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Preferably Caucasian: The Rise & Fall of Tampa Bay's Startup Ecosystem

Updated: May 15, 2019

Why organizations like The Mainframe are so important to the future of the Bay

By James Faison on May 13

In the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg Area, is “Preferably Caucasian” truly the sentiment when it comes to recruiting and hiring in the technology space? Does the black tech startup community in the Tampa Bay Area have “a long way to go” before they can participate in the growth and success of the region? Recent occurrences could make those things appear to be true, but is that really the case? More importantly, if both or even one of these statements is perceived to be true, what real efforts are being made to change this paradigm?

The fact is, there are numerous issues that add to the systemic exclusion facing communities of color breaking into tech roles and the start-up space. A study from the Kapor center gives several examples of those issues, but two issues that are particularly relevant in the context of recent news are:

  • Biases in recruiting, hiring, retention and workplace culture contribute to substantial racial/ethnic and gender disparities in the tech workforce.

  • Cumulative economic barriers and biases in small business pathways affect the opportunities for diverse entrepreneurs to launch products, services and companies.



“Preferably Caucasian” Makes it Difficult to Recruit Black Tech Talent

Biases in recruiting: The recent article that came out in INC magazine about the job posting for a tech worker who worked in the IT space that was “Preferably Caucasian” made national news. What is particularly relevant is that the posting was for a job right here in Tampa, Florida.

In recent years Tampa Bay has seen tremendous growth, particularly in the tech space. The Tampa Bay Area has been actively working to attract millennial talent to fill the growing number of high skill, high wage jobs that are expected to be created over the next several years. There has also been a tremendous amount of excitement and media attention about Tampa Bay’s burgeoning start-up community.

How does the type of bias reflected in this type of job posting affect Tampa Bays standing as a destination for tech workers who happen to be from diverse backgrounds. If we talk about black technologists in particular, how would they react to the notion that there are companies in the Tampa Bay Area who feel this way.

If the perception becomes that the local business community is looking preferably for Caucasian talent, it may make it seem as though The Tampa Bay Area isn’t ready or currently able to use high skilled black technical talent or diverse talent from any other race. Hiring skilled black workers and encouraging them to come to this area only gets more challenging if that is how the local tech community is perceived.

My real question and concern is: Why come or even stay if it isn’t here? With cities like Atlanta, Durham, D.C. and Miami successfully establishing creative cultures for Black tech talent to thrive in their careers or endeavors. How can the Tampa Bay Area ever truly be considered a prime destination for top talent in any industry, if it’s perceived that we aren’t able and/or willing to provide an equal amount of (in some instances more) resources and opportunities to put all segments of our community on equal footing?

Many think or believe that there's no or very limited interest among the Black community in wanting to be involved in the tech entrepreneurial and start-up space. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. The Black tech/startup community is filled with individuals who are competitive, goal driven, and hungry for more. The absence of a dedicated physical hub, where Black tech talent and creatives can go to see reflections of themselves in their peers is a huge problem. Like many cities, I think we've dropped the ball. I don't say that to be overly critical of the city that I love and live in. Problems just need a solution. Problems lead to opportunities for improvement. Problems led to me founding The Mainframe.

Tampa Bay has a unique opportunity to truly separate itself from the pack. I’ve been quoted in previous interviews as saying “I want The Mainframe to be a representation to everyone within earshot that the Tampa Bay Area ‘gets it’.” That this part of the region genuinely embraces and understands the importance of having an all-inclusive and well diverse setting. We need talents here reflective of the city’s landscape, to help improve on the processes and systems in the technology space. We need to be pioneers of what true innovation means in terms of diversity and inclusion in every sense of the word.”

Perception is Everything: Why Black Tech Growth is at Risk In Tampa Bay

During his recent tour of the state of Florida.

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution (a Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm & co-founder of AOL) identified three areas that need to be addressed to grow Tampa Bay’s Tech Community:

  1. Big business involvement in young companies.

  2. Winning the battle for talent.

  3. Venture funding.

While a good portion of the incredibly well written article focused on the very positive outlook Steve Case and his team had for the Greater Tampa Bay Area. There were a few key points relevant to this discussion.

One takeaway from the article includes the fact that while exploring economic development and growth opportunities on both sides of the Bay. Steve Case and his team (accompanied by a few local start-up ecosystem leaders), repeatedly mentioned the importance of diversity among local entrepreneurs and the impact they will have on the region over the next decade. Additionally, the article broaches the subject of issues around diversity among local entrepreneurs. Where it’s mentioned, “there’s a long way to go” for the black startup community in Tampa Bay. While I’m sure the quote wasn’t meant with ill intent. This sentiment is problematic for several reasons.

If the general consensus from the broader start-up and venture capital community is that members of the black community aren’t quite ready to take part in the incredible growth and opportunities occurring right now in the Tampa Bay Area, that seriously impacts the ability of black startups to compete in this market. Granted, not every start-up will be successful, nor will every VC or angel want to invest in every start-up that’s presented. But if the perception becomes that tech start-ups or small businesses from the black community aren’t ready or able to compete at the same level as their counterparts from other communities, it seriously stifles their ability to get a seat at the table when funding and conversations about opportunities occur.

Secondly, if you compare the well established organizations that also focus on increasing entrepreneurship or supporting our start-up community here in The Tampa Bay Area. All of them were either started with the backing of an Enterprise level entity that provided them with the tools and resources necessary to hit the ground running. In other instances, it was great deals on prime downtown office space or real estate to help generate revenue while scaling up their programs. At times, it was direct financial backing from billionaires and millionaires, support from influential individuals, governments, or universities to help them hire staff and other necessities as they grew.

Additionally, Tampa’s current record of supporting “diversity” when it relates to economic development for black small businesses is an area that hasn’t been spotless. Over the past several years, the City of Tampa itself has been in the news for the low percentage of actual money spent with black vendors. Another example of the progress that needs to be made in this area is that one of the major economic engines in the region, the University of South Florida, has been documented as having a very poor track record when it comes to spending money with black small businesses. In fact, there are many large enterprises in the region that tout their “diversity lists” or “minority business registration programs” that have lengthy categories of different types of businesses, often with lots of black companies that are “registered.” However, while registration is a great concept to “show” diversity, it is useless if actual business is not being done with diverse companies and actual dollars are not being spent with diverse companies, that includes black founded small businesses.


To be clear, this isn’t about making the Tampa Bay Area as Black as it can be. It’s about making the city and surrounding areas the best that it can be. With diversity and inclusion being hot topics of conversation among key decision makers and major corporations in search of new landing spots. There needs to be a clear understanding of the distinct differences between Diversity & Inclusion.

Diversity: Is simply inviting someone to the party.

Inclusion: Is inviting someone to the same party AND asking them to dance with you.

The Tampa Bay Area is potentially on the cusp of something great. Quite frankly, we won’t see another economic opportunity like this in our lifetime. We can ill afford the effects of being perceived to be a city who either excludes or can’t provide what’s necessary for all segments of the community to grow and prosper in their own right. What we have in front of us is a chance to create wealth, jobs and opportunities that will impact the masses.

Checking a box just to meet certain criteria or metrics is no longer a sustainable approach, if we truly want to reach our full potential. City, county, local government, foundations, donors, banks, Fortune 500 & 100 companies, media outlets, news publications, the community as a whole. All that were mentioned, and call Tampa Bay home. Play a pivotal role in determining what will be the successful economic development of this area for generations to come. So let's do away with the “wait and see” approach, and build the infrastructure needed to “make it be”.

This road trip that we’re on won’t go the distance if all of our wheels aren’t properly inflated.

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