Read The Atlantic, watch the show “Portlandia” or listen to my man W. Kamau Bell on CNN’s United Shades of America and you are left with the impression that Portland has a melanin problem. Not a “burning crosses,” “people kicked off of the bus” kind of problem but a “there might not be more than a handful of us here” kind of impression.
In reality, the home of the “Swoosh,” “Voodoo Donuts,’’ and the “Naked Bike Race” (seriously, completely naked) is also helping lead the way in cultivating African-American founders and their companies. Wait what? No, I haven’t been hanging at one of Portland’s many weed shops. I know something most of the country doesn’t… we out here.
Stay with me. I don’t mean that in a “PDX is the next ATL” kind of way. I mean that in a “if you see a black person walking down the street, give them ‘the nod,’ and you become family in 15 minutes” kind of way. Our numbers continue to rise in Portland, and thanks to the end (well almost) of illegal and legal housing practices, the state’s largest black population ever lives all over the region. The Oregonian writer Casey Parks wrote an article in 2016 unearthing a different portrayal of life in black Portland she said:
“…. Some of Portland’s black leaders have begun sharing another narrative. African-Americans aren’t disappearing, they say. Some are thriving.”
Her article goes on to introduce folks to a number of Portlanders who debunk the tropes of national headlines. One of those folks is Ian Williams, a janitor turned shoe developer, turned barista. He left his dream job at a shoe company headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon, cashed in his 401k, and started one of the more than 4,000 (according to 2012 Census data) black businesses in the city of Portland. He hoped to leverage the local sneaker community, encourage them to buy in to hanging out at a “snob-free” sneaker themed coffee shop in Old Town. Flash forward four years, coffee has taken him all over the world, gotten him his own Nike feature commercial. Truth be told, his spot would rival the barbershop in “Coming To America” as the place to get the latest on sports, shoes and the neighborhood. He got a needed boost along the way as one of the winners of “PitchBlack.”
And yet, as the number of black businesses in Portland continues to grow, the support infrastructure for them has all but crumbled. The Portland Business Journal reports the details, including a 96% decrease in the number of loans to black owned firms in Oregon over the last decade. Add to this, the widening wealth gap between African-Americans and whites in the US and you can imagine how the already difficult road for African-American founders is getting steeper.
This unique set of conditions inspired the event PitchBlack. That moment of inspiration recognized that black founders not only need capital to help them move forward with their ideas, but more importantly, they need to be able to leverage the social capital in regions around the country. With PitchBlack, we set out with a simple idea of putting people who live in the same city into the same room, knowing they have never all been in the same room together. So far it’s working out pretty well. Eight events among the cities of Portland, Austin, and Seattle have seen more than 60 ideas pitched, with more than $60,000 combined for the various winners. In Portland alone, PitchBlack presenters have gone on to raise more than $32MM for their ideas. These ideas are coming from engineers, pastors, high school students, coffee roasters and even a previously homeless founder who went on to be awarded Oregon’s “Startup of the Year.” Along the way, we have been blessed with a number of partners like Instrument, Business For A Better Portland, Built Oregon, Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), Ater Wynne, Pregame HQ, Puppet, Cloudability, Hack Nation, and many other firms and individuals who continue to give their time, talent, and treasure to make this event possible.
Our fifth year is looking to be our biggest ever, with a new venue (thank you, Wieden+Kennedy), 12 eager pitchers and a sneaker theme. This is where you come in. Each year we look to raise funds for the winners pot (split 60%/25%/15%). We have a fiscal sponsor (thanks, Built Oregon) who allows for these donations to be tax-deductible. You can donate to the winning pot and if you feel like making an appearance, grab a ticket to join in on the fun.
Sitting back and thinking about it, I never thought we would be doing an event five years later. I wanted to have a party that connected the people I cared about in my favorite city. It’s shocking that this has taken us to Seattle, Austin, Philadelphia, and connected us with hundreds of founders and organizations around the globe. Even the TEDx stage. It’s amazing to be part of these founders journeys as they get a small amount of gas in the tank, while more importantly, realizing that there’s a whole group of people that want to see them be successful. Looking forward to more events in many more cities as we prove to even more folks that “We Out Here.”