By Steve Hamm
Chief Storyteller, IBM
During the TV broadcast for the 1977 World Series, color commentator Howard Cosell left a seemingly indelible mark on New York City’s Bronx Borough when the camera panned above Yankee Stadium and captured a building involved in flames. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” he said. It was a time when people were giving up not just on the Bronx but on the American city as an institution.
Many cities have staged amazing turnarounds in recent years. But can the Bronx?
That question was in air Wednesday night when city officials, business leaders and entrepreneurs discussed the prospects for a tech surge in the Bronx on the third stop on the city’s Digital.NYC Five-Borough Tour--which is aimed at helping entrepreneurs succeed in the city. Digital.NYC’s Web site aggregates much of the information a tech entrepreneur needs to do so. The Tour event was held in the Per Scholas tech training center on East 138th St., in the heart of the hardscrabble South Bronx.
One of the panelists, Majora Carter, a lifelong Bronx resident and entrepreneur, said, “I’ve seen the Bronx burn and I’ve seen it rise up. My goal is to make sure this amazing tech boom in New York City doesn’t bypass the Bronx.” Carter is the co-founder of Startup Box, a social enterprise that trains city residents in software quality assurance and puts them to work for software companies.
New York City is now the second-largest tech center in the world–trailing only Silicon Valley. There are more than 6000 tech startups in the city and the tech ecosystem now directly or indirectly employs more than 500,000 people. “The ecosystem has created a lot of tech jobs in tech companies and non-tech companies and a lot of non-tech jobs in tech companies,” said Jessica Singleton, New York City’s digital director. “The startup ecosystem is providing a pathway to the middle class.”
So far, very few of the tech jobs have appeared in the Bronx. But there are signs of change. Doran Jones, a provider of tech outsourcing services, is in the process of establishing its headquarters in the same building as Per Scholas, and plans eventually on employing up to 500 people there–many from the community. In addition, there are a smattering of tech startups in the area and several initiatives aimed at job training for locals, including the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering. A new city-supported startup incubator, BXL.NYC, is opening soon in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
A key issue that panelists and audience members discussed at the Tour event was whether the emergence of a tech ecosystem in the Bronx would help the local residents or would primarily represent an in-migration of people from other parts of the city seeking cheaper rents. Kathryn Finney, a panelist, angel investor, and founder of DigitalUndivided, said it will be essential to attract venture capital money for Bronx startups. Very little capital is available there now. “When VCs start to realize that money made up here is the same as money made downtown, they’ll invest here. Until then, we’ll need local investors.”
Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, who previously ran quality assurance for a major bank, said he was attracted to locate the business in the Bronx primarily because of the talent base he saw forming around Per Scholas. Before the event, he reflected on his extensive experience in the outsourcing industry: “The situation here reminded me of India 15 years ago. People were so hungry to do something. When I met the people at Per Scholas, I saw that we could do tech outsourcing in the Bronx.”
A spark has been struck, but skepticism abounds–not the least among Bronx residents themselves. It has been said that the Bronx is a place were “dreams go to die.” Originally, the quote was about baseball, but later it became a catch-all for the sad truth of a place where people face many challenges. Can tech entrepreneurship help turn things around? Just look at India. Where there’s hope, there’s a way to get seemingly impossible things done.
IBM is one of the main sponsors of Digital.NYC and the Five-Borough Tour events. We’re reaching out to entrepreneurs worldwide with our development tools and platforms–the Watson Developer Cloud for cognitive computing and Bluemix for cloud apps and services. In addition to launching the Watson Group headquarters on Astor Place last fall, the company plans on opening an office in the city in the near future that’s dedicated to startup outreach.
To see photos of South Bronx trades by local photographer and artist Martine Fougeron, visit her Web site.