A Spotlight on Black Tech Street
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Ann Johnson: Welcome to "Afternoon Cyber Tea," where we talk with some of the biggest security influencers about what is shaping the cyber landscape and what is top-of-mind for key security decision-makers. I'm Ann Johnson, and today we're going to talk about the power of community and the rebirth of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a center for Black leadership and cultivation of Black potential. I'm joined today by Tyrance Billingsley II, a born and raised Tulsa entrepreneur, ecosystem builder, and community leader with a background in politics and community organizing. For the past three years, Tyrance has been seeding the narrative of Black Wall Street as the world's premier Black innovation economy through Black Tech Street, an organization where he is the Founder and Executive Director. Welcome to "Afternoon Cyber Tea," Tyrance.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Thank you so much, Ann. It's a pleasure to be here.
Ann Johnson: So, I think Black Tech Street is this really fantastic organization and an example of actually meaningful and real progress that we need to make in technology. And I know we're going to unpack more on the organization in just a moment but, before we get there, our audience really should know a little bit more about you. So can you tell us a bit of your story?
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. So yeah, I'm a born and raised Tulsan, grew up in North Tulsa in a predominantly Black area of Tulsa and where historic Greenwood was located. I've always had kind of two key passions and they're both rooted in my desire to kind of always be where the pulse is. So my passions have always been politics and entrepreneurship. And I've always gravitated towards those because I've always been passionate about creating new things that push the world forward and also being passionate about being where the impact is. So, you know, at first, my goal was to go the political route and be the kid who got elected super young. So, in college, I served as president of student government. Then I rose to be president of student government for the state of Oklahoma. From there, I was elected to chair the student advisory board for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, helping advise them on education policy. And after that, I ended up getting an internship under the current mayor, Mayor GT Bynum, where I helped with economic policy and civic engagement. And while I was there, I also apprenticed under State Senator Kevin Matthews and State Representative Regina Goodwin, who are both elected officials from the North Tulsa community. So I ended up eventually having a conversation with myself because I always knew I would be an entrepreneur. I always kept up with the latest tech trends. I was in the mayor's office still reading books on tech and entrepreneurship alongside my work. So I eventually said policy is great and I will have a future in politics, but the things that are going to really change the world, the innovations that are really going to solve the world's biggest problems are going to come from companies. They're probably not going to come from government. I ended up combining my two passions into building a civic tech startup called Citifora. It was billed to be a one-stop shop for administering city services to citizens, a civic tech company. I was 20 when I founded the company. It ended up failing but it got me an entrepreneurial fellowship with a local foundation that helped get me hands-on experience with, you know, venture capital, what makes startups scale and fail, and essentially gave me some hands-on knowledge to the book knowledge that I had been accruing my entire life.
Ann Johnson: I think that's such a great story because you're someone who had a vision, went down a certain path, realized that that path might be right for you in the future, but for you to have the impact that you want to have, you need to do something more direct and on the front lines. And I think that's fantastic.
Tyrance Billingsley II: I appreciate that.
Ann Johnson: Can you tell us a little more about Greenwood, just talk a little bit more about that for the audience who probably is unfamiliar?
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. So Greenwood was a self-sufficient community of Black entrepreneurs, you know? It was dubbed "Negro Wall Street" by Booker T Washington, and that's where it eventually got its name Black Wall Street, even though it was more like a Black Main Street, but self-sufficient community of entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur name- by the name of OW Gurley, he bought 40 acres of land, and, alongside his business partner, John the Baptist Stradford, they vowed they would only sell this land to Black people looking to build their lives and businesses alongside other Black people. So, once they made these purchases, you know, they essentially put out ads and they had people flocking everywhere from all over the country, trying to get their piece of this dream where they could build their incredible businesses, free -- what they thought would be free from the strain of racial terror. And the community ended up being named Greenwood because when they were attracting so many different entrepreneurs and community members to build this community, the single largest population that they got entrepreneurs from was a town called Greenwood, Mississippi. So it ended up being called Greenwood because that was where the largest amount of entrepreneurs and community members had actually come from. But the community was self-sufficient in a lot of ways. You had the dollar turning over between 10 and 11 times before it left the community. You had six private planes. You had law offices. You had a trolley system. It was really a staggering accomplishment of wealth.
Ann Johnson: In listening about Greenwood, you had this incredible community that was built to lift people, right, out of the horrors of the shadows of slavery, which wasn't that much before, right? You had folks that came from all over the country and built a whole ecosystem that was self-sustaining, and then almost suddenly it ceased to exist. Can you talk a little bit about how it was destroyed and the events that led up to it?
