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A prosperous Memphis requires building a thriving Black tech ecosystem | Opinion

Meka Egwuekwe | Commercial Appeal

Published 11:00 p.m. CT June 21, 2023

The Black tech ecosystem in Memphis holds immense potential for driving economic development and creating opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, innovators, and professionals.

In today's increasingly digital age, technology has become the driving force behind economic growth and development. However, the Black community still faces significant disparities in access to and representation within the tech industry.

A recent report from the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, where I served as a Fellow, sheds light on the Black tech ecosystem in Memphis, and provides valuable insights into addressing the digital divide, fostering economic empowerment, and building a strong tech pipeline. By prioritizing economic and workforce development, strengthening K-12 computer science education, ensuring broadband Internet access for all, and investing in Black tech entrepreneurship, Memphis has the potential to build a thriving Black tech ecosystem that benefits the entire community.

If the ecosystem thrives, Memphis thrives

The Black tech ecosystem in Memphis holds immense potential for driving economic development and creating opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, innovators, and professionals. Without question, Memphis can cultivate a robust ecosystem that empowers the Black community and stimulates economic growth. A recent report published by the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, Dreaming of a Black Tech Future: A Digital Equity Assessment of Local Black Tech Ecosystem, highlights the need to prioritize economic development as a central pillar of building a thriving Black tech ecosystem.

Meka Egwuekwe

A strong and diverse tech workforce is crucial for the success of any thriving tech ecosystem. However, Black individuals face systemic barriers that limit access to tech education and job opportunities. To address this issue, Memphis must invest in workforce development programs that specifically target and support Black individuals. By partnering with local educational institutions, tech companies, and community organizations, Memphis can provide training, mentorship, and job placement programs that create pipelines and pathways for skilled black technologists and professionals.

Additionally, we must prioritize computer science education in K-12 schools. By integrating computer science into the curriculum and providing professional development for teachers, Memphis can equip its students with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in the digital era. This is a foundational element of our work at CodeCrew, where we directly teach computer science to kids and young adults, train educators to teach computer science, and have successfully advocated for legislation at the state level that ensures every school in Tennessee has computer science in its curriculum by 2024, including making computer science a graduation requirement. The #BlackTechFutures Research Institute report equally emphasizes the importance of investing in K-12 computer science education to create a diverse talent pool that reflects the demographics of the city and ensures universal connectedness to future tech opportunities.

Provide the tools for the ecosystem to grow

Access to reliable and affordable broadband Internet is an essential requirement for participating in the digital economy. Unfortunately, many Black households in Memphis lack this crucial connectivity, exceeding 80% in some predominantly Black zip codes, threatening to undermine our advances in K-12 computer science education. Closing the digital divide should be a top priority for the city, and it starts with ensuring that every home has access to high-speed broadband Internet.

By investing in infrastructure, working with Internet service providers, ensuring the state equitably implements the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and Digital Equity Act (DEA) federal infrastructure dollars, and seizing opportunities like the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) Tech Hubs program, Memphis can provide equal opportunities for all residents to thrive in the digital age.

In the pursuit of building a thriving Black tech ecosystem, it is equally crucial to emphasize the importance of Black entrepreneurship and access to capital. Entrepreneurship offers a pathway for economic empowerment and the creation of generational wealth within the Black community. Memphis must prioritize initiatives that support and empower Black entrepreneurs, providing them with the resources, mentorship, and networks necessary for success.

July 20, 2018 - Kenn Gibbs, CodeCrew Code School teacher, right helps Jaimyia Moore during CodeCrew's new Code School at Crosstown Concourse. Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal

Access to capital is a significant challenge faced by Black entrepreneurs, as traditional funding avenues often overlook their immense potential. By establishing dedicated funds, partnerships with venture capitalists, and mentorship programs, Memphis can ensure that Black entrepreneurs have the access to capital and support they need to enable them to launch and scale their tech ventures. This commitment to fostering Black entrepreneurship and addressing the capital gap will not only benefit individual entrepreneurs but also contribute to the overall growth and vibrancy of Memphis.

Building a thriving black tech ecosystem requires collaboration and partnerships among various stakeholders. The #BlackTechFutures Research Institute report offers valuable insights into actionable recommendations that can guide Memphis on this path. By involving local tech companies, educational institutions, community organizations, and government agencies, Memphis can create a coordinated effort to address the digital divide.

David Jamison, 18, shows off a logo he designed to John Holloway, 13, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, during the grand opening of a Best Buy Teen Tech Center in South Memphis. The center allows middle and high school aged kids to explore technology related to fashion, programming, photography, music production and recording and film. Christine Tannous/The Commercial Appeal

Some who read this will predictably complain, asking why we need a thriving “Black” tech ecosystem instead of just a thriving tech ecosystem. These same people often complain that the Black community needs to solve its own problems, frequently referencing crime rates, while not recognizing that addressing the plagues of poverty and poor education is a real opportunity to fulfill the potential of Memphis, including reducing crime.

Being intentional about building a thriving Black tech ecosystem in Memphis is not about politics, but instead about the demographic reality of our great city. The math is clear that a prosperous Memphis can only be achieved through a prosperous Black community, with a thriving Black tech ecosystem being the critical linchpin in today’s digital age.

Memphis has the opportunity to transform into a national model where the Black community thrives in the tech industry, bridging the digital divide and driving economic empowerment. By prioritizing economic and workforce development, investing in K-12 computer science education, ensuring broadband access for all, and intentionally supporting Black tech entrepreneurship, Memphis can build strong tech pipelines and pathways that empower the Black community and contribute to the overall growth of the city. The time is now for Memphis to embrace the recommendations put forth by the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute’s report and take bold actions to create a thriving Black tech ecosystem that serves as a catalyst for the change and prosperity our city deserves.

Meka Egwuekwe is Executive Director of CodeCrew, a non-profit that empowers youth and adults in Memphis from underrepresented communities to be tech innovators.

Check out The Commercial Appeal article here


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