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How a Foundation turned Tulsa into a startup city

Experimenting, catalyzing, and risk-taking for big goals are essentials for every Silicon Valley entrepreneur; they are also for Ken Levit, Executive Director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) – a philanthropic organization based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The city, long known for being the Oil Capital of the World, is in the process of re-inventing itself to renew the shininess of the early 20th century.

George Kaiser is a Tulsa-native who led the energy family business to be highly successful. But as the city’s pivotal role in the energy industry eroded, dragging its economy along, he created a foundation to give back and help his community with the mission of focusing on early childhood education as a way of interrupting the cycle of poverty and, more broadly, to give equal opportunity to all.

GKFF achieves that mission by focusing on three main pillars: talent, economic opportunities, and city life quality. Levit chose to drive the foundation with a startup mindset “philanthropy can be good at trying new things, having a high-risk tolerance for failing, and if it’s a flop, we can try something else!”.

By partnering with Foundry College, Tulsa expects to provide talent that the U.S. economy needs. Their program management curriculum prepares students to accept one of the 22 million jobs that should be created by 2027. At the same time, the college Salesforce Administrator program targets the 400k jobs expected by 2022. Michael Basch, the managing partner at Atento Capital, estimates that students graduating from the Salesforce program will be able to find remote jobs paying up to $65,000 a year. Atento Capital and GKFF partnered to offer both programs for free – each valued at $6,000 – to local students. 

The foundation also partnered with us, Holberton School, a software engineering program training Silicon Valley grade developers. With campuses on five continents, our graduates are getting hired by the world’s top companies like Apple, Tesla, Rappi, and LinkedIn. Students don’t pay their tuition until they find a job. For the Tulsa campus, GKFF is sponsoring a $1,500/month need-based living assistance for students. The unemployment rate in computer-related occupations dropped from 3 percent in January to 2.5 percent in May. The pre-pandemic U.S. economy had 918,000 unfilled IT jobs and included the suspension of H-1B visas. Individuals using these visas had been used to fill many openings in computer-related professions. With these changes, the market for software talent is expected to be hot.

Levit explains that while “the world of economic development is focusing on recruiting companies, by throwing money and tax incentives at them,” they wanted to take a different approach that is about people. On top of upskilling the locals, GKFF is investing in attracting outside talent. The Tulsa Remote program offers to anyone who wants to move and work from Tulsa a $10,000 stipend, a desk in a co-working space, and help to find a home. The results are just astonishing: they received over 20,000 applications with thousands of additional candidates currently in the pipeline. Since the program started in 2018, 250 people have moved to Tulsa with a 95% retention rate, leading to the purchase of 40+ homes. The program attracts high-quality talent and provides an average salary of over $100k. These statistics are not surprising, considering these remote workers are working for top companies like Cisco, ADP, Deloitte, IBM, and Microsoft.

The city itself is starting to attract the interest of leading businesses. Tulsa was among the top two choices for Tesla’s next facility, competing with Austin. A talent pipeline development leader working for Google told Basch that the company would consider opening offices in the city once they could provide 500 software engineers, a goal that he hopes to achieve soon with the help of Tulsa University and Holberton School.

But that’s not it. Levit also wants its fellow neighbors to enjoy life in Tulsa and is looking to have a “culture, stimulation, a rich and vibrant life.” Among many projects, The Gathering Place park, which Basch describes as “Disneyland meets Central Park,” is the most distinctive. A 100-acre green space developed with a half-billion-dollar investment, featuring entertainment for kids and adults.

The pair recognize that there is still a lot to be done and that the city’s economy – still mainly driven by oil, gas, and aerospace – faces significant challenges made worse by the pandemic. But they also believe that it is a turning point for the local economy. COVID-19 has drastically increased the number of companies willing to let their employees work remotely. They are now also considering hiring remotely, where talent can be cheaper than in the megalopolis. Basch thinks that NYC, with Michael Bloomberg, was “the MVP city for 2001 to 2010,” followed by Texas for 2011 to 2020. He believes that Tulsa is strategically placed for the decade to come.

Learn more by listening to Holberton Co-founder Sylvain Kalache interviewing GKFF’s Ken Levit and Michael Basch.