Tyrance Billingsley II: Yes, I can. So, as you know, Greenwood was a community of African American entrepreneurs but it was still a community within the broader Tulsa area. So you essentially had a young man whose name was Diamond Dick Rowland. His name was Dick Rowland. He was called Diamond Dick Rowland because he loved money so much. He loved it so much he dropped out of high school and he got a job as a shoeshiner -- he actually had multiple jobs, but one of them was as a shoeshiner. One day, Dick Rowland is downtown, and, back then, bathrooms were segregated. So the shoeshine parlor he worked in, you know, did not have a bathroom that Black people could use. So he had to walk a block or two down to the Drexel Building and take an elevator to go up to one of the higher floors so he could use the restroom. So, one day, he has to go to the restroom and he goes to the Drexel Building to get on the elevator to use the restroom. And, back then, elevators had operators. And the person operating the elevator at the time was a 17-year-old white woman by the name of Sarah Page. Dick Rowland was 19. So, while it's impossible to verify what actually happened, the accepted story is Dick Rowland was rushing to use the restroom and, you know, elevators back then had more of a raised threshold. And, as he's rushing to use the restroom, he trips over the threshold of the elevator and grabs her arm and Sarah Page screams. So, back then, it was pretty much known that there was this notion that every Black male just wanted to rape a white woman. That was a false narrative that was peddled. But -- so when he grabbed her arm and she screamed, the front desk clerk heard it. Dick Rowland already knew what was likely about to happen. So he immediately runs home, and unfortunately he's correct. Because the next day, he ends up being arrested. And there was actually an article published -- not an article, an ad. The same way you would take out an ad for a car or something today or your business today, there was an ad published in the Tulsa Tribune at the time that essentially said "Nab a Negro." It claimed that Dick Rowland was -- had attempted to rape a white woman. And this add was an invitation for a white mob to gather to lynch him, which was essentially, you know, they would beat him, you know, hang him from a tree, and sometimes even char the body, to be frank. So, once this ad gets taken out, a lot of the African American members of Greenwood, they see this and they decide they're not going to let this happen. And a lot of these African American males, keep in mind, are World War I veterans. So a lot of them are armed and they know how to use weapons. So they go down to the courthouse to essentially barricade it in to keep the white mob that assembled the courthouse to lynch Dick Rowland from getting to him. And they were successful. Dick Rowland is taken from the courthouse -- he actually gets taken slightly before the mob gets there. That's a little-known piece of history. But, in short, they're successful in getting him out but the tension doesn't disperse. The two crowds stay there. They hang around a little bit and tensions run high due to the situation. So, a little bit later, while the crowds are still there, eventually one of white mobsters walks up to one of the African Americans holding their gun and says what are you going to do with that gun, boy? He essentially tries to take the gun from the Black male. But the Black male doesn't give it up. There's a struggle over the gun. A shot flies out, and this is the catalyst for what we now know as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Over the next two days, white people pour into Greenwood, killing every Black person they can see, looting and burning houses. And keep in mind, the sheriff deputized the white mob. So, while we call this a race massacre, it could technically even be called a pogrom because the government sanctioned these white mobsters to do what they ended up doing. So they pour into Greenwood, killing, looting. And eventually, again, the National Guard says it can't be verified, but the story goes that the National Guard was called in to help but they actually ended up firebombing Greenwood from the air, the first instance that a community is bombed by the United States government. And, when the smoke clears, 10,000 Black people are left homeless, and we now know north of 300 Black people died. But an article was published the next day that said only 36 people died. That included the number of white people and they called it a riot. They called it a riot specifically because when you riot, if you are partially responsible for the destruction of your own property, you don't have any claim for insurance to rebuild. So that's essentially what happened. It got labeled a riot for that reason. And then, for decades, it was literally not talked about in Tulsa. People didn't speak about it up until the last 20 years leading up to the centennial.
