Chattanooga and Kansas City: New Tech Towns on the Gigabit Frontier

The emergence of tech industry in cities outside of Silicon Valley is an opportunity for conversation.

by Meghan O’Dea on March 17th, 2014

As a little girl growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I would have never predicted that this small Southern city would ever hold the title of the fastest internet in the Western Hemisphere.

After all, Silicon Valley is where the internet happens. That’s how it’s always been. Meanwhile, my quirky, arty hometown still had one foot in the 1950s. When my family moved here in 1990, Chattanooga was still trying for a comeback. Many of the old families who had built fortunes manufacturing Coca Cola, Gold Bond, steel, and jellybeans during Chattanooga’s early boom town days reinvested in the city to help it overcome its industrial past. It was initially reborn as an arts town, the Scenic City– not a future tech hub, one that would bust the myth that tech only happens on the Left Coast, and that tech culture can only come in one flavor.

Ten years ago you didn’t stay here after you graduated from high school, much as it is in many small towns across America. As a teen, I watched my classmates take off for New York, Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, even Atlanta. Sometimes I wondered why I stayed in a town with one dive-y music venue, where you couldn’t even buy a six-pack on Sundays.

Then something unexpected happened. While my former classmates and I had been hitting the books and bars and earning degrees, the local Electric Power Board had been laying 6,000 miles of fiber optic cable throughout Chattanooga. It wasn’t the first step the city took to improve itself, but it just might be the biggest. And in 2011, Google announced that it would be laying down a fiber optic network in Kansas City. The new tech towns were on the map, and they were beating bigger cities like New York to the punch.

Downtown Chattanooga, showing the brick and glass Electric Power Building and the Tennessee Valley Authority, another regional power organization, in the background.

The sites on which the Electric Power Board and TVA buildings sit are fitting– once they were home to the railway lines and depots that made Chattanooga’s manufacturing boom possible. Today the tracks are gone, but the fiber optic lines that have taken their place are bringing the tech industry down South.

As Lindsey Frost Cleary, community catalyst at Mozilla, explains: “Tech booms aren’t really about place – they’re about community.”

Building New Tech Communities in Old Cities

In fact, the Silicon Valley establishment is only just taking an interest. Google and Mozilla have begun investing in these cities, but like the trendy farmers markets popping up, these tech scenes are heavily local, with few imports.

The local Electric Power Board largely originated the Chattanooga tech scene with its fiber optic roll out. Ambition, a startup that applies gamification principles to sales, has six key leaders who all attended high school or college here in Chattanooga. Fast Company featured the Chattanooga initiative Create Here, which brought galleries, restaurants, condos, and businesses to the Southside District with events like the annual Mainx24 party, the Springboard incubator, and community-wide visioning meetups and surveys. CoLab was another product of Create Here, and continues to incubate startups, offer workshops, business classes, and is a sponsor of the GigTank summer tech accelerator about to hit its third year.

But all communities have histories. Chattanooga and Kansas City are no exception. Their history books are full of Civil War battles, racism, white flight, homophobia, entrenched gender roles, political corruption and income inequality. Chattanooga’s now iconic, tourist-friendly Walnut Street bridge was the site of a lynching in 1906. Kansas City was the seat of the corrupt Pendergrast Machine until the 1940s, and in the 1980s Chattanooga earned the distinction of “the dirtiest city in America.” In 2009 the NAACP acknowledged “a general perception that Chattanooga has a major race problem.” More recently, gentrification and escalating gang violence have been a problem that local government has struggled to address.

It would definitely be a stretch to say these new tech scenes are a model of inclusivity. For one, Southern women have long struggled to be taken seriously and find the same opportunities in business, which often functions like a boy’s club. Tiffanie Robinson, founder of tech-focused recruitment agency WayPaver, recalls her early twenties, when she was president of a Chattanooga young professionals organization: “The men on the board, although they were the same age as me, treated me like they needed to pat me on the head while they actually took care of business. It was this old-school mentality that you are twenty four years old and in leadership, but one day you’ll be a stay at home mom and won’t matter in the business community.”

Two people sit at slightly cluttered tables, working on laptops, in a sunlit office.

Joda Thongnopnua and Lucky Ramsey, two members of the Waypaver team, work to fill the demand for niche positions in Chattanooga’s growing startup community.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy is a behavioral analyst at MMGY Global in Kansas City and involved with woman-led Haden Interactive in Arkansas. She acknowledged that sometimes people are surprised to hear she’s in the startup scene and a big fan of male-dominated hobbies. “The external stereotypes are an entirely different story,” she said, “I always hope it’s just that they’ve never heard of the field instead of being surprised that a well-spoken female is in technology and gaming.”

Further, rallying cries to involve women in local tech and business communities often end up excluding many groups of women. Ten years ago, when STEM was first becoming a big buzz, it was expensive private schools like Girls Preparatory School that rallied the cause of getting more girls involved in science and math. GPS was also more than 80% white. Meanwhile, in 2008 at Howard High School, a co-ed public school which is predominantly black and Hispanic, “only half of Howard’s students could solve grade-level math problems” according to the Times Free Press. What made a difference was an influx of funding and resources from organizations such as the Southeast Tennessee STEM Innovation Hub, Benwood Foundation, and Public Education Foundation. noted expanded STEM program last year, including Benwood and PEF’s funding for iPads and Chromebooks at Howard and several other struggling high schools in 2012. And in the past couple of years, the Girl’s Leadership Academy opened with an innovative focus on STEM.

