Pittsburgh is shedding black residents. An entrepreneur is making an attempt to carry them again.

PITTSBURGH – After years of population loss, the former steel city has been reborn as one of America’s most livable cities. But while the white population has stabilized, it continues to lose black residents faster than other large cities.

David Motley, a black venture capitalist, is trying to change that by bringing more black professionals to Pittsburgh, which is now a thriving hub for technology, business, and education. He returned to Pittsburgh in 2003 after earning an MBA from Harvard Business School and living in 10 other cities, including Atlanta. He now hopes to build a strong middle class in a city that has been bleeding black residents for years.

“How do you make this new economy available to more people?” said Mr. Motley. “There won’t be an overnight solution.”

In the past decade, Pittsburgh has lost 9% of its black population, and it is losing that population at a much faster annual rate than other cities like Chicago. As the city attracted more tech companies and the neighborhoods were beautified in the early 2000s, in some cases black residents could no longer afford to stay. Many moved to remote suburbs with lower housing costs. Meanwhile, the white population in Pittsburgh has stabilized after 70 years of decline.

In January, Motley co-founded a Pittsburgh-based venture capital fund of $ 50 million to invest in technology startups with Black and various founding teams. He and his wife Darlene Motley started a nonprofit called the African American Directors Forum in 2017 to help bring more black executives to corporate boards. He recently bought a former synagogue and school with a partner and plans to lay the foundation stone in June for an affordable, market-driven housing estate worth $ 18.5 million in an area that has seen black residents over the past decade have decreased dramatically due to gentrification.

He sometimes acts as a recruiter himself. Tagbo Niepa, now assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said Motley flew to Philadelphia in 2017 to tell him how welcome Pittsburgh is to black professionals.

Mr. Niepa, who was on a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, decided to relocate his family and is now researching the use of microbes to fight disease on Pitt’s campus in the city. “So Pittsburgh was a great place,” he said.

Mr. Motley grew up on the outskirts of Larimer in an area that had suffered decline for decades. About a dozen blocks away is one of Pittsburgh’s success stories, Bakery Square, where Google and others opened offices in 2010. The development spans 1.7 million square feet of office, retail and residential space, where nearly 4,000 employees collectively earn an estimated $ 345 million a year in compensation. Larimer residents largely missed the new opportunities.

Mr. Motley, whose parents still own the house he grew up in, remembers doing his homework at the dining room table while his father, then a steward, studied at the other end for his college courses. His father would eventually retire as the town’s operations manager after a 42-year career.

The younger Mr. Motley worked for PPG Industries for 20 years and then for the medical device company Respironics. In 2010 he decided to pursue his own endeavors. He is now also the director of MCAPS LLC, a Pittsburgh-based professional services company.

He said Google’s move to an old Nabisco factory in Larimer was a transformation for Pittsburgh and the neighborhood. Even so, there are still grassy lots between the houses on the block where Mr. Motley grew up.

“It looks like there was a war,” he said.

Bakery Square is one of Pittsburgh’s success stories, with Google and others opening offices in 2010.

Economic conditions for black residents are among the worst in urban America, despite ongoing efforts to improve them. In Pittsburgh, almost 45% of black children live in poverty. Only Milwaukee, Buffalo and Cleveland had higher rates in the 50 largest cities in the country last year, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin.

In the study, Pittsburgh was among the worst for a range of economic and social indicators for black residents. It had the fourth lowest median income for black households at $ 33,121. The city was the fifth worst homicide death rate for black residents and the third worst for a level of economic mobility.

The city is ready to elect its first black mayor, Ed Gainey, to deal with issues of diversity and justice. Mr. Gainey won the Democratic primary this month, defeating current Mayor Bill Peduto. There are no Republicans running, which means Mr Gainey will almost certainly be the city’s next mayor in November.

In an interview, Mr. Gainey, who lives a few blocks from the place where Mr. Motley grew up, said he wanted to promote affordable housing and staff development programs and complained that the city did not have a black bourgeois neighborhood. “If we don’t see growth for everyone in this city, then we don’t see growth,” he said.

To gain control of the synagogue’s property, Mr. Motley worked with the developer who built Google’s offices. Walnut Capital announced in February that it was granting Larimer a $ 2 million grant, in part to fund staff development.

Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood has been drowning for decades, and there are grassy lots between the houses.

Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, said the company plans to build a pedestrian bridge over a road and railroad to connect the rest of Larimer to Bakery Square. The company hired a black artist on a public art project, and two black chefs will work in a new restaurant on the premises.

“I think we all have these separate attitudes that we need to dispel,” said Donna Jackson, chair of the Larimer Consensus Group, a resident organization. “Go over this bridge. Go buy something to eat. Go to Starbucks.

Sit down and read. “

Mr Motley said Pittsburgh’s relatively small size and pool of talented people enable potentially powerful connections that may not happen in larger cities.

One example was the founding of Black Tech Nation, a nonprofit aimed at empowering black tech professionals in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Kelauni Jasmyn is the founder and CEO of Black Tech Nation.

Kelauni Jasmyn, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2016 to take a three-month coding course, said the idea came from asking why the city doesn’t have a black tech community. A year later she organized a one-day forum on the subject. It was visited by only 85 people, but it has raised their profile across the city.

Sean Sebastian, a white Pittsburgh venture capitalist, invited her to his office and became a mentor. He put her in touch with Mr. Motley.


What impact do you expect Motley’s efforts will have on the city? Join the following conversation.

Today she is the founder and CEO of Black Tech Nation, a networking and support group that includes more than 700 Black software engineers and other members. “Our #DigitalWakanda is coming soon!” his website says.

In January, Ms. Jasmyn, Mr. Sebastian, and Mr. Motley launched a $ 50 million fund called Black Tech Nation Ventures to invest in technology companies.

“I don’t think I could have started anywhere but Pittsburgh, especially the time I got here,” said Ms. Jasmyn. “It’s so small and yet there are many powerful people.”

Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher@wsj.com

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