America’s Whitest City Explodes With A Fusion Of Inclusion

It’s tough to see at first glance that diversity matters in Portland, Oregon. After all, Portlandia is widely known as the “whitest city in America.” But hidden within this environmentally friendly rain-soaked scenic city, there are intentional efforts ongoing in economic gardening across multiple community sectors to cultivate the growth of a diverse landscape of job creators.

This year alone, the volcanic region of Greater Portland has erupted in activities focused on empowering underrepresented entrepreneurs to compete in the region’s growing innovation- and tech-based economy. If successful, Silicon Forest may become the first inclusive innovation ecosystem in America. And there are strong incentives for focusing on inclusion.

Across the nation, black and Hispanic entrepreneurs are growing at a rate of triple and double the national average of 18 percent, respectively, with black women entrepreneurs leading all growth at an astounding rate of 322 percent. Yet, despite having low percentages of both black (6 percent) and Latino populations (9 percent), Portland is setting itself apart from neighboring innovation regions to the north and south with increasing proactive efforts to empower and grow entrepreneurial talent hidden within its underrepresented populations, most of which remain disconnected from the region’s tech-based innovation economy.

At the core of these efforts, there are a handful of local leaders working to expedite the process.

A Passion For Promoting Portland

Stephen Green (no relation) is undoubtedly the nucleus of active efforts in the Greater Portland region for developing a thriving diverse business environment. This 38-year-old black professional financier and small-business owner has a smoldering passion for promoting Portland as one of the nation’s most welcoming environments for entrepreneurs of color. Green is co-founder of America’s first nonprofit pub, the Oregon Public House. Located within a diverse community, the pub regularly hosts networking events for investors and entrepreneurs.

“Dig a little below the surface of Portland’s startup community and you will encounter a number of black and brown firms that have chosen PDX for its unique demographics, growing communities of color but not segregated,” Green said. “Add to this a fairly liberal city and you have the makings of a place poised to compete with NYC, ATL and DC as cities that scale minority owned firms. In PDX we are unique, not isolated, and opportunities emerge for firms here that may not happen as fast in other cities for firms owned by people of color.”

Portland may be a case study in developing the model for becoming a global city.

Green recently started a whiteboard-pitching event series in the pub’s upstairs event space. The first in the series, #PitchBlack, showcased six local black entrepreneurs pitching to a widely diverse audience of more than 150 attendees. The audience determined the winner, who received the lion’s share of the ticketing funds. Diane Freaney, a Portland-based former Wall Street investor who focuses her time on Rooted Investing, wrote a check to the winner on the spot. Green followed #PitchBlack the next month with another successful event, #PitchQ, which targeted the LGBTQ community of entrepreneurs.

“I do this work because it needs to be done, and so my kids can see folks that look like them who are changing the world from here in Portland each day,” Green said. “Portland is a place of opportunity … I have seen folks go from being homeless or incarcerated to being tech founders, leveraging their life experiences with technology to change the world.”

Green also is Vice President of Albina Community Bank, a historic local financial institution with a focus on investing in diverse business owners to help them start and grow businesses and local jobs. Green previously was with the Portland Development Commission (PDC), where he was an integral influence on an emerging effort over the past several years to grow and support a more diverse landscape of business enterprises and entrepreneurial activity in Portland.

A Fusion Of Inclusion

Patrick Quinton is Executive Director of the Portland Development Commission (PDC), which serves as the economic development arm of the city. PDC’s mission is to “create one of the world’s most desirable and equitable cities by investing in job creation, innovation and economic opportunity throughout Portland.” Quinton manages PDC’s activities and collaborates with business and economic development leaders, investors and the surrounding cities and communities involved in increasing the competitiveness of the Greater Portland region. Several years ago, Quinton made a public commitment to establish PDC as a leader in regional diversity efforts with a fusion of inclusion into the framework of economic development strategies and plans across the region.

“We have an ongoing commitment to inclusive entrepreneurship and increasing high wage jobs in the innovation economy for underrepresented populations,” Quinton said. “We really believe that making our industries and innovation opportunities more inclusive is critical to the city’s long-term economic success. Portland’s growing diversity should be a competitive advantage for our position in the global economy.”

Last year, PDC focused its Startup PDX Challenge toward incentives aimed at attracting and supporting the growth of minority-led enterprises. This fall, PDC organized the launch of a new Inclusive Startup Fund, with commitments from the City of Portland, Multnomah County and the state totaling $1.25 million. The search is on now for a fund manager, who will be required to raise additional funds to bring the total to $3 million. The fund is focused on stimulating entrepreneurial activity among underrepresented sectors across the region.

“The Startup PDX Challenge really opened our eyes to the number of investment-ready startups we had in our community led by women or people of color,” Quinton said. “The vast majority of applicants and participants were unknown to Portland’s startup support ecosystem and investment community until we explicitly sought them out. Some of them have gone on to attract investment capital and achieve key revenue and job creation milestones. Being intentional about our goals for diversity is making a big difference.”

PDC also hosts a series of outreach initiatives and events designed to listen, inform and cultivate greater collaboration with communities of color, including matching youth interns with local businesses.

Cultivating Regional Entrepreneurs

Nitin Rai is founder and CEO of First Insight, a healthtech software company, and president of the board of TiE Oregon. TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs. Today it has chapters across the nation and around the world, operating with a focus on five key areas: education, mentoring, networking, incubating and funding.

