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Innovation in the American Heartland

As we enter 2021, with COVID vaccines just on the precipice of becoming widely available, the saga of this pandemic seems as though it may finally be coming to a close. By the summer, a large swath of the population will have been inoculated, and some sense of normalcy may return. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the landscape of business and tech will revert to what it was pre-COVID. The migration of tech professionals from formerly dominant industry hubs like New York and Silicon Valley is a trend that began before COVID and is only likely to accelerate from here, fundamentally altering the map of the United States.

For the past few years, high rent, the decentralization of workers, and the emergence of new tech centers has seen industry incumbents like Silicon Valley begin to lose some of their luster. The challenges brought on by COVID have only encouraged founders to explore alternative options when it comes to where people can live and work, where founders can raise money, and where they can find customers.

Because these trends aren’t likely to go away any time soon, it is worth exploring what both individuals and companies are looking for in a post-COVID world, and what locations could enable them to prosper. Here are some of the key factors a professional should consider when choosing where to build their lives post-pandemic; and why Tulsa should be a strong contender.

Community first

If there was any doubt before, the pandemic has shown us the importance of a strong community. Tulsa is a mid-size city undergoing rapid growth thanks not just to an influx of professionals from the coasts, but also to a focused city-wide commitment to investing in programs and infrastructure to draw in people and businesses alike. Programs like Tulsa Remote, which provides remote workers a stipend to come live in Tulsa, are helping to create a strong community of people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets.

Cities like New York and San Francisco certainly offered many social opportunities, but genuine community is something else, something more intimate and often harder to find. Who, after all, has not had the experience of feeling lonely despite being surrounded by people in a big city? The collective trauma of COVID has illustrated the importance of establishing a strong connection to those around us, and what Tulsa has to offer is a strong focus on, and understanding of, the importance of community.

An emerging tech center

Tulsa is reinventing itself. Once an energy center and an oil capital, Tulsa is transforming into a tech city focused on verticals like cyber, drones, virtual health, and energy. The ecosystems of Industry 4.0 and mobility will also be in focus as Tulsa moves into the next decade. Local programs like Satellite and the Holberton School were developed to help create a strong base of tech talent in Tulsa, and they are already delivering results. Tulsa has an abundance of local talent, and companies looking to open offices or hire locally in the American Heartland will certainly benefit from that in the coming years.

In spearheading innovation Nicholas Lalla, Co-Founder & Managing Director of the Tulsa Innovation Labs states that the “Tulsa Innovation Labs serves as the leading strategist for the development of Tulsa’s tech ecosystem. Our focus is on virtual health, energy tech, drones, cyber, and analytics—interconnected industries that are key to building Tulsa’s innovation economy in the American Heartland.”  

A work/life balance

The past year has shown us that people can work from home and be as effective as they were in the office. This study conducted by Lenovo found that “63% of the global workforce surveyed feel they are more productive working from home than when they were in the office.” And if you can work effectively from anywhere, you may as well be in a place where you can enjoy nature, community, and a reasonable cost of living. While plenty of people will always be drawn to life in the big metropolitan centers of the US, others are rejecting the high rents, confined conditions, and general stresses of large cities.

If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, perhaps it is that it brought into focus what is truly important. Notably, many have begun to question the inherent value in work for work’s sake. Chronic workaholism has long been central to American culture, especially in large cities where long working hours are necessary to offset sky-high costs of living. But studies examining the relationship between hours worked and productivity have found that “employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week.”

We’re likely to see more research along these lines in the coming years, and with people reflecting on what is truly important in their lives, the American cultural focus on work may well shift. In the coming years, as more people seek to build a life centered around values other than work, places like Tulsa which are amenable to family life, accessible to nature, affordable, and rich in community engagement are inevitably going to rise to the forefront.

Opportunity + being a part of something larger

Millennials and Gen Z are very socially motivated generations. The pandemic has thrown into even sharper relief some of the most pressing issues facing the younger generations, including income inequality, disparities in health outcomes along racial lines, and access to resources and capital. For young people looking to be a part of something larger and more significant than the individual, and wanting to contribute to solving some of the problems facing their communities, Tulsa’s rich innovation ecosystem will hold strong appeal.

For the last several years, Tulsa has been enjoying an explosion of new startups, businesses, and programs aiming to address a wide range of needs in the community and at large. For example, the Tulsa Remote program seeks to capitalize on all the potential economic and social benefits of the remote working ecosystem, and the city is now parlaying that program’s success into a wide range of other ventures as well.

Megan Thomas, Talent Acquisition Leader at Atento Capital states that “you bet on people not strategies… we know what differentiates a startup that succeeds vs fails are its people. Having people to execute against your idea and access to the right talent and resources is the most critical decision you make to influence your success.” 

She further adds that “Tulsa is tackling head on the barriers entrepreneurs face elsewhere and has invested in a robust plan to answer the question around talent availability. With inTulsa our mission is to ensure you have a partner here that provides access to the best pool of talent so that you can be laser focused on growing your business.” 

Organizations such as 36 Degrees North and the Tulsa Innovation Labs, as well as funds such as Cortado Ventures, Oklahoma Life Sciences Fund, and i2E, are all helping to draw corporates to the area, while programs like inTulsa are working to bring outside companies, in particular those from Israel, the Startup Nation, to Tulsa.

The blossoming of innovation we are currently seeing in Tulsa will only accelerate through the coming years. Given all of these trends either brought on or hastened by the pandemic, and the changing way people are thinking about things like work, community, and values, Tulsa is likely to emerge as an up-and-coming entrepreneurial and economic powerhouse in the US. That’s good news not just for Tulsa, but for anyone–companies, individuals, and founders.

*Rachel Stromberg assisted in the writing and editing of this piece

Jonathan ‘Yoni’ Frenkel heads Partnerships at Atento Capital. He leads the effort to assist US and Israeli companies with hiring highly skilled remote workers in Tulsa.

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