But the problem of white feminism and financial klout is also a factor in the professional community. Mixer and networking events that can help women advance or are specifically for women often require a cover charge or yearly membership fee to attend, which is prohibitive to many women. And in the South, income inequality is still deeply entwined with racial inequality. The Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute, for example, with a $100 annual membership fee, locks many women of color out of its mission to “increase the leadership capabilities and influence of women in the Chattanooga community.” There are opportunities for women in Chattanooga, but many are open only if you can buy your way in. In contrast, the Kansas City Women’s Foundation has a far more diverse board and staff, and focuses on grants and programing that invest directly in women throughout the city.

Opportunities for Change

There is a great opportunity for both the tech scene and these cities to create real change in one another. The arrival of tech is an opportunity for conversation about what both the industry and civic communities should look like. And because the tech scene is new, it is not entirely of these places. It isn’t part of the established hierarchy of business and old money that have often been rigidly exclusive. There is still a call to action and shorter hierarchies. The path to empowerment, success, and making bank aren’t as heavily roadblocked as more established businesses. Instead, they still need to be blazed. As my colleague Dr. Shelley Prevost explained, “People can be on the ground floor of what we’re doing. They aren’t as many rules for how startups get started.” In fact, that’s one of the reasons she and several other women leaders in Chattanooga founded The Jump Fund.

The Jump Fund founders saw an opportunity to break all the rules about how startups are traditionally funded and staffed, and started an angel fund for female investors who are seeding women-led businesses. Rather than competing with men for funding, women have their own sandbox. Organizations that provide outreach, community, and connection are sprouting up all over. Josepha Chomphosy is also on the board of Kansas City Women in Technology, and explained of KCWIT, “We do a lot of outreach to students and their teachers to encourage young women to pursue tech careers.”

Lindsey Frost Cleary noted of our hometown, “We’ll probably never be ‘the next Silicon Valley’ but we can be the ‘next Silicon Valley for women.’” Cleary adds, “We’re certainly not there yet – tech meetups and events are definitely still largely dominated by men – but the potential to become a different sort of tech community is certainly there, and there are a lot of people in town deeply committed to making this more inclusive vision a reality.”

Chattanooga also sees more and more tech ed and entrepreneur ed opportunities each year, many focusing on underserved schools. Build Me a World, a feature length movie about students at the oldest black public high school in the South started with a film class in which students at Howard High School worked with creative agency Fancy Rhino to share their stories. The Black Family Technology Awareness Association in Kansas City features programing including robotics classes and demos. LAUNCH, a non-profit organization that supports underserved student and adult entrepreneurs, also sponsors a High School Entrepreneurship Competition. Students get to pitch their ideas to real venture capitalists who provide both startup support and funding to the winners.

One LAUNCH winner was Tracy M. Shaw, who opened ACE Net Internet Cafe, ACE standing for “Advancement of Community Entrepreneurship.” Others weren’t specifically tech focused, but made a big community impact. Buff Rainey’s Big Buff’s 92 BBQ opened in East Chattanooga last year, with additional support and fanfare from the Glass House Collective. GHC is an organization dedicated to bringing a once-vital commercial corridor back to life with businesses developed by neighborhood residents, art projects, grants, and city improvements like new sidewalks. Another LAUNCH graduate was Brenda Trigg’s Fare Share Urban Garden, which uses sustainable agriculture to combat “food insecurity, poverty, and hunger.” Last year’s high school LAUNCH winners were Colby McCurty and Deosha King of Tyner Academy, with a vending machine concept called GetBox that dispenses school supplies.

Colby McCurty and Deosha King with GetBox.

LAUNCH winners Colby McCurty and Deosha King of Tyner Academy pose with their winning entrepreneurial concept, a school supply vending machine called GetBox. (Photo Credit: LAUNCH website).

Approaching Tech – and Cities – In New Ways

Chattanooga and Kansas City each have a long way to go. However, I have hope that an influx of innovation, new talent, and optimism will help propel these cities to create real change. The positive side of these cities’ unique cultures are already making a difference in how startups approach business.

Large, foot high vinyl lettering on a brightly colored wall saying: You're In The Right Place.

One of the places we can see a glimpse of what I hope is the future is at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Library. The Library’s 4th Floor is dedicated to tech ed, with a 3D printer, regular workshops, and where the kickoff to the Chattanooga chapter of the Mozilla Gigabyte Fund took place. When you first come out of the elevator to the 4th Floor space, you see a bright yellow wall reading “You’re in the Right Place.” It’s both a helpful nod to the deconstructed, loft-like feel of the space and the perfect slogan for new tech scenes like those in Chattanooga and Kansas City. I believe these cities are where we can change tech culture together, and in the process add a brighter chapter to our cities and to tech itself, one line of code, one gigabit, one hire, one startup, and one badass new business at a time.