America at work
Meet the Minority Entrepreneurs Forging A More Inclusive Startup Scene in Portland
Kim Lachance Shandrow | November 16, 2017

In Portland, one of the country’s most progressive tech startup enclaves, innovative black and Latino startup entrepreneurs are making a growing impact on the local economy.

In recent years, African-American-owned businesses, including many promising tech startups, have been on the rise in the Rose City. The metropolitan area is now home to more than 2,300 black-founded startups, and growing. Latino business ownership is blossoming, as well, with the number of Latino-founded small companies more than doubling in recent years, from more than 6,000 in 2002 to approximately 15,500 in 2012, according to the Oregon Community Foundation.

However, there are still signs that minority-owned companies are struggling to secure the capital they need to start and scale new ventures. In fact, the amount of loans made to black-owned businesses in the city plunged 91 percent between 2007 and 2015, according to the Portland Business Journal.

Related: HOW GOOGLE TEAMED UP WITH MINORITY ENTREPRENEURS TO CULTIVATE AN EVEN STRONGER STARTUP SCENE IN DURHAM

Boosting Representation
A desire to open people’s eyes to the rising crop of black-, Latino- and women-founded tech early-stage companies in Portland — and to address the drastic decrease in area small business loans to founders of color — led local entrepreneur Stephen Green to launch PitchBlack.

The annual pitch competition, now in its third year, gives African-American startup entrepreneurs a platform to connect with the larger startup ecosystem in the city, which is estimated to be 76 percent white. PitchBlack enables founders to “Shark Tank it out” before a diverse audience for two hours for thousands of dollars in seed funding prize money.

Breaking Down Barriers
“I created PitchBlack because I found the biggest thing impeding inclusivity in our area was a limited perspective,” Green, a nearly lifelong Portland resident, told Free Enterprise. “When things are written around Portland and our startup and entrepreneurial scene founders of color are rarely mentioned,” he said.

And if they are, “it’s generally always about the triple Bs: barbeque, barber shops and bars, the things that are historically covered when we’re talking about black business.”

That’s exactly what the veteran economist and “recovering banker” wants to change.

“We have black and Latino tech entrepreneurs here as well — a lot of them, in fact, and we need to be talking about them, too.”

Related: HOW BLACK ENTREPRENEURS ARE REBUILDING BALTIMORE’S STRUGGLING NEIGHBORHOODS

Other local innovators of color to pitch their nascent businesses at Green’s PitchBlack events include: Lori Caldwell, founder of Minnie + George, a fashion-forward e-commerce site, with handmade products also for sale in several Portland brick-and-mortar stores; James Pritchett of MoreBots, maker of an image-scanning smartphone app used to unlock exclusive digital content; and Paige Hendrix Buckner, founder and CEO of ClientJoy, a monthly online subscription service that ships gifts made by Portland area artisans.

Portland, which is home to nearly three dozen startup incubator and accelerator programs, recently ranked 10th on the 2017 Innovation That Matters report. The newly released analysis — conducted by 1776, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C__TEC) and FreeEnterprise.com — examines the health of startup ecosystems in 25 American cities.

Jumpstarting Change
Mara Zepeda, a Portland-based entrepreneur who founded online platform Switchboard to help students and alumni connect and share career opportunities and advice, credits PitchBlack with driving long-needed inclusivity throughout the city’s wider startup scene. She says active support from local, vocal changemakers like Green is crucial to ecosystem-wide progress.

“Black founders get less than one percent of venture capital,” Zepeda, who recently launched a fund to help area female founders access venture capital, said.

For Green’s part, when he’s not overseeing operations at Oregon Public House, the neighborhood brew pub he co-founded in 2012, the Backstage Capital mentor and Oregon Growth Board member spends most of his time in the City of Roses “working tirelessly to support underrepresented founders.”

Green assists local entrepreneurs with everything from finance to banking to venture capital. His primary focus, however, is assisting those “who are brave enough to hang their own shingle” secure business loans. Ultimately, he helps startup founders realize their dreams of launching their own companies, oftentimes in the technology sector.

“I know multiple black-founded local tech companies, and I know the mainstream entrepreneurial community who are typically white folks,” he said. “I bring these two groups together at PitchBlack events and elsewhere, and challenge the preconceived notions they have about each other. And, in the process, we leverage the new narratives we create together to effect change and bring about new commerce.”

Related: DIVERSITY: IT’S MORE THAN A FEEL-GOOD BUZZWORD

Critical Capital
Green is one of many business owners and innovators in the Beaver State’s largest city to step up to bridge the region’s glaring lack of support — small business financial support included — for black and latino entrepreneurs and innovators.

“It’s been amazing to see the vibrant black tech startup ecosystem that has grown up around PitchBlack since its inception,” Green said, “with one of our startup winners, NoAppFee, raising more than $2 million dollars in venture funding and being named one of Portland’s most promising tech companies.”

Recent PitchBlack contestant Tyrone Poole is the founder of Portland-based NoAppFee.com. His next-generation online platform streamlines the rental search process and connects renters to affordable housing options.

Networking and Necessity
“The entrepreneur bug comes out of necessity for most black people,” Poole said. The ambitious founder, recently named by the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network as the region’s most promising tech entrepreneur, once lived in a homeless shelter. He created the unique rental platform to generate income when he struggled to land a job, something Green says might not have been possible without the support of fellow underrepresented local entrepreneurs.

“We have one of the most collaborative entrepreneurial communities I have ever seen,” Green said of his home city. “I know I am just a nod away from connecting with the founder of a local tech or a future conspirator in the cause. As one Portland area black founder told me “In Portland we aren’t isolated, we are unique.”

Photo credit for all photos in this article: Kersten Green Photography