“I was always looking at Atlanta as where I wanted to be,” Burks told the audience at a recent panel discussion on diversity in the local tech community for Atlanta Startup Week. “Part of the reason why I love Atlanta is that people of all colors are doing well and prospering.”
Burks’ company Partpic would certainly qualify. It’s an application that uses visual recognition software to help companies have an easier time searching for and replacing parts in industrial machinery. (Consumer applications are planned, so there’s a chance that you may never have to wait on missing Ikea screws ever again.) Burks has raised $2 million in seed funding, was invited to last year’s White House Demo Day, and won a 2015 South by Southwest startup competition.
Lest you think that’s been an easy ride for Burks and Partpic, guess again. “What is it like as a young black woman running a tech startup in Atlanta? Yeah, it’s tough, it’s hard,” she said.
Burks was one of three Atlanta-based panelists engaged in moderator James Andrews‘ goal of “honest dialogue and real solutions” regarding challenges in the local entrepreneurial community for women and people of color.
Also on the panel: Lauren Weiniger, co-founder of GrowthCity, focused on matching entrepreneurs with investments and advice; Jennifer Chung Song of Maker Studios and Gather Technologies, who may be better known as a musician with a major YouTube following; and Joey Womack, co-founder of Goodie Nation and Amplify 4 Good, which brings together “social impact organizations and underserved communities,” according to Womack’s LinkedIn profile.Moderator Andrews, a serial entrepreneur whose experience includes technology, music and marketing for Fortune 500 brands, is the co-founder of digital marketing firm True Story Labs.
“Atlanta is the place to have discussions on diversity,” Andrews said. “It is the place we will solve problems with diversity, but we’re still being challenged by those problems.”
The tallest obstacle so far is the same one that impacts any local startup – not having enough Atlanta-based investors. Burks said of the $2 million she’s raised for Partpic, $25,000 of that came from Atlanta.
“Investors who are not accustomed to investing in women or black women of people of color, they are looking for these groups to be their signal, to say, ‘Okay, look, a black person I trust. You’re saying that this black person is good, so I can go with that.’ There aren’t enough black women to co-sign (loans), or the ones who can are not,” Burks said.
So is that a failure of capital access, or leadership? Weiniger said it was more about the need for Atlanta’s entrepreneurs to do a better job of blowing their own horns. “Atlanta is not a self-promotional place. I think it’s awesome, it’s authentic, and people do great things just for the hell of it, versus San Francisco where it’s so self-promotional. It’s more about issues like women in general just not being comfortable in bragging about the great things we’re doing, and that puts us up against those who are over the self-promotional thing.”
She added that biases among the investor class can be deeply embedded, which is why “we need more people at the top, more women and minority investors. Not that all investors should look like you, but you need that co-signer to rally others around you.”
It was networking via social media that landed the Korean-born Chung her current job at Atlanta startup Gather Technologies. “Part of my goal is to put Atlanta on the map and also show that Korean-Americans can do more things than what you expect of us. Many of us own dry cleaners and liquor stores, but also many of us are very creative.”
When Chung posted a YouTube video of herself in 2007 covering an Alicia Keys song, it quickly went viral. “That was the platform for me to represent my people. I’m able to bring something different to the table.”
Womack’s presentation to the audience, called “Heroes and Hashtags: A Path to Inclusive Ecosystems,” spoke of the need for more community networks to help spread that word, build mentorships and partnerships, and get the word out about startups that need local funding.
“We already have everything that we need to make the change we want. The issue is the ecosystem is highly inefficient. It may look good,” he said as a picture of a Bugatti sports car filled the screen. “But it only gets 10 miles per gallon.”
The “heroes” are those using tech innovation to solve problems in communities. They are the ones who should fill up Atlanta’s growing stable of co-working spaces while taking software development classes at Black Men Code, Black Girls Code, General Assembly and similar venues. “Then and only then are they able to go back to the people and save the world,” Womack said.