The economic buzz of the burgeoning Boston technology scene is largely clustered in Cambridge’s Kendall Square and the Innovation District in South Boston. Gilad Rosenzweig wants to expand its reach.The MIT graduate is planning to open a startup space for local entrepreneurs, Smarter in the City, this summer in Dudley Square in Roxbury.
That is, if he can find someone from the tech industry to pay for it.
The project comes as a similar effort — providing work space and high-tech training — is forming in Dorchester near Grove Hall, which straddles both Roxbury and Dorchester. Its name: the Dream Factory.
“Nobody says it’s a bad idea, but most people are very hesitant to believe that this could succeed because they don’t think the talent is here,” said Rosenzweig, who is trying to raise about $250,000 for the first year of the program. “You’ll believe that a young white kid from a suburb could come up with a great idea and be a master coder, but you won’t believe that a young black kid from Roxbury could do the same thing.”
For all the talk about technology being a great equalizer — that all a whiz kid of any class or color needs is a laptop to outsmart Google and Microsoft — the tech world has some of the same barriers and clubbiness more commonly associated with old-boy businesses such as banking and stock trading.
The divide is not unique to Boston. On the West Coast, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter are viewed by some longtime residents as indifferent neighbors who import workers educated at elite universities, and do little to open doors for people living in nearby urban areas.
Nationwide, the founders of Internet startups who receive venture funding look very much alike: 87 percent are white, 12 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are black, according a 2010 study by investment tracking firm CB Insights. The study found similar rates in Massachusetts.
In the Dudley area, by contrast, 96 percent of the population is black or Latino.
Venture capital firms and angel investors readily throw money at untested businesses and startup programs, such as Techstars and MassChallenge, that are located in established tech hubs. But in Dudley Square, where real estate is a fraction of the cost in Kendall and the Innovation District, only the Boston Foundation, a philanthropic organization better known for backing nonprofit ventures in human services and the arts, has been willing to pony up for Smarter in the City.
Rosenzweig declined to single out companies that have turned him away. A few have expressed interest but, without firm commitments, he has not been able to sign a lease yet.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston has importuned the technology community to consider adding office space in the Dudley squares of Boston, but has stopped short of making material commitments, such as offering public assistance to a project like Smarter in the City, or tax incentives to lure new businesses.
“We’re not ready to get into the nitty gritty, but I think what we can do is be a convener,” said Dan Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff. “There’s a huge opportunity here. It’s affordable, it’s close to [Northeastern University], and it’s only going to get better as the months and years go by.”
For now, many tech leaders remain unmoved by the mayor’s vision. The concern is that opening in Roxbury or Mattapan would lead to isolation. Tech companies like working in clusters because they can learn from one another and, critically, attract investors eager to scout in batches.
A pioneer in Dudley would not have those advantages, at least not right away.
“It’s like a hotel with 10 rooms — it doesn’t make any sense, and then you have to subsidize it forever,” said Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared workspace for more than 300 startups. “I’m not interested in anything that has to be subsidized.”
One Dorchester activist suggested narrow mindedness lurks behind some of the skepticism — that the startup establishment may be so accustomed to seeing people from the same top schools and same upper-middle-class backgrounds that it is hard for them to imagine the next wunderkind hailing from a three-decker on Blue Hill Avenue.
“That’s how ignorant they are,” said Jeanne DuBois, executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corp.
Her group is helping to lead a $4.75 million renovation of a property it owns on Quincy Street in Dorchester, which will become the Dream Factory. Work on the 22,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed next year.
Yet even tech-savvy members of the minority community are a tough sell. William Murrell is a serial entrepreneur whose latest venture is a website called StaffPack.com, which helps users streamline the job application process. He is an African-American who has lived in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester; he runs the website AboutBlackBoston.com, an information hub for black business, history, and culture in the city.
Would he want a spot in a Dudley Square accelerator?
“It’d be hard to justify,” Murrell said. Dudley doesn’t offer any advantage over working from his current home in Randolph, Murrell argued. He has joined a virtual accelerator called NewME, and when he wants to network he goes to Kendall Square meetups, where he routinely rubs elbows with venture capitalists.
Ralph Bouquet, a Techstars alum who cofounded a mobile app company in Kendall Square named Canary Calendar, said choosing between a big-name startup program and one designed to empower the minority community is difficult for an ambitious entrepreneur who also has a social conscience. Perhaps joining a business accelerator like Smarter in the City would help the neighborhood, but it might not help the business as much as joining Techstars.
“The idea of membership in one of the big incubators is appealing because there aren’t a lot of faces that look like mine in that scene,” said Bouquet, who is Haitian-American. “If I want to have the opportunity to support projects and to create the capital necessary to go back into my community, it takes breaking into the big pond for those things to happen.”
Smarter in the City didn’t exist when Bouquet and his team were applying to Techstars, but the mere fact that someone like him would be asked to weigh what is best for his company against what is best for his community reveals an imbalance, said Christopher Jones, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community development nonprofit.
“You wouldn’t ask the same question of a white kid from Wellesley,” Jones said.
Rosenzweig acknowledged finding tenants for Smarter in the City has been hard. He has received only eight applications for his inaugural class; a premier program such as MassChallenge usually gets more than 1,000.
Part of the problem is that technology skills can be difficult to learn in some urban neighborhoods. Donalyn Stephenson, a mother of four from Dorchester, said she found little in her childrens’ schools or within the neighborhood to prepare them for careers in high tech. So at least once a week, she would pile them into the family minivan and drive to the South End Technology Center, an MIT outpost, where they learned how to program and quickly fell in love with computers.
Stephenson’s dedication has paid off — her two oldest are now engineering majors, and a third is on his way to Bucknell University. But Stephenson believes the kind of training her children received outside of Dorchester should be available closer to home.
In a few months, it will be. The Urban Idea Lab and FabLabs4America, a nonprofit Stephenson cofounded, are planning a soft opening of the Dream Factory this spring. The building will be far from finished, but organizers just can’t wait to let people in Grove Hall, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, access low-cost training on computers, three-dimensional printers, and other gadgets.
“We’ll get some equipment in here, open up part of it, and see what people come up with,” said Jen Faigel, cofounder of the Urban Idea Lab, a consulting group devoted to real estate and economic development. “The vision is to start this, so that people see what the opportunities are, and then have multiples of these all over the city and the state.”