Hotlanta: Is the Dirty South Really the Land of Milk and Honey?
Since the mid-1800s, Atlanta's been a mecca for black folks seeking a better life. In the first of a three-part series on the city, The Root takes a look at who's really holding the purse strings in the ATL.
Take Ryla, Inc. founded in 2002 by Mark Wilson, the call center company's revenues grew to $100 million last year from $17.5 million in 2007, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. Earlier this year, a competitor bought the company for $70 million. But Wilson has gotten notice not just for his revenues but also for his management practices, like offering health insurance and stock options to hourly workers, that have given the company a 73 percent employee retention rate in an industry that struggles with rates of less than 29 percent.
While the sheer volume and variety of businesses in the Atlanta area make it a prime spot for any entrepreneurs to try their luck, the large African-American community makes it an especially fertile place for black-owned start-ups. Laron Walker, 32, grew up in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He left the city for about 10 years, getting his bachelor's at Tennessee State and his master's at Purdue, in electrical and computer engineering. He started his software and web design firm, Sciberus, in graduate school in Indiana, but eventually found the market there too small.
Four years ago, he moved back home to Atlanta. He found lots of companies that complement Sciberus, and there's an ocean of potential clients to explore. His firm has 20 employees and clients that are mostly state and federal agencies. But among the advantages here has been the network of black businesspeople Walker has entered through the Atlanta Business League, one of several African-American commercial networks.
''I had mentors before, but not people who look like me and can tell me about starting a business from scratch,'' Walker said. ''They're not potential customers, but people who'll give you candid advice and who can introduce you to others.''
That kind of network, the kind that whites have had for generations, may be the step up black Atlantans need to start closing the wealth gap that still persists in Hotlanta.
Neela Banerjee is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.
Janita Poe contributed reporting from Atlanta.