Home People Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: On the Startup Scene and the Need to “Nurture Courage”

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: On the Startup Scene and the Need to “Nurture Courage”

by Holly Beilin

“Over the last two years as Mayor, Atlanta has just really taken off.”

On March 15, Switchyards Downtown Club filled up for its signature Made In Atlanta monthly event. The eclectic mix of startup enthusiasts, creative entrepreneurs, and those that just wanted to spend a week night learning a little, gaining some inspiration, and maybe snagging a free t-shirt was norm for the evening, but the speaker who was about to take the stage elicited a buzz of anticipatory energy.

Made in Atlanta regularly plays host to many unique guests, but March’s event would showcase one of Switchyards’ oldest supporters and newest residents: former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who recently opened an office in the downtown startup hub. It was one of Reed’s first local public talks since ending his Mayoral term in January 2018.

That term, which stretched back to 2010, saw the rise of Atlanta as a top 5 tech talent city, the number-two ranked state for entrepreneurship growth, and the 8th best state to start a business (note: all of these rankings are by different organizations with different methodologies, and do not indicate parallelism with each other).

From 2010 to 2016, Atlanta’s total tech occupations grew by over 46 percent, outpacing the national average of 27 percent increases for the same period.

Though Atlanta’s startup and technology sector growth is the result of many factors, local government has certainly played a role. For example, Tech Square in Midtown, which currently houses over 20 corporate innovation offices, has been bolstered by supportive tax incentives. The city has made strides in implementing smart city technologies, many of which provide pilot projects and contracts for local startups.

Mayor Reed was directly responsible for nurturing the idea, following a tour of Silicon Valley tech hotspots, that became the corporate-backed, state-supported $18 million Engage fund to accelerate early-stage companies. And he also formed and grew the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), a city-funded 18-month incubator for 15 women entrepreneurs.

“[Atlanta has] become what I think we can become in terms of being the center of startup energy, technology energy and really becoming the best version of ourselves,” said Mayor Reed during Made In Atlanta to the packed room.

Mayor Reed explained that he saw the public sector as a tool to help bolster startups, by using some of their budget to give business to smaller companies with innovative products. “We need to look at government opportunities and government contracts that can do business with small businesses. Government spending is a huge spending opportunity.”

He also expressed the importance of encouraging Atlanta’s corporations to do business with and get involved in startups “to nurture courage.”

Atlantans cannot become complacent, Mayor Reed emphasized. At a time when corporations the size of Amazon are looking to place massive operations in the city, Mayor Reed says that the public sector, private companies, and citizens need to continue to ask themselves what an equitable and inclusive Atlanta looks like.

“Atlanta is positioned as well as its been positioned at any time in 40 years. But as people who are going to be living in these times, I think that there’s a demand on us,” he said. “We got here, Atlanta is what it is right now, because it was an intentional city where people made conscious decisions at hard times, in hard moments, that shifted Atlanta away from where it could have gone in another direction.”

He will be one of those shining a light on Atlanta’s entrepreneurs. In an interview with Hype, Mayor Reed shared that his office at Switchyards, which he shares with long-time friend and entrepreneur Ryan Glover, co-founder of recently-sold Bounce TV, will be where he connects with entrepreneurs, mentoring, advising, and perhaps looking for some to invest in.

He shares more below about his thoughts on Atlanta’s startup scene since began his term as Mayor, why it’s important to pursue the “bigger pie strategy”, and what he’s focusing on for the next few months.

As Mayor Reed signed off at Made In Atlanta, he left the room with a few encouraging words: “I’m going to make it my business to make the startup space in Atlanta hot.”

How do you see Atlanta’s startup scene now as opposed to when you started as Mayor? What did you do to encourage its growth?

From a strategy perspective, my strategy has always been that Atlanta should be the leading city around technology, around business, arts and culture, from the eastern border of Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, north to Maryland and DC, and south to Miami. The people who step up in the South, whether you’re from the South or you migrate to the South, they do it for a reason. So my focus as mayor was, when you look at Atlanta, let’s make Atlanta the premier place in the southeast.