Rai also chairs TiE Angels Oregon, one of the region’s most active angel investor groups, with more than $5 million invested in 26 startups since 2011. TiE Angels Oregon hosts local networking and pitch competitions, invests in seed-stage and ready-to-scale enterprises and has a strong interest in scalable minority-led ventures.

Despite its 1950s-era racial demographics, Portland is thinking and acting like a multicultural landscape.

Rai’s passion for cultivating regional entrepreneurs in the Pacific Northwest includes intentional investments in developing the entrepreneurial pipeline in local high schools and mentoring local entrepreneurs. He has personally invested more than $400,000 in 17 startups through TiE Angels Oregon. Rai led the first three investments in two women-led ventures, Geoloqi and Zapproved, and the third in GlobeSherpa, which included an African-American CTO and co-founder and a woman CFO.

“These investments have returned me more than three times my investments in cash, and Globe Sherpa paid off my entire investment portfolio and some,” said Rai. “I want to show that with the right kind of mentoring and risk-taking, investing in minority entrepreneurs can create wealth.”

Rai is currently raising a seed- and early stage fund targeting minority-led startups and entrepreneurs in underserved regions across the Pacific Northwest. He remains actively committed to exposing, encouraging and mentoring youth interested in entrepreneurship, and providing them with opportunities to experience the culture of Portland’s vibrant innovation ecosystem.

“I want to make the issues of ‘inclusiveness’ and (social) ‘impact’ mainstream and walk the talk by putting my money where my mouth is,” Rai said. “I have busted the myths around minority entrepreneurs, and it started with success of my own company, First Insight, which I founded in 1994 as an early Indian American entrepreneur. And women are 44 percent of my staff.”

In early October, Rai and TiE Oregon sponsored a Community Conversation on Inclusive Competitiveness, co-hosted by Journalism That Matters and the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center in Portland. The unprecedented convening brought together stakeholders in fragmented and isolated sectors of the region to discuss with journalists the emerging story of economic inclusion efforts in the area that fit the priorities of the Portland Plan to “sharpen the region’s competitiveness for jobs and investment” and “own, practice and perfect diversity.”

Interpreting Success

Juan Barraza is CEO of VDO Interpreters. He founded the company several years ago while serving as an interpreter in a hospital during an emergency that required communication between doctors and a patient with limited English-speaking capability. The rapid growth of the Latino population has precipitated a need for expert dual language skills in the medical community. VDO is now experiencing the challenges inherent in scaling a company in high demand.

Meanwhile, Barraza also is a stalwart champion of creating the necessary conditions for underrepresented entrepreneurs to succeed. He produced Startup Weekend Latino, from which two other events were created. He also wrote an insightful counterpoint commentary in the Portland Business Journal in support of the PDC Inclusive Startup Fund, citing a number of local minority-owned scalable ventures, including GlobeSherpa, which recently enjoyed a successful exit merging with Texas-based RideScout.

Silicon Forest may become the first inclusive innovation ecosystem in America.

Last year, the Oregon tech landscape produced a historic high in M&A activity that reached nearly $7 billion. Barraza argues that expanding access to resources to hidden talent among entrepreneurs of color (the fastest-growing landscape of entrepreneurs in the country) is smart business and bolsters regional competitiveness. He attributes his success to the region’s welcoming and nurturing business environment.

“I’m consistently amazed by how helpful the community is here in Portland,” Barraza said in an interview with the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. “I can comfortably reach out to so many advisers and mentors and get an answer within hours — someone who is willing to explain things to me that I don’t know or understand.”

Engaging A Diverse Landscape Of People

Linda Weston is Executive Director of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network (OEN). Her experience in tourism and conventions, along with having managed a professional women’s basketball team, provide a unique background for engaging a diverse landscape of people. She leads a small team that produces dozens of networking events in the Greater Portland region, matches mentors with entrepreneurs across the state, connects founders to needed resources and produces a statewide pitch competition (Angel Oregon). Weston recognizes the need to incorporate intentional inclusion initiatives into the OEN strategy, which services a predominantly white population.

“It’s very important to OEN that we reflect our community,” Weston said. “We have provided outreach to minority entrepreneurs to invite their participation in our programs and events. We’ve provided memberships and access to our programming to the entrepreneurs in the Startup PDX Challenge. We’ve encouraged them to participate in our Angel Oregon investment process and we’ve provided scholarship tickets to our annual OEN Entrepreneurship Awards. The makeup of our 2016 advisory board will reflect our efforts. In addition, I personally provided testimony to the city council in support of the Inclusive Investment Fund.”

Weston leads the inclusion efforts at OEN with a personal investment of her time, supporting local events targeting minority entrepreneurs and serves as a board advisor to the Professional Athletes Council. She’s also working with Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder of Pipeline Angels (a training ground for aspiring female angels), to establish a local chapter. Weston was instrumental in developing an active landscape of women investors in the Portland area, which no longer are a separate effort, but rather embedded in the DNA of the body of regional angel investor groups.

The irony inherent in the Inclusive Competitiveness model emerging in Portland, which is prioritized in its regional competitiveness plan and the “Diversity Pledge” taken by more than a dozen Oregon-based tech companies, is that despite its 1950s-era racial demographics, Portland is thinking and acting like a multicultural landscape, with intent to address obstacles that prevent the economic productivity of all its entrepreneurial talent.

As one of many urban areas expanding economic strategies to conduct business with the world, Portland may be a case study in developing the model for becoming a global city.