, brought home a computer during his high school years. He received a computer science degree from Morehouse College and then a doctorate, in network security, from Georgia Tech.
It was during grad school that Judge got his first taste of startup life, joining CipherTrust, an Alpharetta, Georgia–based anti-spam email service, as one of its first employees. When that company was acquired, in 2006, for $274 million, Judge—by then its CTO—saw his first seven figures. This is how this works, he thought. He started and sold two more companies, including smart-router maker Luma, within a decade. Pindrop, his latest, recently raised a $90 million Series D round that included Andreessen Horowitz.
These days, Judge is increasingly focused on raising Atlanta’s flag as one of the world’s burgeoning tech hubs. Flush with connections and swagger, he makes a damned good ambassador. “The city is ready to step up,” he says. “People will overlook Atlanta if its story isn’t told.” Judge recently acquired the A3C music and tech festival, which is held every October, in hopes of expanding it into Atlanta’s own SXSW. And his relationship with Andreessen seems to have solidified his role as something of a fiber-optic cable running from the Bay Area to Atlanta, conducting crucial data about startup culture and strategy. (After our dinner wrapped, around midnight, Judge hopped an 8 a.m. flight to San Francisco for a board meeting at Andreessen—and was back the next morning.) He and his fiancée, Tanya Sam—who is director of partnerships at TechSquare—used to keep an apartment in San Francisco. About a year ago, they let go of the lease. “That was a big moment for us. We’re saying we’re gonna build the next 20 years here,” Judge says. (He hasn’t been averse to calling out Silicon Valley’s shortcomings in the past. When TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington told CNN in 2011 that he didn’t know any black entrepreneurs, Judge quickly dropped him an email “to introduce myself so you can tell your buddies that you now know a black entrepreneur.”)
Judge also puts his charm to use on television. Despite being vocal in the past about wanting Atlanta to be known for more than just reality TV, he and Sam decided to join Bravo’s long-running, top-rated Real Housewives of Atlanta last fall. There, they get to name-drop their businesses and socialize with pop-culture figures like Kandi Burruss and NeNe Leakes. Judge says he’s giving viewers, many of them local, insight into how the city’s startup ecosystem works. “If that’s the price to raise awareness and help more people,” he says, “it’s easy.” He’s also a member of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, the mayor’s business-advisory board, which includes CEOs and the presidents of local universities.
“As we have focused on economic development, we made a choice to go after tech business,” says Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was elected in 2017. Bottoms is the latest in a line of consecutive black Atlanta mayors that stretches back to the 1973 election of the legendary Maynard Jackson, who defeated an incumbent who openly pleaded with voters that “Atlanta was too young to die.” Jackson is largely remembered for helping to create the city’s brawny black middle class, in part by instituting quotas for black contractors during the construction of the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. “We’ve been able to give incentive packages and other things that make Atlanta an even more attractive place,” says Bottoms.
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Many of these incentives are focused around the city’s Tech Square neighborhood, in Midtown. Over the past 15 years, stretches of barren parking lots have been transformed into an innovation hub, home to several Georgia Tech buildings, more than 100 startups, a handful of accelerators, and the two-level office and event space that holds Judge’s TechSquare Labs. Judge opened TechSquare in 2016 to house the operations of his seed-stage fund and to double as a corporate innovation center, allowing his portfolio companies to sign local giants, including Georgia Pacific and Delta Airlines, as early clients.
I visit the office one April evening to witness the firm’s quarterly Atlanta Startup Battle pitch competition, in which five finalists—whittled down from 500—will duke it out for a $100,000 prize. Judge darts across the floor and whispers errands into ears as I arrive, then settles into the front row of the packed 15,000-square-foot space. The hundreds of audience members, a diverse group, listen as Judge’s investment partner, Allen Nance, a serial entrepreneur with a background in e-commerce and marketing, kicks things off. “At the end of the day,” he says, “this event is reflective of how we view entrepreneurship and how we view the world, from the music, to the clothes, to the people who are here.” By the end of the night, Judge and Nance will surprise everyone by choosing two winners: a developer of an AI-powered lawn mower and a database for construction permits. Jarringly, in a city that is 52% black, the only black people involved in the live-pitch competition are one of the VC guest judges and one of the nonwinning founders.
If the Startup Battle didn’t exactly represent Atlanta, Judge’s decision to end the night by taking a group to the nearby Cheetah strip club does. Strip clubs are more than just boys’-night-out playgrounds here: They’re social clubs, red-carpet venues, testing grounds for radio bangers, and, as Partpic’s Jewel Burks Solomon will explain to me when we meet the next day, a traditional source of black capital in the city. Many of the largest ones (though not Cheetah) are black-owned businesses.