I think we really need all of our important institutions to step up now, because there are so many important things that are happening that could benefit from having energy and light and passion directed towards. I’m trying to play a role in that by pushing these individuals and these organizations. I think it’s something where everybody needs to get on board, because it’s that next layer that Atlanta needs for sustained growth and development and to keep us as the leading city in the South.

How did you come up with the idea, from your trip to Silicon Valley, to institute the idea that became the Engage fund?

We visited 22 people within three days. When you think of the Engage fund, it grew out of a criticism that came from those in Silicon Valley. That was basically that we have the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in America, but they were not utilizing their resources to help startups — and that was very different from San Francisco, Palo Alto, and other cities out West where they would have parts of their business set aside as a network to help startups.

Well, if you know the folks in Atlanta, we’re very diverse and rich when it comes to our large businesses. As mayor, I was able to socialize this idea that we needed to have some part of the business that focused on this startup area and we needed to have folks that embraced them. So it was really intentional.

When you look at Engage, the leaders of that initiative came out of Atlanta Committee for Progress. All of that direct connectivity came out of that conversation.

One of Atlanta’s strengths that you’ve talked about is how we have a diverse ecosystem as compared to other technology hubs. How can the city and local leaders help foster that?

I think we can help foster it, mostly by living it. All of us have circles of influence — one of the things that I talked about during my conversation [at Made in Atlanta] a few weeks ago is that the biggest thing that we can do in Atlanta around diversity and inclusion is to make it attractive socially. Because to the extent that it’s something that you seek and something you enjoy, it becomes less a part of a program that feels forced.

I think authentic is always better, real is always better, natural is always better. Atlanta is positioned, because it has the Atlanta University Center churning out ten thousand highly qualified people of color, to add to this diversity. But that only really works if it’s something that you desire.

Before this we were talking about WEI. As powerful and as important as women are, and as much as they drive the city’s economy, there was no place specifically for women entrepreneurs. I took it upon myself to create that space, and now WEI has become so much more than an incubator for 15 entrepreneurs. That whole complex at Flatiron is evidence of that change. We’ve taken something that, not only was it the right thing to do, but now that it’s up and going, it feels better too. It feels like the right thing.

Many large companies are putting their headquarters or moving main offices here, but one concern for startups is competition for talent. How do you think local leaders need to react to keep Atlanta attractive for companies moving in, but also keep it a good place to be for smaller companies?

I think we need to have confidence in pursuing a bigger pie strategy. Talent isn’t a shrinking pie in Atlanta. For example, we’re still not retaining 75 percent of those Georgia Tech graduates, not to mention other schools that have technology programs. I think that a bigger pie strategy is probably better.

But beyond that, my sense is that people want something different — that startups are almost more attractive. I was in a startup within the last two weeks where every single person was a Georgia Tech graduate — they could’ve been at any company, and some of them are just doing the most mundane tasks possible, but they’re at a startup.

The point I’m making is that one, you adopt a bigger pie strategy. We are not at the stage in Atlanta where talent is a problem. Two, I think there is a desire for a different lifestyle that makes startups competitive.

What are you doing now that your Mayoral tenure is over? What’s next on the horizon?

In January, I rested. What I’m doing now is, one, I’ve been giving a number of speeches. Over the last few months I’ve given more than a dozen speeches, so that’s filling up my nights and days. Two, I have a good number of friends, Ryan Glover being one of them, that have built very successful businesses. As a result, we’ve been able to pool our resources and create a fund for early-stage businesses. That’s what we’re doing in Switchyards: we’re going to be looking at businesses, investing in businesses, and buying businesses.

Next, I’m also going to turn my attention to writing a book, so that’s going to take some time. I’m going on vacations, I’m doing things with my family. It’s all filling my time right now in a very good way.

This interview has been condensed. Photos by Jason Seagle

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