In Upper Manhattan, Visions of a Tech Economy

Clayton Banks
Clayton Banks, co-Founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem, inside the co-working space on 126th where the company has its offices.

Harlem is known for its rich culture, music and diversity. Now, certain organizations and entrepreneurs are trying to make it known for something else: technology.

Through education initiatives, the creation of tech centers, and community engagement in STEM, numerous businesses and local politicians have been teaming up to turn Uptown into the city’s go-to tech area.

Upper Manhattan has a vastly higher percentage of people of color than the rest of the borough—and it’s well known that compared to the private sector overall, the tech sector is disproportionately white. Black and Latino people make up about 31 percent of the nation’s population, 28 percent of private sector workers, 15 percent of tech employees and 5 percent of tech executives, according to federal statistics.

Some fear that the creation of a tech-focused economy in these neighborhoods could exacerbate gentrification, akin to the effect that the development of Silicon Valley had on San Francisco. However, the organizations involved have made it clear that their aim is to strengthen and benefit the lives of the existing residents, not push them out.

Growing small businesses and creating jobs

The for-profit social venture Silicon Harlem is one of the organizations leading the charge in making Upper Manhattan into a center for technological development. One of Silicon Harlem’s primary goals is to spur an entrepreneurial spirit in Harlem: The organization is opening an “Innovation Center” to support the development of tech companies, particularly social ventures that improve the local economy, and hosts monthly, quarterly and annual gatherings that create opportunities for tech-based businesses to collaborate with one another as well as engage with experts and the public sector.

By fostering tech entrepreneurship in Harlem, the organization hopes to improve both neighborhood conditions and quality job access for residents.

Clayton Banks, co-founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem, says that he chose the Harlem area as the location for his organization because of both what it can contribute to the tech movement and what it stands to gain from it.

“The Harlem community has been built on entrepreneurialism in a lot of ways, so it made sense that we ought to have the tech start-up community as a part of that,” says Banks. “And the community has unique needs, whether its health, traffic, education, or employment. There are unique needs here that we think tech and innovation can try to solve.”

Nicole Valentine, who grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Harlem since 2005, used to be in the business world, but also became a tech entrepreneur with the launch of her first app in 2014: the Winly app provides entrepreneurs and business owners with a guide to business planning, strategizing and growth. Valentine explains that she appreciates Silicon Harlem’s conferences and the tech community they help to create.

“It’s definitely an inspiring place to be for someone who is just starting a business,” says Valentine. “To start a business, you need inspiration. That’s the very beginning. Here you see other tech founders, you meet people who have successfully created businesses.”

She also echoes Banks’ views on the choice of Upper Manhattan as a space for a growing tech community, saying that Harlem’s creativity and diversity is key to making it a place where tech can blossom.

“Harlem is known as the place of the Renaissance,” says Valentine. “It’s known as a place where there’s a very rich culture. And tech is a great partner to meet that creativity, to meet culture.”

Harlem Biospace, another central figure in the Harlem tech world, is an incubator for early-stage biotech start-ups, with 24 spaces that scientific entrepreneurs can apply to use. If accepted, start-ups receive a space in the incubator for $995 per month, as well as access to lab equipment, wet lab space, and biotech lawyers. The goal is to help streamline the process of turning ideas from local research universities and health scientists into viable businesses.

Christine Kovich, who co-founded Harlem Biospace with her husband Sam Sia, says that their organization is also striving to contribute to local business development in the area.

“By situating ourselves in West Harlem, we are hoping that the hub for biotech innovation will eventually establish itself here,” says Kovich. “As companies grow out of our space, we hope that they will locate nearby. This could lead to more middle and high skill jobs and other opportunities.”

Tools to succeed

Silicon Harlem has also maintained a significant focus on community engagement through education. The organization hosts the Apps Youth Leadership Academy, a seven-week summer course at which high school students can learn about app development and other STEM-related technological skills while also developing entrepreneurial abilities. It also operates Silicon Harlem Adult, which provides STEM-field career training for adults. Additionally, it has participated in various local festivals and events, such as the 2016 Children’s Festival and Harlem Week, by holding STEM activities targeted toward children.

