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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.

Holberton School comes to Tulsa, OK!

Today, with assistance from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Holberton School is announcing our latest campus, Holberton School Tulsa! And at our newest campus, in line with our dedication to improve access to our education, we are introducing both a need-based living assistance program and a discounted Income Share Agreement (ISA) for Holberton School Tulsa students who stay and work local.

Our need-based living assistance program is designed to help Holberton students focus on what matters most: Learning skills that will propel them down a new career path. Holberton students at our Tulsa campus can apply for a need-based $1500/month living assistance program to help pay for their living expenses. We want to help all qualified students make the most of their education here at Holberton, and instead of making education decisions based on affordability, we want to help students make their education decisions on what will help them achieve their dreams.

Our new living assistance program, in partnership with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, helps us deliver more on the challenge we give to every student who walks through our doors: The challenge to “Define Your Future”. By reducing or eliminating the economic burden to pursue a full time education, we hope to help even more people take their own future into their hands with Holberton School.

This $1500/month living assistance amount is a true game changer for Holberton students, especially in a city as affordable as Tulsa, OK. In Tulsa, where a single bedroom apartment costs approximately $600 per month, students who receive this living assistance will be able to utilize this assistance to cover most-to-all of their living expenses. This is an incredible opportunity for everyone who wants to come to Holberton and launch their career in software engineering.

An additional incentive will also be available to Holberton School Tulsa students who continue to live and work in Tulsa after graduation. For students who fall in love with the city and decide to stay, students could see a reduction in their ISA repayment amount from 17% to 10%. This means that students who stay and work in Tulsa will repay significantly less than if they were to move out of the city. And companies are already eager to hire Holberton students:

Pictured here is Zac Carman, CEO at consumeraffairs.com
“ConsumerAffairs cannot wait to hire engineers from Holberton. Holberton will help close the engineering talent gap in Tulsa which will help us compete regionally. ” Zac Carman, CEO at consumeraffairs.com

The best part is that staying in Tulsa is easy. A generous and welcoming community, Tulsa is not bound by traditional conventions. Nationally recognized as the state’s center for economic development, Tulsa has a diverse economy and employment opportunities in finance, aeronautics, telecommunications, and technology. Companies like Bank of Oklahoma, American Airlines, AAON, Helmerich & Payne, ONEGas, ONEOK, Quiktrip and Williams Companies, have established their headquarters in the metropolitan area of Tulsa.

Once named America’s “Oil Capital of the World”, recent revitalization has transformed Tulsa from a vital hub for America’s oil and gas industry to a diverse, vibrant community with room for all types of passions and vocations to prosper.

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A perfect blend of metropolitan life and open skies. Photo via JustTulsa.com

Tulsa’s fun and vibrant culture and entrepreneurial spirit have built a city that embraces inclusion and champions big ideas. It’s a city that intentionally builds itself around the people already here while making itself available for newcomers. Home to two world-renowned art museums, a booming nightlife, and a diverse food scene, there’s always something to do in the “Center of the Universe”. The city boasts short commute times, more than 125 parks, 180 miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails, and a passion for supporting their local, pro and college sports teams.

And the employment opportunities for Holberton Tulsa students are bright: The “2019 Emsi Report on Computer and Mathematical Jobs in NE Oklahoma” projects an amazing 7,000 additional job postings for tech talent in Tulsa by 2025.

Tulsa will feature many of the same amazing facility perks that we have at our campuses around the world.

These awesome benefits, both the living assistance and the ISA discount, are available to both residents of Tulsa and to students who relocate to Tulsa. And for students to maximize their value from these programs, if the ISA discount will apply for every month they live and work in Tulsa, and any potential repayment of the living assistance program will be forgiven after just 2 years of residency in Tulsa. 

Thinking about how you can Define Your Future? Applications are now open for the January 2020 cohort at Tulsa! Start your application now, and you could start your new future as a software engineer!