Ann Johnson: So that brings us directly back to Black Tech Street. This is an organization initiative you founded because you had that passion and you wanted to have that impact through your mission. Tell us more about Black Tech Street. What was the purpose behind the organization, and how actually did it come to be? I'd love to understand the origin story.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. So, being a born and raised Tulsan and a relative to Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, I had heard about the excellence of Black Wall Street. It was deeply rooted in my identity. So I eventually ended up asking myself a question where I said what could Black Wall Street have been had it been supported and not destroyed? And, when I thought about the level of tenacity that it took for these entrepreneurs to build these incredible businesses during Jim Crow, the smashing through walls and the out-of-the-box thinking, it showed a lot of parallels with the attitudes you have to have to be successful in the tech industry. And that essentially led me to this kind of three-pronged epiphany. You know, one, tech is one of the only industries in which you can build intergenerational wealth in seven to 10 years via successful company exit. Two, tech is the core medium through which all global innovation is consistently taking place. And three, by the year 2030, there were projected to be as many as 4.3 million high-paying vacant tech jobs due to a tech talent shortage. So, when I put all three of these things together, I not only saw an incredible wealth-building opportunity for Black people, I kind of saw the Black Wall Street vision pushed to a new horizon. So this led me to surmise had Black Wall Street been supported and not destroyed, it would be nothing other than the nation's premier Black tech ecosystem. So that's where the name "Black Tech Street" comes from and that's our mission, working to rebirth Black Wall Street as a tech hub but also kind of use Black Tech Street as this banner that catalyzes a movement that sees Black people embrace tech as a means to build wealth and impact the world.
Ann Johnson: That intergenerational wealth aspect is something that most people don't understand how that has actually held back the Black community. When you strip the wealth, right, whether it's land stripping or whether it's the massacre, you strip the wealth of a generation and there's nothing to pass on and it just becomes this vicious cycle. So I love your emphasis on it.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. It's critical. We also have the stat that says Black wealth in America is set to hit zero by the year 2053. So I think the tech industry is the perfect industry that can actually help stave off that wealth drain but also gun us in the other direction of African Americans being able to accrue the wealth we've historically been denied due to so many systemic barriers to entry.
Ann Johnson: It's such an important mission. I'm gushing over here because the way you're describing it and the work that you're doing to actually take action rather than just talking about it, and the fact that you've figured out I'm going to focus on tech as a place that we can get back to at least some level of not as much wealth inequality -- I wouldn't even dare to say equality. But we can at least try to get some footing so that by the year, you know, 2075 or whatever that is, we're seeing more and more push to equality from a wealth standpoint. So I know this is personal and important to you. For me, it's just me coming to some realizations as I listen to you.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. It's been a driving force in life, so it's a great opportunity to be here to speak about it and a greater opportunity to be thinking about how we actually solve these problems.
Ann Johnson: So community. One of the aspects of Black Tech Street that you emphasize is community. And communities provide us with a sense of connection, a sense of support, and also we can build communities for learning where people have the ability to have resources that are so critical. Why is community so important to Black Tech Street? And tell us a little about the community that you have and you're building in Tulsa.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. So community is so critical to Black Tech Street because community was critical to Black Wall Street. What made Black Wall Street successful were so many different actors collaborating in ways that uplifted each other, and they were able to fill in each other's gaps. They were able to make up any lack that the other had by providing key services. So community is critical to Black Tech Street because it's built on the foundation of that culture. But also, the Tulsa community, and particularly the Black Tulsa community, we have a saying called, you know, what you do for me without me, you do to me. And that essentially emphasizes that even if you're trying to help, even if you want to do something that's good for the community, you have to do it alongside them. You can't sit up in an ivory tower in some room and say we're going to think of something cool to do for Black people but we're not going to involve them in the process. We're not going to have their fingerprints all over the plan. That's not how things get done in the Greenwood community in Tulsa. It's pretty core for us to be able to operate. The other thing that I'll say is, you know, we've -- I've kind of built out this framework in my mind for how our community operates. We've got three different core lanes where you've got people in our community who are visionaries, people who are thinking about new ways to improve life and ways to go -- places to take our community that will bring more abundance. You've got people -- so that's the vision lane. You've got people who are in the pro-vision lane who, you know, they provide core services for the community that are critical -- I mean, this could be business owners, people who have organizations that help administer these key services, things that help the community run. And then you have the protectors. These are the people who you often see at the city council meetings or in the streets protesting when horrible things happen. They're the people whose job it is to catch the injustices and to fight back against them. Because of the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and because of so much systemic oppression that has existed in Tulsa against the Black community for so many years, our community has been in a place to where for the last three to four decades, our leaders have always had to over-index in protection. There hasn't been as much room to think about vision or sometimes even pro-vision because there's so much concern with ensuring that the horrible, heinous things that happened before that nobody protected them against don't get perpetuated again. So my role in the community right now is helping our community to see all three of these lanes and to help bring back the vision aspect. Now that we've got partners and we've got people who are -- we've got awareness about the massacre. We've got awareness about the problems. Now we can start thinking about vision. Where does our community go next? How do we get to where we need to go? Protection will always be critical but I think we're at a space where we can think about the vision and improving life rather than just trying to fight against horrible things are happening and will continue to happen.
