Atento and Life in Tulsa in 2020
It’s no secret that 2020 has been a challenging year. The ways we live, travel, and do business have been totally transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as I reflect on the year, my biggest takeaway is one of gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong — like everyone, I’ve spent a lot of time this year grieving the loss of life, concerned about the wellbeing of friends and family and in a constant state of worry. I have worried about everything from the K-shaped economy of the US and what things might look like on the other side of all of this. I have worried even more about the current political climate in the US, where people seem to be living in two parallel universes.
But even amidst all this upheaval, fear, and polarization, I’m reminded that there is so much to be grateful for. The beginning of the year marked the start of my marriage to Romi, and the end of the year saw the birth of our baby boy, Leo.
Also this year, my brother and his wife moved to Tulsa, I moved into a new home, and I got to spend more time with my wife — a silver lining to all the new travel restrictions. It’s not lost on me what a privilege these things are. Meanwhile, Atento’s first year in existence, with all its ups and downs, has reassured me that we have the grit and the staying power to weather just about anything.
So call me an idealist if you want (others have!), but with so many reasons to be thankful, a long-awaited vaccine being distributed, and the inauguration of a new President on the horizon, I can’t help but feel optimistic looking forward.
Before looking ahead, though, I want to take a moment to reflect on 2020.
Atento’s Investments in 2020:
Atento’s first full year in operation has been a whirlwind. Our main focus has been the venture side of our operation. Dozie Ibekwe joined the Atento team to lead our efforts locally. Over the year, we executed on our strategy of pre-seed, seed, and Series A investing for six different companies, employing 40 people in Tulsa altogether. Five of the six companies relocated to Tulsa, three are led by diverse founders, and four are led by immigrant founders. Most importantly, all of the teams are dynamic, hungry, and passionate.
Another new addition to our team is Susan Spears, who has led our efforts investing in early stage venture funds and non-local companies. With Susan’s help, we’ve deployed investments across eight funds, all outside of Oklahoma. Aside from achieving outsized returns, another big priority for us was diversity: Half of these GPs are either women or BIPOCs. We then focused heavily on working within these companies’ portfolios and helping them hire and expand into Tulsa.
To share just one success story: Our very first direct investment markup of the year was Percepto, an Israeli company focused on solving operational problems for oil, gas, and energy companies using autonomous drones. Connecting cutting-edge international companies to Tulsa and helping them capitalize on all this city has to offer is central to the Atento mission, so we’re thrilled to report that Percepto has now begun hiring in Tulsa and continues to expand the team on the ground here.
If you’re interested, you can find out more about our portfolio here.
Atento Outside of the Investments in 2020:
In January, we had a 4-person team, a ton of enthusiasm and momentum — and no idea what was coming. When the pandemic hit in March, we were forced to pause and reassess: Our environment and the needs of our community had suddenly and dramatically changed. We decided to put a hold on our investments and turn inward, to Tulsa, and see how we could make a difference on the ground.
Out of this desire to be atento (Sp.: helpful, polite, attentive) in our community, Tulsa Responds was born. McKenna Raley provided the spark of inspiration: What if we could create an accessible resource to help local businesses and nonprofits navigate their PPP loans? Marcela Swenson, a friend and recent transplant from Chicago, stepped in to lead the fledgling operation. Within a month of launching their website, the Tulsa Responds Task Force received over 1500 inquiries.
The Tulsa Responds navigators helped 740+ businesses apply for PPP (estimated $41.4mm in total and an average loan of $56k), 680+ businesses apply for EIDL, and 180+ businesses apply for the Resilience and Recovery Fund. On top of helping so many small businesses and organizations secure the financial assistance they needed during the pandemic, Tulsa Responds also expanded to provide other vital services, including Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, help with stimulus checks and Medicaid expansion, and increasing Census participation.
Over the summer, Atento worked with GKFF to operationalize SummerTulsa and Tulsa Service Year, with the aim of serving the Tulsa community not just in investment and economic development, but talent development as well.
In the fall, Atento began to build its international presence as Yoni Frenkel set up shop in Israel. Yoni’s mission is to work with Israeli companies (typically Series A to Series C) who are looking to expand their US footprint, and help funnel them into Tulsa with our Grow in Tulsa program. So far, in Q4 alone we’ve helped five Israeli companies make initial hires in Tulsa, and we’re currently in conversation with over 30 more. Who knows, one day there might be a direct flight TLV to Tulsa! (Not promising that day will be soon, but maybe someday!)
