Silicon Harlem Innovation Center: It Doesn’t Just Empower Entrepreneurs – It Empowers Communities

by Marcella Gadson on April 15, 2015

Silicon HarlemThere has been a lot of focus lately – and rightfully so – on the gaping employment disparity between whites and minorities in Silicon Valley.  There is a relative dearth of minorities focusing on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – fields in general, and this means millions of would-be innovators are locked out of the boundless opportunities available to lead and create in today’s technology-driven society.

What we don’t hear about are the success stories, and the revolutions that are occurring across the country, taking tech out of the Valley and instead bringing it directly to local communities.  Many major cities across the nation now feature hubs for digital startups, including in diverse communities.  Entrepreneurs Clayton Banks and Bruce Lincoln have created another such hub in the heart of Harlem – and new technology hubs like Silicon Harlem are transforming communities in more ways than you would think. 

Last month, Karen F. Parker, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, published a study in Urban Affairs Review that found a correlation between growing African-American business ownership and declining youth violence.  Although this trend is a by-product of the mere presence of black-owned businesses in minority communities due to owners serving as role models to youth and creating social networks to empower and uplift the community, Silicon Harlem wants to take a more active role in creating community empowerment.  In fact, the company seeks to “lower if not eradicate crime in Harlem, lower unemployment rates, increase quality education opportunities, and grow jobs” by transforming Harlem into a tech and innovation hub.

And the young startup has already taken significant steps in that direction by establishing co-working spaces, encouraging gigabit infrastructure, securing investment capital, and hosting monthly meetups.

Innovation Center and Jobs

There was an immediate demand for Silicon Harlem’s first co-working space when it opened in 2013.  “There were zero co-working spaces in Harlem in February of 2013,” said Banks who, in addition to serving as Founder and Co-Executive Producer at Silicon Harlem, is also President and CEO of Ember Media.  “We worked with Mayor Bloomberg’s office and others to open the Harlem garage in November 2013, and it was sold out weeks before it even opened.  We had a waiting list the size of the number of occupants it could house.”

That was just the first space.  Since, Silicon Harlem has opened five co-working spaces.  “Our long-term goal is to establish a building in the middle of Harlem that will be an innovation center – a co-working space, an incubation space, an acceleration space – that will also drive economic development in the community,” said Lincoln, who is Co-Founder of Silicon Harlem, the Founder and Chief Design Scientist at the Urban Cyberspace Company, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Columbia University.  Their hope is that the innovation center “incubates companies that incubate each other through a supportive ecosystem,” said Lincoln.

Other existing Silicon Harlem co-working spaces include a Harlem Bio Space that “focuses on life sciences and research and solving major issues like Ebola; and a creative workspace that hosts workshops on how to raise capital, work with accountants and lawyers, file patents, and other important information entrepreneurs need to know,” said Lincoln.

These revolutionary co-working spaces are but one component of Silicon Harlem’s four pillars: Gigabit Harlem, STEM education, galvanizing the community, and creating jobs through their Innovation Center.

Gigabit Harlem

Through its Gigabit Harlem program, Silicon Harlem works with broadband providers to ensure the infrastructure in Harlem is state-of-the-art and can support gigabit-speed broadband.  Super high speed Internet capabilities are essential to creating opportunities for economic growth within communities because entrepreneurs place their businesses in places that can support their heavy broadband needs.

While pockets of the nation are experiencing a phenomenon known as ‘digital redlining’ – the process where Internet service providers refuse to build gigabit-speed infrastructure in certain neighborhoods – Silicon Harlem is taking concrete steps to ensure Harlem is not left out.  To date, the company has influenced the buildout of over 10 locations in Harlem with the fiber infrastructure to provide ultraspeed options to business and resident occupants.

Galvanize the Community

Silicon Harlem actively promotes individual growth and empowerment through monthly meetups and quarterly tech talks with Congressman Charlie Rangel, as well as an annual conference that brings together tech experts, government officials, and the private sector to forward the idea of transforming Harlem into a tech and innovation hub.

“Our New York tech meetup is 40,000 strong,” said Banks.  “There is major diversity in presenting companies for the first time.  These meetups are helping and nurturing the startup community.”

To date, Silicon Harlem events have fostered the formation of eight new business collaborations for Harlem entrepreneurs.

STEM Education

One of Silicon Harlem’s biggest impacts on youth has been through its seven-week Apps Youth Leadership Academy to teach high school students about entrepreneurship, app development, and other STEM-related skills.  The Academy boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, and a student who was later admitted to Smith College to study engineering is among its graduates.

Banks is optimistic that Silicon Harlem’s program can spur the creation of others like it.  “This model can be replicated in a variety of ways and in a variety of areas,” he said.  “If you give kids jobs, they don’t commit crimes. This will drive down crime and provide educational opportunities. It’ll create a pipeline by exposing people to tech and code and giving them opportunities.”

In addition to working with community youth, Silicon Harlem holds an adult education series that collaborates with private partners to train career-changing individuals such as athletes or artists the skills they need to become job-ready.

Silicon Harlem: An Example of Becoming the Change You Want

Banks and Lincoln are true shepherds of a truth that many seem to have forgotten – businesses do not exist in a bubble; they are intricately linked with and ultimately a part of their communities.  In a world where many are being left behind due to phenomena like digital redlining and the ever-present digital divide, innovative champions like Banks and Lincoln rise and decide to actively make change in their communities.

Silicon Harlem’s message is clear: there is a need for more diversity in tech, and we are doing something about it.  Rather than sit back and wait for Silicon Valley companies to slowly improve their diversity numbers, innovators are creating their own opportunities – and making it their mission to uplift entire communities while they’re at it.

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC).
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