Ann Johnson: I'm going to unpack a few things you said there. First -- and I know you're not doing this for your own personal gain. But, you know, you're a person that I would imagine that our next generation is going to be reading about in a history book, right? So congratulations for just having the drive, willingness, and the vision to do what you're doing, because it's going to change the world fundamentally.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Thank you.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. The second thing, I was having a conversation with a friend two weeks ago, three weeks ago, I don't remember. We had brunch and we were talking about supporting communities and what good allyship looks like. And I made a comment and it was so interesting to hear you say because it reinforces something I was thinking. And when I said to her that it would be really helpful if we ask communities what we need and- before we go tell them what they -- we need -- they need, right? And there's a whole lot of telling of people that have been from communities -- vulnerable populations, which is a term I particularly don't like. But people who have been underrepresented, we do a whole lot of telling people what we need as opposed to rolling up our sleeves, getting into the community and asking what we need. And I think you as a member of the community and a lifelong Tulsan and somebody who was impacted understands what the community needs. But you're still asking those questions and I think that's so incredibly important because you can't have an impactful project if you truly don't understand the community.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Ann, that is absolutely critical and it's -- a lot of the harm that has actually been done in our community oftentimes has been well-intentioned. So, in order to avoid that from happening, you've got to stay connected. You've got to keep your finger on the pulse of what's actually needed versus what you might assume would be needed or what might look good.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. Exactly. So, as you look into the future, right, you're three to five, seven years from now, what do you hope that Black Tech Street has achieved? What does success look like? And then where do you go from there, right? What's the next step?
Tyrance Billingsley II: One of the most recent things that we've been doing and part of what's been so critical and core to our relationship with Microsoft is Black Tech Street has built out an Innovation Ambition Matrix for Greenwood. Just for context, the Innovation Ambition Matrix is something that was, you know, popularized in an article by Harvard Business Review. And it's essentially a mechanism for allocating and focusing innovation resources where you divide your resources into three key lanes really, where you put 70% of your effort into a core business or effort. You put 20% into an adjacent business or effort that's similar to the first and complementary. And then you put 10% into a transformative effort that has the potential to totally transform what the company does and give you a leg up in some brand-new area of innovation that you could own. What we've done and we plan to publish in an article here pretty soon is we've built an Innovation Ambition Matrix for Greenwood where we've chosen three core tech verticals that we think we are both positioned to and have an incredible opportunity to essentially run point or have a forward position as it relates to equitable innovation. The 70% core focus is cybersecurity which is, you know, where a lot of our key work with Microsoft itself is anchored. The 20% focus is, you know, business intelligence and data analytics, which is critically related. And the third transformative focus is artificial intelligence, which we know is going to pretty much revolutionize everything. These three verticals were specifically chosen because they all have very high earning potential. They're going to have ubiquitous penetration with every other tech vertical. And, in terms of their wealth building -- wealth building potential, they're exponential. Another thing is cybersecurity and business intelligence, which are precursors to artificial intelligence in a lot of ways, also have relatively lower barriers to entry. So when you have high in -- you have high-earning and high-impact industries with low barriers to entry, these are perfect fits for communities that have often been, you know, underrepresented and have often been marginalized. So we want to use these three verticals as like a ladder that we can use to keep Black Wall Street globally competitive in the 21st century.
Ann Johnson: That's fantastic! And I -- you know, I was at RSA as you were a couple of weeks ago, and one of the comments the speaker I was listening to made is that artificial intelligence in particular, there are going to be winners and losers very quickly. And if you're still trying to think about what your artificial intelligence strategy is 10 years from now, you're going to have lost. So the fact that you're leading in both there and cyber, and, as you said, low barrier to entry, we can train people in those fields, and there's huge demand for talent, right? So it's just like the perfect storm of bringing folks along into the community. And I'm proud of Microsoft and thrilled with the work we're doing here because it's work that's going to have an impact on an entire community but it's also work that's so necessary.