A few hours go by as the group, which now includes five cast members of the Housewives franchise, including Judge’s fiancée, drinks Veuve Clicquot and devours the best buffalo wings I’ve had in my life. An announcer calls Cher Bear, Blue Amber, and Amanda to “stage two.” “I am the tourism board, and you leaving Atlanta without a lap dance is not acceptable!” Judge yells at the night’s first defector. (He offers me one; I’m satisfied with the chicken.) “Where else do you see a Super Bowl champion pitching a business idea at midnight over wings?” he asks, alerting me to a nearby conversation about cap tables featuring a former defensive tackle for the Saints. Judge has an 8 a.m. meeting with Google, but he doesn’t appear to be winding down anytime soon. Tonight was a win, and it’s time to celebrate.
“To changing our history, and our future,” he toasts.
When visitors arrive at the Gathering Spot, a private-membership club on the northwest side of Atlanta, they’re greeted by a sign that reminds them what they’re joining: “A diverse community of thinkers, creatives, and connectors driven to leave their mark on the world.” Converted from an old railroad depot, the 25,000-square-foot building features private conference rooms, podcasting studios, an event space, and several thousand paying members, 70% of whom are black. Its hallways feature artwork from DL Warfield (creator of OutKast’s iconic ATLiens and Aquemini album covers), including an image of a young Lena Horne wearing a baseball cap that reads make women queens again.
Ryan Wilson, who cofounded the Gathering Spot in 2016 with TK Petersen (and who is part owner of the A3C Festival with Judge), shows me around, and in the span of a couple hours he’s pointed out the managers for both Washington Wizards center Dwight Howard and Ludacris; the owner of the black business-lifestyle publication Atlanta Tribune; and Ingrid Saunders Jones, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women and previous chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation. “This is one of the few places where you can be black and not be wholly focused on solving the problem of figuring out how to be included,” says Wilson. “Is it exclusive? No. But are we highly interested in making sure that people who have traditionally been excluded from these environments have access? Yes.”
All over the Gathering Spot, you find folks who feel similarly—Burks Solomon, among them. Having built a computer-vision company that was picked up by Amazon (Burks Solomon won’t reveal the terms of Partpic’s acquisition but says it was a mix of cash and stock), she’s something of an icon to local tech founders. I spot her at a table giving advice to a young app developer, one of six founders whom Burks Solomon will critique today. “If there’s a black tech startup doing something in Atlanta, I’ve probably met with them or heard of them,” she says. “That’s how you build up an ecosystem.”
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Earlier this year, the 30-year-old launched an investment firm called Collab that offers both funding and mentorship to new entrepreneurs. While it’s true that venture capital is pouring into Atlanta—startups raised $625 million in Q4 of last year, up $71.25 million year over year, according to Pitchbook—black entrepreneurs aren’t seeing much of it yet. (Among the top-10 deals during that period was Pindrop, the only startup with a black founder.) Collab, which Burks Solomon cofounded with local entrepreneurs Justin Dawkins and Barry Givens, aims to change that: It’s in the midst of raising a $10 million fund from local leaders in industries like sports, film, and tech. “The big thing I’m interested in is, how do we unlock the moneybags and get them distributed to the right people? Because it’s still being afforded by a select few,” says Burks Solomon. “Even those who are black don’t necessarily pass it back.”
Burks Solomon gets her entrepreneurial passion from her grandfather, who started 10 businesses in Mobile, Alabama, during the fever pitch of Jim Crow. After graduating from Howard University, she moved to California and spent two years at Google, onboarding businesses onto the company’s cloud services. But when family members fell ill, she settled in Atlanta and began working at an industrial-parts company. One day, in 2012, her grandfather called her for help finding a tractor part. How simple would it be, she thought, if he could just take a picture of where the part would go and search for it that way? Partpic launched in 2013.
When Burks Solomon sold the company to Amazon, in 2016, she made clear that it was a “nonnegotiable” that her 14-person team stay in Atlanta. She cited Georgia Tech’s deep talent pipeline and how much easier it would be for Partpic to recruit people from Atlanta rather than compete with Facebook or Apple in Silicon Valley, or with Microsoft down the street. What she didn’t disclose: She had witnessed the effects of technology’s unchecked growth in Silicon Valley and had no interest in participating in it in Seattle. “When I was working at Google, I was living in an apartment complex in downtown Oakland that I’m sure displaced people. I felt like I was part of the problem,” she says. “There’s a big income inequality in Atlanta, but here I feel like I can change it.”
San Francisco recently topped New York as the country’s most expensive city to reside in. Atlanta is more affordable than both cities by several orders of magnitude. Charles Pridgen, an account executive with the San Francisco–based cloud-communications platform Twilio, was paying $3,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area. Since moving to set up the company’s Atlanta operations, he pays $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom in Midtown and nets enough to help send his sister to college. Like Iris Nevins at Mailchimp, Pridgen is attracted to Atlanta culturally. For both of them, though, the cost of living is the main draw. Nevins left behind a tiny loft in Oakland for a five-bedroom home in the western suburb of Cascade Heights. By renting out two of her rooms, she’s able to cover most of her monthly mortgage payments. “I’m really building wealth and financial security, which requires more than just making a good income,” she says.