According to the organization, each of these tech education initiatives connects to Silicon Harlem’s larger goal: reducing income inequality for residents of Harlem. Banks says that by engaging community members in learning about tech, particularly young people, they will be empowered to go into STEM-based educational paths and job fields, which tend to be linked to higher incomes.

“The entire world is becoming digitized and tech-driven,” says Banks. “The jobs of the 21st century are going to require a level of STEM background. So it is critically important that young people are not left behind by not having exposure to STEM.”

In similar fashion to Silicon Harlem, Harlem Biospace is the parent organization of HYPOTHEkids, a STEM initiative for local K-12 students. HYPOTHEkids aims to give underserved communities education and experience in bioengineering and the scientific method through various in- and after-school and summer programs.

Kovich, who serves as the Executive Director of HYPOTHEkids, reiterates Banks’ ideas about how a STEM education can break the cycle of poverty.

“We believe that when students are able to see the practical application of their STEM skills, they become more intentional in their aspirations for their post-secondary careers,” says Kovich. “Our goal is that our students enter and complete four-year STEM programs. Students graduating from STEM programs, on average, earn 26% more than their peers even if they are not hired for STEM job. We believe that this can change their families’ trajectories and provide pathways out of poverty.”

According to a report by Google and Gallup released last year, 47 percent of black students nationwide have computer science classes in school, as compared to 58 percent of white students and 59 percent of Latino Students. Black and Latino students are less likely to have computers in their homes.

Other studies find, however, that students graduating from computer science and engineering majors are more diverse than the staff at leading tech companies. In other words, experts say the problem may not just that minorities are less likely to study tech, but also that they’re less likely to be recruited, or hired, or to feel welcome working in a tech company.

Introducing the infrastructure

Members of the tech movement in Upper Manhattan also seek to provide the right foundations for this growing sector—primarily by improving the area’s access to high-speed internet, known as broadband.

Lou Zacharilla, a co-founder of the Manhattan-based think tank Intelligent Community Forum and a frequent speaker on the broadband economy, compares the importance of Internet access to access to transportation.

“It’s kind of like bringing the subway to any part of the city,” says Zacharilla. “If it doesn’t come near you, you’re at a disadvantage, because you can’t give people access to the businesses that are out there. Broadband … not only connects you to the rest of the city, it connects you to the world.”

According to a report by the Comptroller’s office, 74 percent of Inwood residents, 62.9 percent of Central Harlem residents and 59.6 percent of East Harlem residents have access to broadband at home. Excepting the Lower East Side, the rest of Manhattan has rates of broadband access above 80 percent.

Providing affordable broadband for the community is a major component of Silicon Harlem’s work. Through their “Gigabit Harlem” project, Silicon Harlem is collaborating with broadband providers to create locations with gigabit speed broadband. The social venture is also helping to deploy the city’s RISE initiative, which provides free, storm-and-flood resistant wifi networking equipment to businesses.

And it’s not only Silicon Harlem seeking broadband access: The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, written by Councilmember and Speaker of City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito and a team of community stakeholders, includes multiple recommendations related to broadband access, including improving Internet access in East Harlem school buildings and bringing broadband Internet to all East Harlem NYCHA developments.

Entrepreneur Valentine says that Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who was honored at a Silicon Harlem conference, has been a notable champion of expanding broadband to areas like Harlem.

“She’s been like a tech angel in the city,” says Valentine.

In addition to Internet access, Valentine says that what the tech industry in Upper Manhattan needs now is support from venture capital and partnerships with large universities.

“Columbia is in our backyard, NYU is down the street,” Valentine says. “It’s to say: who’s being innovative in these academies, who’s being innovative in these communities, and the capital is there to support the growth and scale of it.”