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. I genuinely think that the work we do, like here with Microsoft and generally in this matrix, this could really set an example for what tech verticals to focus on to get, particularly African Americans but marginalized communities at large really into the tech industry, into these roles that pay well, and that could be game-changing in terms of their wealth building. So, I mean, yeah, I think we're on the ground floor of something that will affect ultimately much more than just Tulsa.
Ann Johnson: I hope so, right? So you always have a ton going on. I know you're exceptionally busy. Can you share a bit with our listeners on all of the work you're doing right now?
Tyrance Billingsley II: Absolutely. So, in addition to our work with you, probably one of the biggest things we've recently announced was -- so we'll actually be joining the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and SeedAI at DEF CON this year. We're actually going to be a part of the largest red team for testing AI models that has ever been assembled. We're actually going to get to bring not just the Black Tech Street team, we're going to get to bring a lot of community members, potentially up to 100 of a lot of diverse backgrounds to be on the ground floor of testing these AI models, seeing if we can get them to behave harmfully so we can know what to look out for. But more than anything, this is the first step to put Black Wall Street at the forefront of what's going to be the most transformative industry that has ever happened. I have this dream of the thought of how to make AI equitable and the research of what that entails being rooted in Black Tech Street and Black Wall Street. Because when it comes to training AI and understanding what it needs to look out for, I think, a, there's powerful symbology in having a center for that being the site of the worst race massacre in Tuls -- in the history of the country, also the site of the first time bombs were dropped by the United States government on their own citizens. Complexities like that -- history like that breeds complexities in communities. That kind of perspective and nuance is what AI needs very critically from the get-go to ensure that we're not building harmful things. And I think Black Tech Street can lead Greenwood to a position where we can actually anchor that conversation in Tulsa, as it probably should be. So that's a critical thing we're working on. We're also working on the EDA where we're tracking -- they're going to, you know, announce their Tech Hubs Challenge, which could potentially get anywhere from $75 to $100 million for five different communities to pursue specific tech verticals. We're working with a coalition of Tulsa partners to put together our narrative and our matrix to go after that with a focus on the ambition matrix that I just spoke to you about.
Ann Johnson: So I want to thank you for joining me today for what is truly both a somber conversation but also optimism for the future and optimism for the progress and the things we can do, and we still have a ton of work do. And we always try to send our listeners off with optimism about the future, so what are you optimistic about?
Tyrance Billingsley II: I'm optimistic that we are at a place where people are understanding the importance of Tulsa and people are understanding the importance of this vision in a way that I think is really going to set the stage for making some real long-term change. Having grown up in this community and having grown up seeing so much done wrong and neglected, while we still have a very long way to go, I see energy that gives me hope that Tulsa can get to where it needs to be, and part of where Tulsa needs to be is leading the rest of the nation in this conversation. I don't see them as two different things. I don't see let's get Tulsa right, and then maybe we can think about getting the rest of the nation right as an example. I see, just as Black Wall Street was a shining example in Tulsa for the rest of the country of Black people, I see that that is part of where Tulsa has to get back to if it's ever going to be right. It's not just the equity piece, it's also the leadership piece, and I think that is critical. I also think that such powerful allies, like allies like Microsoft and so many others, this has never been done before. This has genuinely never been done before. And I think that with this type of energy, not only with the work that we do but the message that it sends, it's going to really have a domino/snowball effect on what work needs to get done. And the last thing I'll say is I genuinely believe that this world -- any darkness we get in this world is thrown to us, so we can find a way to transform it into light. And Tulsa has a ton, a ton, a ton of darkness. But, behind that darkness, I see a lot of light that can be a light for communities that otherwise probably wouldn't have gotten it but they may be able to get it if we get Tulsa right solely -- and it will be in the end because we were given this heavy load of darkness that nobody wanted but we may need to use to get this nation to where it needs to be.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. Very much agreed. And I want to thank you again for taking the time, I know you're incredibly busy on a lot of important missions, but thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Tyrance Billingsley II: I'm honored that you had me. Thank you so much.
Ann Johnson: And I want to thank our audience for listening. Join us next time on "Afternoon Cyber Tea."
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So I asked Tyrance Billingsley to join me on "Afternoon Cyber Tea" because the mission that he is on with Black Tech Street in Tulsa is not only going to help the community with regard to cybersecurity talent and AI talent and other talent, but it really is a model for things that we can build throughout the US to help with equality but also to help with, you know, bringing tech talent from different backgrounds and to really have people that are going to solve problems in a different way. It's a wonderful episode, truly meaningful, and I hope everyone enjoys listening to it.
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