Since she was a kid, Brianna Ray has been a voice for accepting differences in Utah. As a Black woman who grew up surrounded by mostly white people, she had a lot to say.
At the age of 15, she traveled to schools across the state hosting an assembly about acceptance, love and tolerance of differences. She performed on 2016’s season of American Idol, traveling the country singing with the show. Now she interviews founders and directors focused on diversity and inclusion on Inclusion Inc., a podcast from Orem-based accelerator RevRoad and LaunchPod Media.
The startup scene in the Provo-Orem area of Utah has made a name for itself. It recently topped the Milken Institute’s Best Performing Cities list. The area has attracted tech giants such as management company Qualtrics and smart home company Vivint.
And it’s only growing, as more people move to the area seemingly each year. It’s arguably one of the best emerging places in the country for tech startups to flourish. It’s also home to people like Ray, who are determined to shape it from the beginning, into a more inclusive place.
“Utah tends to be a little bit behind the trends and behind the movement as far as timeline goes when it comes to things like diversity and inclusion, just because the majority is much more white than anything else,” Ray said. “So we’re kind of in a unique position where we have more work to do just because the demographic is a lot different.”
When you break it down, most of its founders look the same: white and male. There’s work to be done about this pretty much everywhere, though the state is further behind than most of the country. Utah ranked 42nd in a 2020 WalletHub analysis of diversity in each state.
People and companies in Utah, like in most places, are beginning to look inwards, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement. There are groups and individuals in the state working to include minorities in the conversation. “We recognize that Provo and Orem are one of the worst in the country for diversity,” said Amy Caldwell, the co-founder and executive director at RevRoad.
As the area establishes itself as a hub to be reckoned with, intentional actions and retention efforts are vital to diversify its ecosystem, experts say.
When it comes to underrepresented entrepreneurs, Ray, who is also RevRoad’s digital marketing director, noticed the conversation in Utah has been focusing on women for many years– especially as the tech hub that is Silicon Slopes, the ecosystem between Provo and Salt Lake City, grew. But only more recently has she seen that widespread conversation shift to diversity beyond gender she said.
Provo-Orem As A Startup Hotspot
The area, known as Utah Valley, has the ingredients of most startup hubs — large universities, local government support of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit. RevRoad’s founders Derrin Hill and Caldwell noticed its flourishing ecosystem when it decided to create its “mothership” location, as Caldwell refers to it, in Orem. Its services offer a 24-month accelerator program, which helps founders with everything from legal services to pitching advice in exchange for equity. So far, the group has 41 companies in its portfolio.
Parker Gentry, the founder of Skill Struck, a company that equips teachers with the software and curriculum to teach kids K-12 coding, chose to launch and headquarter the company in Provo after attending Brigham Young University’s entrepreneurship program and being accepted in RevRoad’s accelerator. Since its launch in 2017, the company has raised $1.7 million, $1.3 million of that from an investment in March.
Gentry, a white man, was born in Provo, but he grew up in Southern California and comes from a family of entrepreneurs still in that area. He chose to stay in Provo after school because its taxes are much cheaper and the network is strong. (Utah ranks eighth on the Tax Foundation’s list of business-friendly environments).
“There’s quite a few successful edtech companies, and I love rubbing shoulders with those types of people because they’re like minded,” he said. “We’re here to have financial success — we have a business model that can be financially successful — while making an impact.”
The area is home to Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, which both offer large entrepreneurial programs and labor pools. Oftentimes students graduate from both schools with an idea or a partially built business from classes, and some, like Gentry, go on to pursue those businesses.
Tom Taylor is a Welsh professor at BYU, but on the side he and his wife invest in real estate. One of their buildings is the Startup Building— a three-story structure in Provo named after the Startup family, who built the building in 1898 for their candy factory, rather than the company classification. But the building has lived up to its name’s legacy, and now houses 40 startups, Taylor said.
The city of Provo helped to fund the building when Taylor bought it 12 years ago in order to establish an incubation, co-working space, he said. The result created a startup ecosystem in one building.
“Living in a city that cares about the businesses that are even just these little startups is just really amazing,” Taylor said.
Many Provo and Orem residents, like the rest of the state, practice the Mormon religion, which spurs an innovative spirit, Caldwell said. The religion, which about 60% of the population follows, creates hard working, honest self starters, she said.
“A lot of recruitment comes from this area because of those skills and values that the church culture produces,” Caldwell said.
“It’s growing at a rate that is faster than you can meet people,” Gentry said of the Provo-Orem area.