Large-scale steps toward change

Meanwhile just north in Inwood, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez has his own dreams of harnessing tech to make his district prosper. The councilmember is already active in promoting engagement in tech in his community; earlier this month, he partnered with AALSTEM, Community School District 6, and City College of New York to hold the 2017 Tech Fair In The Heights. But Rodriguez’s grandest vision is of a technology and health care hub that would come from rezoning the areas east of 10th Avenue that are currently zoned for manufacturing.

Rodriguez envisions this hub attracting existing tech businesses—he’s named Google and Apple in the past—but also including a training center to teach individuals about tech jobs and entrepreneurship. He emphasizes providing opportunity for groups that are often left out of the tech field.

“As a resident of this community since 1983, I have seen how creative our jobs are in Northern Manhattan,” says Rodriguez. “Life is about opportunity, and we recognize that the tech companies can and should do more training [of] our women and people of color in the field. Those groups have been left behind. They should have equal representation.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), in collaboration with Rodriguez, has conducted a study called the Inwood NYC Planning Initiative to create a development plan for Inwood, the goals of which are to expand economic opportunity, improve the livability of the neighborhood and sustain affordable housing, according to the NYCEDC project page.

EDC’s Inwood NYC 2017 Action Plan, released June 29, includes a rezoning of 10th Avenue and efforts to attract “anchor institutions” in growing sectors to the rezoning area. The city will also explore the creation of high-speed and affordable broadband and new youth programs in STEM education in the neighborhood, while the area’s new Workforce1 Career Center will provide training for industries like health care and tech.

Yet the proposal is also controversial: While the plan also includes income-targeted housing, many residents feel that it would not be affordable for Inwood’s lower-income residents and that a rezoning would exacerbate displacement.

Gentrification worries

While its promoters are very enthusiastic about the positive change that a tech movement will bring, other community members of Upper Manhattan are not so sure. Many are worried that the transformation will lead to rapid gentrification of the area.

Inwood resident and housing rights activist Graham Ciraulo is skeptical of the tech hub that the Councilman has put forth for Inwood, wondering whether it would benefit the current residents or simply displace them, as other similar tech projects in other parts of the country have in the past.

“I think residents will give the idea of a tech hub a fair hearing because there is a definite interest in seeing jobs created,” says Ciraulo. “But the bar will be set high for City officials to prove how inviting the tech industry, with its appalling record of gender discrimination and inexcusable under-representation of African Americans and Latinos in its workforce, will truly benefit the people of Inwood. Visit San Francisco or Oakland and you can clearly see how the influx of affluent tech workers has eradicated long-standing working class communities. Why would Inwood be any different? That’s what we need to know.”

Council Member Rodriguez also acknowledged this view, but thought the potential dangers of displacement could be counteracted by conscious measures to help residents grow with the community.

“There’s always going to be risk,” says Rodriguez. “I believe that as we move toward economic development, we should learn from other things that are happening in other cities, and create a training center so that we can train the existing workforce, so people are able to make enough so that they can pay their rent and stay in this community.”

He added that this can also be attained through delivering a high percentage of affordable housing to the community and investing in resources such as legal representation.

Zacharilla also thinks the concern is justified.

“This is a business element and dynamic that does tend to dislocate,” says Zacharilla. “So you have to anticipate this. But it means things are happening that are successful. So, we think, how do we continue this but continue to manage it and balance it. First you want to concentrate on the people who are there, the talent that is there, and keep them there, and then you want to manage the growth and success.”

Banks, on the other hand, does not have any gentrification fears for Harlem. He does recognize, however, that addressing these fears is an important part of working with and galvanizing the community.

“To address fears is to empower people. That’s why we’re so committed to digital literacy and to infrastructure. Provide the infrastructure that will allow people to grow and to be a part of the growth of the community,” says Banks. “But there’s no way you can destroy cultural Harlem, it’s too rich and well respected. We’re not going to lose the soul of Harlem, that’s not going to happen.”

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