Talent to Tulsa
Drawing talent to Tulsa is one of Atento’s main objectives, and we’ve made some wonderful progress in that realm as well. Our talent program, headed by recent Los Angeles transplant Meg Thomas, offers recruiting and placement services with a number of perks, including the first two hires free, subsequent hires heavily discounted, and a relocation match to Tulsa if needed.
We’ve been rapidly building out our talent team, bringing back returning Tulsa star Aaron Miller, among others. So far our team has made nearly 20 placements just in Q4, and we’re looking to increase that sixfold in 2021. Meanwhile, programs like Tulsa Remote, Holberton, Foundry College, and Satellite are growing steadily, and on top of those efforts, we are in the midst of rolling out a broader talent strategy called inTulsa (website coming soon — watch this space!).
In the coming year we are looking to have a very active engagement with our friends from my home states of California and New York. As the coastal cities bounce back from the shutdowns and tech companies think about how they can best distribute their workforce, we want to make sure Tulsa is a part of that conversation. If you know anyone we should be talking to, please feel free to intro!
Of course, our 2020 recap would be incomplete without mentioning what this year has been like for Tulsa as a whole. Tulsa has been such a unique place to watch the events of 2020 unfold: We are a city that exemplifies the stark political divides at play in our culture today, while simultaneously embodying the essence of the fast-growing American city.
One of the most challenging moments of the year was when President Trump announced, just as the tensions of 2020 were at their highest, that he would hold a rally in Tulsa. In the days leading up to the event, with downtown boarded up, it felt like the city was holding its breath. It was a relief when Trump’s rally turned out to be a bust.
There were also some really bright moments this year. Right before the pandemic, Elon Musk announced via Twitter that Tesla would be opening a new factory somewhere in the middle of the country — but the precise location was still TBD.
Immediately, cities began vying for consideration. The public, private, and philanthropic communities across Tulsa came together to help Tulsa elbow its way into the running. I could hardly believe it, but the campaign caught Musk’s attention, and Tulsa ended up being one of two finalists for the factory’s location, along with Austin, Texas.
Austin ended up winning the bid, but Musk’s interest was piqued enough for him to pay us a visit, and he was reportedly impressed with what Tulsa had to offer. The way I see it, even getting this far in the process is a huge win for Tulsa. I attribute that victory to an astonishing collaborative effort across our city, featuring some of the most creative and simply fun marketing I’ve seen in a while — check out Gitwit’s BigF*ckingField website, a brilliant bid to woo Tesla through the power of memes. And who can forget this 75-foot statue of Elon Musk?
We have known for a long time that Tulsa can compete with the Austins of the world, but now the rest of the world is starting to know it too.
Tulsa is also a diverse city with a complicated, often fraught racial history, and is the site of one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in US history: the 1921 Greenwood Race Massacre. In the early 20th century, North Tulsa’s Greenwood district was one of the most prosperous African American neighborhoods in the nation. Its main street was even colloquially known as “Black Wall Street.” Over a period of two days in the summer of 1921, a white mob descended on the area, burning buildings to the ground and killing hundreds. The city offered little help in rebuilding, and Black Wall Street was never the same.
We were heartened to see the Black Lives Matter movement gain long-overdue traction this year. Our commitment to reversing the effects of racial injustice and inequity in our community will continue to be a driving force in our work moving into the new year.
Looking into 2021
As the new year dawns, I believe we are entering a unique moment in history, not just for Atento, but for the Tulsa entrepreneurial community as a whole. The pandemic has changed the way we live and work across the country, possibly for good. With people moving out of large urban US coastal centers en masse, we have an opportunity to punch above our weight in capturing tech companies and talent here in Tulsa. Whereas before the pandemic, companies would say to us, “Tulsa is two flights away, so we’re going to consider Denver and Austin,” now, we’re hearing, “Find us the talent, and we’ll hire them.”
In looking ahead to 2021, I am excited to quarantine with Romi and Leo (our little Lion) for the first quarter or two, some level of normalization in the summer, and hopefully a return to business (somewhat) as usual in the fall. I cannot express in words my feelings towards the changing of the guard in the White House. I hope and believe that this change will mark the beginning of a return to America’s moral standards, both on the world stage and in our decency towards one another.
And as for Tulsa? I think 2021 is going to be our year. Looking around this place I’ve grown to love, I see a city surviving — even thriving — against the odds. Many beloved Tulsa businesses weathered the storm, Tulsa Remote received over 10,000 applications in December 2020 alone, and the real estate market is exploding due to an influx of people from the coasts. As we move into the new year, my money’s on those trends accelerating even further in Tulsa and places like it. Am I overly optimistic? Only time will tell. I’ll report back in 12 months time, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in moving into 2021 with a spirit of gratitude and positivity.