Two Years in Tulsa: My Life in the Heartland and the Launch of Atento Capital
Today marks two years living in Tulsa; and to think that two and a half years ago, I had never even visited Tulsa…
I vividly remember the look on my friends’ and families’ faces when I told them I was leaving NYC for the greener pastures of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is not in the Dust Bowl, I assured them; it actually sits in the foothills of the Ozarks. In fact, in certain circles it is even known as “The Paris of the Heartland.” They weren’t sure why someone would move from New York to Oklahoma — but I was. I believed then, and I still believe now, that the future of our country depends on whether or not cities like Tulsa become economically viable for future generations. On January 6th, just over a month ago, I joined my new team in celebrating the launch of our new early-stage venture fund, Atento Capital. Like those who have laid the groundwork for us, the four of us founding Atento believe in creating social change through economic opportunity. My Tulsa story has been one of transformative growth and inspiration, learning from so many people doing amazing work here, and I am beyond excited to be part of a new effort to give back. Though I have lived in many places before, today, I am proud to call Tulsa home.
27 months ago, just before moving to Tulsa, I started work with the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), a nonprofit that funds a tremendous number of wonderful operations in Tulsa on the principle that every child, regardless of birth circumstances, deserves an equal opportunity. Professionally, these years in Tulsa have been possibly the most productive time of my career. In these short 27 months, it’s been the privilege of a lifetime to work with the most civically minded people I’ve ever met — including the folks at GKFF, City Hall, 36 Degrees North, The Schusterman Family Foundation, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, Coretz Family Foundation, Tulsa Tomorrow, all the up-and-coming tech companies in town, and everyone in between. Working for GKFF and with all these other great organizations has given me a chance to witness and participate first-hand in a dedicated, concerted effort to make a real social and economic impact for everyone here in Tulsa — especially for those who are most underrepresented. This year, I am celebrating the launch of Atento Capital because I want to be part of a team that can continue assisting these wonderful projects and organizations, at a scale and scope that I could never achieve alone. On the eve of my two-year anniversary in Tulsa, I want to honor some of the great organizations and people who have taught me so much along the way.
Not long after arriving in Tulsa, I met Mikeal Vaughn, who showed me just how much powerful change is possible in only a year. Mikeal works on the technology side of Tulsa Public Schools, and as I quickly learned, he has a deep passion for opening up kids’ minds to what is possible for them in the world of technology. In the summer of 2018, Mikeal launched a nonprofit organization called Urban Coders Guild, which teaches high school kids from under-resourced communities how to make apps and write code. I have had the pleasure of sitting on Urban Coders Guild’s board and watching first-hand as Mikeal changes these students’ lives. By the end of a single school year, kids who had never thought they could pursue a career in technology were talking about going to college to study cyber security. By this fall, Mikeal looks to pursue Urban Coders full-time, expand it to a broader age-range and curriculum base, and even offer a summer camp. I can’t predict the future, but if you ask me: Urban Coders is headed for great things.
In another highlight of my first year in Tulsa, I was able to participate in the ideation and creation of Tulsa Remote, a program dedicated to attracting and retaining open-minded remote workers to Tulsa with a $10,000 cash incentive and a suite of other small bonuses. Led by Aaron Bolzle, the program went viral, attracting more than 20,000 applicants since it launched in November 2018. By the end of 2020, Tulsa Remote will have relocated over 500 people to Tulsa. The initial cohort has already finished their one-year commitment, and the vast majority have chosen to stay in Tulsa, with more than a third having already gone on to purchase a home here. Tulsa Remote made a simple and bold proposal to remote workers: “Come check out Tulsa, we think you’ll like it.” As it turns out, most did.
In continuing the effort of attracting and retaining Talent in Tulsa, I was very excited to participate in future work developing education and talent in Tulsa. Recently, in another fun project, I was able to help bring the software development academy Holberton School to town as Holberton Tulsa. The new school will be led by rising star Libby Wuller, a native Tulsan who recently returned from 6 years in DC. Holberton School offers unique benefits to the Tulsa community because it focuses on attracting a diverse student population through an unconventional application and tuition structure. Instead of a traditional application, their admission process uses a very cumbersome exercise that tests for grit and collaboration. And instead of charging up-front tuition like traditional schools, Holberton aligns their interests with their students’ by offering an Income Share agreement (ISA), to be charged only after students have successfully been placed in jobs paying over $40k — which, to date, has occurred 100% of the time. Furthermore, in addition to their ISA tuition structure, the Tulsa campus will provide a need-based living stipend for those who can’t afford to forgo income while they are in school, giving students from all walks of life a chance to pursue a future in technology. As Holberton Tulsa’s inaugural students complete their studies and graduate, Tulsa will be home to a whole new crop of talented, determined young tech experts ready to help make the city shine.
One of the things that most impressed me about my time working with GKFF and other partners in Tulsa was how many ambitious projects and initiatives could be pursued at the same time. For example, as we continued our search to expand Tulsa’s larger tech education ecosystem, we successfully lured Nicholas Lalla, one of the key masterminds behind CyberNYC, to lead the Tulsa Innovation Labs initiative launching this spring. Through this initiative, Nicholas and his team will work to define the foundation upon which Tulsa’s future of work will be built. Right now, Nicholas and company are in the exploratory and information-gathering stage, and we are very excited to see what strategy he comes up with.
