[Rising Stars in Philanthropy] Venturing Into Philanthropy’s Golden Hurricane

I recently read a terrific opinion piece in the Wall St Journal titled ‘Innovation Moves to Middle America – Migration of entrepreneurs may yield fewer photo-sharing apps and more practical solutions’ where I was captivated by the following paragraph;

Many have noted that talent and capital are starting to move out of the nation’s three major tech hubs and into various more affordable cities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Tulsa, Okla. But most are missing the more important point: The nation’s tech workers likely won’t work on the same kinds of projects that dominated their time when they were ensconced in their hubs. Entrepreneurs who previously worked in tech bubbles—places that have produced far too many photo-sharing apps—will suddenly be exposed to a wider range of real-world challenges that they likely would never have encountered without the pandemic.

The thing that sparked my interest here was the mention of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is the original home of Black Wall Street and has seen a coalition of leaders in government, business, philanthropy, and education come together to jump start its startup ecosystem. Though the history of Black entrepreneurship in Tulsa is one of triumph and tragedy, the city is embracing collaborative solutions to develop resources for Black founders and using unique programs to attract new diverse talent to the community. For the better part of the 20th century, Tulsa was known as the “Oil Capital of the World,” but today its economy is fueled by telecommunications, aviation, technology, and finance.

I have been watching the emergence of this city and its civic tech slant since I saw G.T. Bynum, the Mayor of Tulsa, speak on a panel at the first Upswell conference in Los Angeles. He discussed his strategies of data-driven economic mobility and that by using data, he could identify the local skills shortages and then target young folks who were not currently working or going to school to get the credentials to fill that need. It’s also an approach that could be replicated for a range of other local indicators and outcomes.

He also spoke about a complementary approach to filling the talent gaps through Tulsa Remote, a program founded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which offered 250 people the opportunity to relocate to Tulsa by providing individuals with a grant spread out over the course of the year. This was to help with moving expenses, a monthly stipend to help them navigate (and be supported financially in) the early stages of their transition, and the remainder as a welcome gift at the end of their first twelve months in their new city. Recipients of these grants were also given space at a co-working facility, which helped new residents to plug in quickly to a new collaborative community. 

I like Tulsa Remote not only through the obvious talent identification and workforce development angles but also that it was philanthropy that initially seeded its success. The George Kaiser Family Foundation was motivated to underwrite this program as a way to enhance the current local workforce by attracting a diverse new talent to a forward-focused municipal administration. The program has now had multiple cycles and has added an upfront payment option for new residents buying a home.

So that leads me to introducing Mandi Ford Argo who recently moved to Tulsa to head up Venture for America’s presence in the city and features here as part of our ‘Rising Stars in Philanthropy’ profile series of which we showcase the future faces of leadership in our field.

Born and raised in the great state of Texas, Mandi moved to Tulsa during the pandemic and immediately fell in love with the city and its people. She joined VFA after spending 8 years working at The University of Texas at Austin where she supported students and faculty in their career, research, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Most recently Mandi supported the UT College of Natural Science’s fundraising efforts by overseeing relationships with companies and foundations that support research and development and student programs.

Mandi earned her bachelors in philosophy and Executive Master’s in Public Leadership, both from The University of Texas. She loves motorcycles, exploring new restaurants, and her family- the main driver for her move to Tulsa. 

As the Director for Tulsa for Venture For America, Mandi launched the organization’s operations in Tulsa, the newest VFA city. Her goal is to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tulsa by providing a pipeline of incredible talent for startups in the region. Her goal is to ultimately have VFA alums and Fellows launch their businesses in Tulsa and see Tulsa as a place to put down roots and grow.

Mandi is personally driven by the need to  tackle inequity in access to entrepreneurship, and feel she is well positioned to work on this issue every day. “ I think we’ve all heard the statistics around how much VC funding goes to white male founders vs. everyone else, how many startup founders are white men, and how few people of color or women make it to a leadership role in any company- start up or otherwise. I believe that entrepreneurship is both a great economic development driver and an amazing path to financial success.” 

Like my ode to Tulsa above, Mandi astutely recognizes that there is a lot of focus on Tulsa right now (and the issues she outlined), and is buoyed by the fact that philanthropic organizations, are actively collaborating with and funding organizations like Atento Capital, Build In Tulsa, and Venture For America to create access and provide resources that support founders from underrepresented communities.

“Philanthropy has the power to be a partner to advance equity and opportunity, uplifting underrepresented communities and giving a voice to those that are often overlooked.”

The Schusterman Family Foundation is an example of philanthropy doing good in Mandi’s eyes. “Their focus on DEI initiatives, especially in entrepreneurship and education, has been amazing. I’m also really impressed by the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation. Their support of entrepreneurship in food and beverage, CPG, and retail space has really led to a vibrant up-and-coming restaurant scene in Tulsa, making Tulsa a really attractive place to live and/or launch a restaurant (interested in doing this? Then check out their Kitchen66 program). I’m also really excited to see the results of their investment in the market district on the Historic Route 66. This is another great example of a public/private partnership that so far is a success.”

But Mandi is quick to point out that the most successful actors in philanthropy are those that understand clearly defined roles and responsibilities in the broader ecosystem and are fully leveraging the benefits of being in their lanes and areas of expertise. 

“The government is designed with certain restrictions and regulations for many reasons, including ensuring equity among all its citizens. That said, philanthropic organizations have a unique opportunity to leverage their power and influence to uplift the voices of underrepresented communities when governments fail in this regard.”

“I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ The work happening in Tulsa right now – the commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the resources being poured into Tulsa to support BIPOC and underrepresented business founders, the launch of programs to create access to education and resources – is profound. I’m excited to see a city take an active approach by collaborating with philanthropic organizations here to build a truly inclusive foundation for entrepreneurship and launch economic development initiatives that will create solutions that will long outlive its own founders.”

And we are excited to see Mandi’s influence here as she recruits, trains, connects, and supports a new generation of social sector leaders that will help drive a new economic and community vibrancy for Tulsa that has long been promised, but until now, not entirely realized. It’s funny what can be done with new energy and ideas in our community, right?

Connect with Mandi today:

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/mandifordargo/

Venture for America – Tulsa https://ventureforamerica.org/cities/tulsa/ 

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If you know of anyone doing great work or believe someone espouses the values of future focused leadership and deserves to be highlighted in this way then please nominate them. If you believe this ultimately speaks to you, please, please nominate yourself.

To nominate an individual to be featured, please fill in the quick contact form here. Individuals don’t need to be specifically in organized philanthropy either – we hope to cover all facets of the ecosystem from planned giving to programming, from fundraising to IT, from nonprofits to activism or those that simply have a passion for giving back and are standing up to showcase their values through our field.

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