Silicon Harlem has been a leader in stimulating the technology and innovation that’s bustling in Harlem USA. The organization’s upcoming second annual Silicon Harlem Tech Conference on October 16 centers on the theme Connected for Good! We sat down with cofounder and executive director Clayton Banks to learn what’s been happening in Harlem’s technological hub since he and his partner Bruce Lincoln first launched Silicon Harlem in 2013, and what’s on tap for this week’s conference.
EBONY: What’s the core focus of Silicon Harlem?
Clayton Banks: There is one clear core focus of Silicon Harlem, and that is utilizing technology and innovation as a driver for economic development in upper Manhattan. The reality is that 21st century jobs and companies require tech literacy, and for communities, it’s vital that the residents and business owners take the lead in driving this.
Our goal is to galvanize upper Manhattan and to provide the roadmap envisioning the technological future of Harlem. We want to get the community focused on the idea that driving an innovation and tech-centered hub will create jobs and put people on a path to economic prosperity. And when you do that, crime comes down, education increases, poverty can be eradicated, and we have a robust and bustling tech community that’s a part of the entire New York City ecosystem.
EBONY: How do you plan to achieve this?
CB: In 2013 when we started, there were zero co-working spaces in Harlem. There’s a bunch in midtown, downtown, and even Brooklyn. So we set out to work with individuals and companies that are interested in working in a co-working space, and within two years, we now have six coworking spaces throughout Harlem. These spaces are important, because this is where innovation, your startup community, and people who have ideas are gathering.
That was a first step in putting attention on a new way to work. It has really made a difference in Harlem. You’ll see it at TEEM, you’ll see it where we do our conferences at MIST, Harlem Business Alliance has the Creative Workspace, and this is happening throughout several other areas of Harlem.
Another thing we wanted to do was embrace the startup community. Since I have a long corporate career and my cofounder Bruce Lincoln served as an entrepreneur in residence at Columbia University, we combined our experience to help provide advice to the startups basing themselves uptown. We have 12 or 13 companies under our advisement that we help put their pitch together, put their business plan together, and march toward getting funding and finance for their companies. It was important to us to provide that informal incubation.
The third thing is, we work very closely with the political infrastructure of New York City. We have been very deliberate about fostering the public/private relationships. We work with the Manhattan borough president, members of the city council, and our congressional sponsor is Charles B. Rangel. It’s been great to have that kind of support, which lead us to directly working with the city.
We’ve been invited to be a part of the Mayor’s broadband task force, where I’ve been made a commissioner for public information. So what that means is that uptown has a seat at the table. So with an initiative like LinkNYC that replaces pay phones with hotspot access, by us being at the table, we get to recommend that this be started uptown, where a lot of people don’t have access. And we were heard.
And fourth would be infrastructure. We work with companies like Verizon and Time Warner to make sure that residents have the fastest, most reliable connections for the most affordable prices. We want people to realize they have to be connected.
EBONY: Was Silicon Harlem a catalyst for the tech activity in Harlem, or was there already a burgeoning culture?
CB: The fifth thing I wanted to mention was, we’ve actually had Silicon Harlem on our radar for 10 years, including submitting to have funds to create community tech centers through Barack Obama’s BTOP Program. But we hadn’t spoken with the community. The tipping point for us was when we had our first meet-up and almost 500 people came out. Then we realized there were a lot of us uptown. All we needed to do was galvanize the community. That’s why the co-working spaces are seeing success. That’s why incubators are starting here. That’s why young companies are anchoring in Harlem. We don’t have illusions that we’re the first people talking about tech uptown. We’re inclusive, and we invite everyone to come out.
EBONY: You also have an education component?
CB: It’s vital for this tech and innovation hub to have an education component as part of it. We’re intergenerational. We have programs that focus on high school kids. And we’ve had success with seniors going to college, like the young lady who is on the front page of our website who is going to Smith College and worked at About.com. We also did a demystifying technology for senior citizens during Harlem Week. And with City College, we offer tech programming classes that are a fraction of the cost that you would pay in midtown. And our meet-ups every month are targeted to working class and professionals looking to network.
EBONY: How will you measure success?
CB: How has what we’re doing driven the development of jobs? What’s directly related to us is, we’re looking at the number of young people that we’re pushing through these educational programs, going to college and returning to go to work, establish a business, or live. We also measure the number of professionals who take our courses at City College. We also measure the companies that are getting money to accelerate.
EBONY: Are there specific success stories that you can cite?
CB: There’s a young lady we worked with who has received funding from a number of sources through her ability to win pitch fests. Her name is Stephanie Lampkin, and she’s been a part of us before she even had Blendoor. We’ve watched her and helped her in a lot of ways, and now she really has some momentum going. There’s another company called Kudzoo that awards and motivates students for doing well in school. They’ve also received funding and have been able to move their company along.
EBONY: Do you see Silicon Harlem as a model for other urban centers?
CB: It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. The technology evolution is worldwide. The model we’re implementing uptown we’re sharing with Philadelphia, Newark, and we’ve shared with Boston. We’re connecting with Atlanta and Chicago. This is so we can fix these areas, these urban markets that can become economic engines in the 21st century. We need dedicated people who can provide structure and leadership. The communities are ready and willing.
EBONY: You have your second annual conference coming up. What are your expectations?
CB: Our conference is called Connected for Good!, because we want people to realize they have to be connected. Our opening keynote session is Maya Wiley, who is the counsel to the mayor. What we hope comes out is that broadband is as important as the water and electricity running through your home. She’s going to focus on the power of what that means.
We want our attendees to understand that being online isn’t just for professionals; it needs to happen for everybody. Another thing we’ll be talking about is not about where we are; we’re going to focus on where we are going as a tech and innovation community. It’s next generation everything. We want our attendees to be prepared for the future.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.