Few people know this, but The University of Tulsa (TU) is a top feeder of cyber security talent into U.S. government agencies such as the NSA, CIA, Secret Service, DOD, and DHS, among others. Using this little-known fact as a catalyst to attract and retain cyber security talent in Tulsa, we underwent a global search for a potential partner to build out industry upon a very strong local cyber security competency. It is no secret that Israel has some of the best cyber companies in the world, so we did a deep dive into Israel’s cyber landscape. This led us to Nadav Zafrir and Team8, one of the most prestigious cyber security incubators in the world. Soon after, a partnership was created between Team8 and TU. The partnership will leverage TU’s existing cyber security know-how and Team 8’s mastery of go-to-market so that in five years, TU will be graduating cyber-security PhDs who, with the guidance of Team8, will commercialize their research and build companies in Tulsa.
I must admit, though, one of my absolute favorite projects to date in Tulsa so far has been working with David Jankowksy and Francis Energy to build one of the largest contiguous electric-vehicle charging station networks in the country, right here in Oklahoma. In fact, it is already the single largest network between the coasts. The entire state of Oklahoma is now wired and ready for electric vehicles, far ahead of all its surrounding states — and keep an eye out, because Francis has some pretty aggressive expansion plans in the region for 2020.
As you can see, it’s been a busy two years. And what’s really crazy is that something tells me the best is yet to come. This April, we have Rise of the Rest, Steve Case’s Venture Fund focusing on investing in the middle of the country, coming to town. And in June, we will be hosting an exciting growth-stage company/venture/family office event which we haven’t announced yet, but which you’ll be able to find out more about in early March. 2020 will be absolutely packed with amazing events. But, perhaps selfishly, my biggest professional excitement this year is the recent launch of a brand new venture fund I’ve helped found: Atento Capital.
Launched this January, Atento Capital is an early-stage venture fund/fund-of-funds focused on both driving returns and job creation in Tulsa. We will have several purposes, all under the larger umbrella of job creation. First and foremost, we want to “grow our own crop” by providing pre-seed and seed-stage funding and resources to local entrepreneurs. In addition, we will be looking to import new talent by investing in venture funds outside of Tulsa, and we will work closely with them to find opportunities for their portfolio companies to expand into Tulsa via secondary offices. While we are a return-first investment fund, we will also have an economic development function, through which we will be able to offer customized incentive packages to companies that move folks to or hire locally in Tulsa. After all the incredible things I saw GKFF and other orgs’ teams accomplish in the last two years, the bar has been set very high. With such shining examples to guide us, we have begun doing our absolute best to meet — and hopefully, someday, raise — that bar.
I believe in Atento Capital because I believe in the talented that will be building this with me. Our four-person team consists of Will Gray, a Tulsa-raised former buy-side analyst at the in-house Bank of Oklahoma mutual fund (and former professional tennis player); Chandler Malone, a Texas-raised entrepreneur (who just so happened to play college basketball), Marcela Swenson, a former B&B operator, Northwestern University’s board administrator and a social activist (who I went to USC with!), and myself. As we begin Atento Capital’s journey, I have nothing but high hopes for what we can accomplish in this great city.
Finally, as my first two years here come to a close, I want to acknowledge that my time in Tulsa has been more than just a highlight of my professional career — in my personal life, it has been a dream come true. In the last couple of years, I met the love of my life, Romi, convinced her to move from Tel Aviv to Tulsa, got engaged, and then got married. We now have a house with a yard (and a pool!), not to mention the cutest puppy ever — Osita.
Not only am I now married, but my father, cousin and several friends have since moved to town as well. I may still love the coastal cities where I grew up, but Tulsa has won me over with its heartland charms. We are finding our dinner table surrounded by friends both new and old. With a full circle of loved ones here, I am beginning to really feel at home.
A little over two years ago, I came to Tulsa with the hope of driving social change through economic opportunity and proving that the future of America lies in the viability of its heartland. It was a big dream, and I still believe in it 100% — but I’ve learned true change is far bigger than what I can accomplish alone. The amazing people and organizations I have had the chance to collaborate with have awed and inspired me at every turn, and I want nothing more than to do my part to help. Of course, Tulsa faces real challenges, like every city. That’s why the change we want to see is more than a one-, two-, or even five-year project. Many of the programs we have put into place now will take three or four years to start showing results, and will take five to ten years to achieve a measurable, sustainable impact. Investing in a city’s future takes time, and I’ll admit, patience has never been a personal strongpoint of mine! But the hardest things are often the most worth doing, and if working for the long-term has achieved so much for those great people I’ve had the pleasure to observe, I’m ready to learn. On March 1st, 2020, just a few weeks from now, I will celebrate two years as a Tulsa resident, and I will celebrate all the wonderful ways my life has changed here. On January 6th, 2020, just over a month ago, I celebrated the launch of Atento Capital, the team I hope will continue building on the wonderful things I’ve seen done in this city. Over my two years in Tulsa, the work has been fun, the people I have been surrounded by are spectacular, and I am learning — slowly — to adjust my pace to Tulsa Time.