With the recent centennial of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa as the backdrop, quite a number of local efforts are underway to honor the anniversary and boost Black entrepreneurship in the city. One of those initiatives is Build in Tulsa.
Started about a year ago, its mission is to catalyze the creation of Black wealth through entrepreneurship, starting with an accelerator for accelerators targeting Black-led firms that can help build a pipeline and ecosystem of entrepreneurship.
The group is also taking part in the second cohort of Resource, a project run by the Black Innovation Alliance and Village Capital aimed at supporting entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) led by and focused on founders of color. These accelerators and other groups are facing record demand and declining resources, according to Village Capital.
“Build in Tulsa was conceptualized as part of Tulsa’s reckoning with its racial past,” says Ashli Sims, the organization’s development lead. “In the early 1920’s, Tulsa was the place you wanted to be if you wanted to be an entrepreneur. We believe Tulsa can be that place again.”
In 1921, a mob of white Tulsans attacked the then-thriving, self-sustaining Black business district of Tulsa, known at the time as Black Wall Street. The mob destroyed the area, including 30 blocks of businesses, killing hundreds of Black residents in the process.
Spearheaded by investor and businessman Randolph F. Wiggins, with backing from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Build in Tulsa got its start last year. Its mission: to cultivate and invest in Black entrepreneurs. More recently, a group of community leaders, organizations and native Tulsans grabbed the baton, carrying forward the effort.
The goal is to work with different accelerator programs aimed at startups at various stages of development, from pre-revenue to more-established enterprises. One such program, ACT Tulsa, a joint venture between ACT House and i2E, gives $70,000 of non-dilutive, non-recourse capital at no interest to early-stage companies with high-growth potential run by people of color. Another, Lightship, focuses on businesses with established revenue streams through a $250,000 equity investment, says Sims.
The objective is to create what Sims describes as a “continuum,” so entrepreneurs can move from one program to another as they develop.
The plan is to attract entrepreneurs new to Tulsa , while also developing home-grown talent. An entrepreneurs-in-residence program also provides six months of free work space and coaching.
With a hybrid structure, one arm, now under the umbrella of the Tulsa Community Foundation, is in the process of becoming a 501(c)3 and will house the accelerator. Then there’s a for-profit fund that will deploy capital to companies in the program. “The dual structure will give us access to flexible capital,” says Sims.
For now, the focus is on getting the accelerator program up and running, establishing deal flow and building up the fund. The details of equity investments made by BIT are yet to be finalized.
A Peer Network
As for her experience thus far in the Resource program, Sims points to a few features. One is learning best practices for accelerators, along with getting feedback from potential funders. But also, she says, “What I’m getting that I didn’t anticipate are the benefits of having access to an amazing peer network.”
“To us Black Wall Street isn’t a history lesson. It’s a blueprint,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is to create the infrastructure needed to build multigenerational Black wealth.”