As newcomers like Pridgen and Nevins seek out affordability, some long-term residents are being displaced. In neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward, the preaching grounds of Martin Luther King Jr., home prices have more than doubled in the past five years, transfiguring the community from black and elderly to young, white, and affluent. According to Remax, the median home sales price in Atlanta jumped 16% in the past year, four times the national average.
“Atlanta is a unique place for black people, but to sit here and believe that this is a land of milk and honey for all black people is foolhardy,” says Maurice Hobson, an assistant professor of African American studies at Georgia State University and author of The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta. “Are we doing this tech stuff so that we can get richer, or are we doing it to make the city more accessible and inclusive?”
Hobson is one of many voices who warn that the city’s tax incentives and concessions to lure businesses will exacerbate its economic divisions. When the city council approved a $2 billion package in November for a downtown revitalization project—proposed by San Francisco–based CIM Group—Councilman Andre Dickens was one of six who voted no. “There’s a Goodie Mob verse that says, ‘Don’t come in my house without wiping your feet on the rug,’ ” says Dickens, who founded the Atlanta chapter of TechBridge, a not-for-profit that teaches coding skills and financial literacy to low-income communities. He is adamant that companies opening offices in Atlanta need to dedicate resources to job training for locals.
A recent report from the consulting group McKinsey & Company that focused on Georgia describes a state and city where economic growth could stall if it doesn’t prepare residents to work within the new industries it’s attracting. High-skilled sectors, including “computation” and “mathematics,” are growing 15% annually and post 10 openings for every qualified Georgian candidate. For lower-skilled workers, it’s becoming the inverse. The report also found that while there are plenty of resources here to launch a new business—Georgia ranks 11th for new companies—the state ranks 45th in startup survival rate, with more than half petering out after five years.
Mayor Bottoms has launched several initiatives to address these issues, including committing $200 million to affordable housing. But her job is as complicated as you’d expect it to be for a black female mayor of a majority-black city in a conservative state like Georgia. When she was announced as Spelman College’s commencement speaker this year, some students protested, criticizing her inability to tame gentrification. In May, the state government passed one of the strictest abortion bills in the country, prompting calls for boycotts by the entertainment studios that Bottoms and her predecessors have assiduously wooed. (“We’re going to feel it,” Bottoms says of the bill.) And in April, the Georgia House and Senate attempted, but failed, to wrest Hartsfield-Jackson airport, long viewed as a symbol of Atlanta’s black economic and political power, from city control.
Not far from the five-year-old National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which holds many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, I meet up with Burks Solomon on the steps of the lesser-known Hammonds House Museum. Set in the West End, a middle-class neighborhood that was a crucible for many of Atlanta’s civil rights leaders, the red-and-green-trimmed Victorian once belonged to Dr. Otis Hammonds, a prominent black physician who, before his death in 1985, amassed a collection of more than 250 artworks by emerging black artists. Today, it doubles as an event space, and inside, a group of students from Clark Atlanta University are taking part in a poetry slam.
“I do think Atlanta is the best place for black people to build any business,” Burks Solomon says, tightening her black, silklike kimono over an olive-green dress. Atlanta is “the last remaining Chocolate City,” she points out, in a not-so-subtle dig at Washington, D.C. “There are people here really trying to build something special, and it’s a work in progress.”
“There should be 50 Atlantas,” Walker says, as we chat in his backyard. “Everybody will soon pay attention to what’s happening here.” Already, a sense of urgency is driving Atlanta’s black tech entrepreneurs, who seem as though they are girding themselves, putting things into place, before something more powerful arrives. “This technology revolution is gonna eat up whatever you think you have if you don’t prepare for it,” says Judge.
That makes some entrepreneurs wary of outsiders. Amanda Sabreah, founder and CEO of Partnr—a digital portfolio for creatives—recently rejected a deal from Kleiner Perkins, the legendary Silicon Valley VC firm, to move her company out west, because the cost of living would have outstripped her funding. On Burks Solomon’s advice, she also passed up investment from another VC when the terms left her with less equity than she’d like. But Sabreah still takes an annual trip to the Bay Area. “Entrepreneurs in Atlanta have to build an advisory network in other cities to be able to compete,” she says.
Atlanta’s influx of new arrivals, meanwhile, is transforming the city’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, along with the lives of all of its residents. But it’s not quite clear yet how. Given Walker’s outsize presence in Silicon Valley, I wonder how he plans to insert himself into his new community.
He’s considering my question when he glances up at the ominously darkening sky. “It looks like it’s about to fucking go down!” he shouts. We grab our things and race inside. Dinner is just about ready.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.c