Excited chatter fills the air. Snippets of conversation tease my attention. Each word carries a flash of the future. I’m in mid-conversation with Jizal Seikali, founder and CEO of DenTemp. The company is a first-of-its-kind for dentistry. It’s also one of the more than 20 local emerging tech companies FutureLAND hosted in its demonstration hall at The East Bank of the Flats.
Like many of the entrepreneurs I spoke to, Seikali is excited to network with Cleveland’s most innovative individuals — a narrative the city often buries.
“These types of events are where real things happen,” Seikali says.
Exactly a week ago the day I speak to Seikali, Greater Cleveland Partnership hosted its annual Best of Tech Awards, the grand finale to its Tech Week events. The energetic networking opportunity at Gordon Green honored at least 23 companies in Cleveland’s tech scene, including BlueBridge Networks, Binary Defense, Simplex-IT and Genesis10.
While FutureLAND’s mission is tailored to highlight diverse innovators, the over-arching narrative of the two events is the same: The Land is fertile for tech.
There’s a prominent, false narrative veiling Cleveland as forever an underdog. It’s so hewn in my mind the speakers’ words at FutureLAND’s final panel have trouble sinking in. But as stats are read, the romance of Cleveland doomsday crumples. I see the city as a phoenix in Rust Belt ashes.
“Recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that tech jobs will grow by 11% over the next decade and will add more than 500,000 jobs to the economy by 2029. Cleveland is not only poised to employ more tech workers, Cleveland can become a technology hotspot, and a pacesetter for our economic and digital future,” GCP Senior Vice President, Strategy and New Initiatives Freddy Collier reads at FutureLAND’s final panel.
“According to data extracted recently from LinkedIn and reported by Alex Kantrowitz, for a weekly newsletter titled Big Technology
, the biggest tech migration increases in the country in many years took place in Madison, Wisconsin, with a 74% increase in incoming tech professionals compared to past years. Cleveland is the second top gainer of tech jobs for the majority of last year, and other Midwest cities like Chicago and Kansas City are all on the high side,” Collier says.
(Other surprises in Kantrowitz’s report
: San Francisco’s Bay Area and New York City are among the cities that topped the list for the most out-going tech jobs between April and October in 2020.)
In a GCP report, Greater Cleveland was found to have more IT professionals than Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, with nearly 50,000 purely tech sector employees. These companies, such as Park Place Technologies and OverDrive, GCP President and CEO Baiju Shah says, are all valued at more than a billion dollars.
For those following the numbers, the Midwest does shine as the doorway to the future. To those following the narrative, it’s the same doubt that’s plagued Cleveland for decades. Such perceptions may account for Afro Tech’s decline to invest earlier this year, after sitting down with City of Cleveland Chief Strategy Officer Bradford Davy and Mayor Justin Bibb, as humorously retold by Davy at the panel.
“That’s no disrespect, [but] what they said was, ‘we go where there is a natural inclination and momentum for our teams, and right now, Cleveland isn’t done.’ We kind of got in the car afterward and we’re like, ‘you wanna bet?’” Davy says.
“We actually believe that it’s here. Like, we actually believe it exists,” Davy says, pointing to FutureLAND’s own leadership and organizing as evidence.
“We don’t do enough out there in promoting our homegrown businesses,” Director of Marketing for FutureLAND Kumar Arora says. He compares his hometown’s business scene to that of Los Angeles, where he lived for the past five years.
“I think what’s missing is a lot of our organizations and businesses operate in silos here in Cleveland,” says Arora. “When you do great work in a silo, it doesn’t have any way to connect to somebody else. We’re building more silos but not building enough bridges.”
GCP Managing Director Courtney DeOreo agrees. “Half the challenge is really about the storytelling of what is already happening here and getting the word out,” she says. “[There’s] a lot of great stories to tell, but not enough people know the stories, so we need to really amplify.”
This storytelling is crucial to Cleveland innovators of color. Especially after considering sobering statistics from Scott Galloway’s book Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity
that reveals 58% of venture capitalists are white men, 2% black men, 1% black women and 1% Latinx men.
Despite these statistics, Shah reminds us Within3 CEO Lance Hill, whose company raised more than $100 million in a single venture round, happens to be Black. Additionally, Hyland Software’s two technical founders are Hispanic.
“We absolutely need to celebrate when we’ve got these successes because they’re inspirations for others to stay here and to dream here and get supported here and build that ecosystem that proves that we can do it,” says Shah.
Over the next decade, $3.5 trillion federally legislated dollars are on the table for Ohio’s innovative infrastructure, as announced by Director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese at the City Club of Cleveland
on Oct. 13. Additionally, in about three months, a State Small Business Credit Initiative plan recently approved for roughly $182 million will begin to make its way to communities.
Ensuring businesses that need it — such as Cleveland’s diverse innovators — is key. And Cleveland is home to numerous foreword-thinking startups, like DenTemp
. Cafilia, for example, is a coffee mug that acts as
both your wallet, local coffee shop advisor and stability commitment. Feloh
is an app that connects beauty gurus to products, reviews and demos. And with Montre Augmentaverse, which powered FutureLAND’s A.RT Show, any iPhone can drop digital tokens within 150 square feet. It’s the only augmented reality app
without preset objects.
Another lesson that haunts the Rust Belt psyche is the need to upskill current workers. Hence, avoiding the vacuum of talent apparent by the 1980s. Thankfully, local supports in the tech community like We Can Code IT
, a Best of Tech Awards
nominee, are present for these inevitably disrupted careers.
This combination of networking and leveraging Cleveland’s present assets will determine its future, and continue what DeOreo calls the city’s “legacy of creativity.”
Cleveland has many benefits, Arora points out. Including lake access and close proximity to a number of metropolitan cities by flight.
“Clevelanders — we’ve got the grit, we’ve got the hustle,” Arora says.
Events like FutureLAND and GCP’s Tech Week aren’t the first chapter in Cleveland’s upward momentum, but they are implicit steps toward a new era. The optimism is not without good reason. Cleveland can be a regional leader. On many scenes, it already is.
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