A Push to Support Underrepresented Entrepreneurs
Following the racial protests last year, Ray started an initiative called Project Black Girl, which she and co-founder Stephanie Lake created to educate white parents on how to care for their adopted Black kids’ hair and skin and teach them Black history, she said. The resources are especially necessary in Utah, where she says many white families adopt Black children.
“I get frustrated when I would see these cute little kids with hair just breaking off and ashy elbows and knees,” Ray said. “I realized that there was a problem.”
For Ray, growing up in Orem as one of the few Black girls, she said junior high and high school were particularly hard. “There were a few moments that stood out to me that I really realized my blackness,” she said. “That it was so different, and at that time felt wrong, like it was something that needed to be fixed, because of things that were said to me or the way I was treated or just the nature of conversation.”
She found an outlet in her music. “Music became a way for me to really find and discover and develop myself — who I wanted to be, what my voice was going to sound like, what kind of person I was going to be and what I was going to stand for,” she said.
Since Utah itself is not very diverse — 87.3% of its residents are white, according to U.S. Census data, it makes sense that a majority of business owners would be white, then.
However, a study from Self Financial, an Austin, Texas-based credit-building company, points out that while 22.3% of the state’s population identifies as part of a minority group, only 6.96% of startups there are minority owned. It’s an issue most places are grappling with — breaking down barriers for minority founders so more people can start businesses and succeed. In order to get there, Kimmy Paluch, the co-founder of Salt Lake City-based Beta Boom says everyone, in Utah and elsewhere, should be asking themselves what more they can be doing. Beta Boom invests primarily in pre-seed startups run by women and people of color.
“Its numbers are small, but there’s still 30,000 African Americans in Utah,” she said. “What are we doing to actually help those individuals be ready for the new workforce, be ready for the new jobs that are being created?”
For years, the state has ramped up its efforts getting women in tech. In Provo and Orem, some of these initiatives include the Braid Workshop, which educates women on finances, Utah Valley University’s WE LIFT, a group that supports women, with Paluch and Caldwell on its board, and Women in Entrepreneurship at BYU, where Caldwell is also a board member.
More recent initiatives have gone beyond women, offering resources for underrepresented entrepreneurs in other demographics. Take Provo-based Fairstream, a startup that launched last year that hosts events for diverse communities to connect them with hiring managers from companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Goldman Sachs.
It was started by Luke Mocke and Tanner Lennon, who relocated from the Bay Area to Provo after the two were accepted into RevRoad’s accelerator. Mocke previously worked for Linkedin, but noticed its recruiting products weren’t built to help employers attract diverse talent. So he began brainstorming ways to help employers recruit underrepresented candidates, which led to the creation of Fairstream.
“We thought we could have the biggest impact in Utah, because there were very few diversity efforts out here,” he said.
Another example is New Pattern, an initiative that provides grants and mentorship to Black women-owned businesses in Utah. It was started by Paluch’s Beta Boom last year, and has since partnered with Women Entrepreneurs, Utah Black Chamber and Sorenson Impact, a venture fund and data analyst center at the University of Utah with funding from sources such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
So far, New Pattern has granted $5,000 to four entrepreneurs, who have also been paired with mentors, Paluch said. It’s been about six months, and the group will make a measurement study in the fall to see how helpful the funding was.
Outside programs created specifically to support minority entrepreneurs, Ray has noticed that not enough people and companies are taking the initiative to fund training or resources. Conversations are flying, but the actions aren’t always following.
“I think something that people are struggling to wrap their heads around is that prioritizing including diverse talent doesn’t mean that you are now putting other people on the back burner,” she said. “It’s about improving opportunity and essentially your business.”
Paluch says conversations are a good starting point, but there comes a time when words aren’t enough. People need to be held accountable, she said, and companies need to uphold their promises to actually diversify their workforces.
Paluch appreciates the efforts of Salt Lake City’s mayor, Erin Mendenhall, who she says has been pushing for inclusivity as the state builds back its economy. “I think we need more of those initiatives, and I think it needs to go beyond conversation,” Paluch said.
Another issue for Utah is the revolving door, Paluch said. Even if its companies are hiring and attracting people of color, it does no good if they’re moving away. Retention is key to diversifying the workforce, she said.
Caldwell, who moved to Utah from Virginia five years ago, says things are getting better. “I’ve seen the push to try to correct some of these things and bring in a greater opportunity from this aspect of talent, as well as companies that are starting and staying here,” she said. “And that’s been encouraging to see.”