Over the last few years, the country’s tech giants — Google, Twitter and Facebook — have all been called out for their mostly white and mostly male staffs.
Diversity has become a top priority in Silicon Valley.
Vewiser Dixon, an area entrepreneur, wants to help Kansas City avoid the image plaguing Silicon Valley — by building a tech space from the ground up, with diversity hardwired into its core.
It would be called the Enterprise Village Ecosystem, or EVE, and it would be on about 22 acres of land Dixon controls just south of Kansas City's historic jazz district.
There would be co-working spaces, apartments, business incubators and a grocery store.
Last year, The Kansas City Star dubbed his project, "A Black Silicon Valley."
"It would be a an urban technology and research park. Some developers might call it a mixed use development, but kind of focused on Kansas City’s being a startup city," Dixon says.
Meet Vewiser Dixon, businessman and preacher
Dixon is a familiar face around 18th and Vine. He grew up there, and started a fast food chain, Wings 'n Things, back in the 80's and ran a retail business incubator out of an office building his father owned.
You may even see him behind a pulpit every once in a while. Aside from being businessman, he's an also ordained minister — a calling that took him out of Kansas City for more than 10 years.
But his preferred place to do God's work isn't inside a church — it's out in the marketplace.
“I've always seen Jesus even as a little boy in the market place, he didn't have a church home did all of his miracles in the marketplace ... Peter, Paul, they were fishermen, accountants, he didn’t recruit not one pastor or preacher or clergy. They were all businessmen and regular people just like me and you,” Dixon says.
Dixon sees this project, EVE, as a way to serve God and run a business — while also reinstating the jazz district as the Mecca for black business he remembers as a child.
Does Kansas City need a Black Silicon Valley?
As Kansas City vies with other cities to become a Midwestern tech hub, incubators, co-working spaces and accelerators are popping up all over the metro.
And for some, “Black Silicon Valley” may sound too divisive.
But for Louis Byrd, founder of consulting agency Mellie Blue, it could be great. He says Kansas City has some work to do when it comes to being inclusive to black and brown entrepreneurs.
“This isn’t unique to Kansas City, it’s everywhere, right? But there are elements of a lot of non-inclusiveness that… it just happens. We see it from you know, the venture capitalists, who do they fund, you see it in people being invited to certain things... it's definitely there,” Byrd says.
The problem, he says, is that as Kansas City touts itself as a startup city, it also tends to turn a blind eye to its shortcomings. He says he tried to broach the subject during a founder's luncheon at Tech Week KC in September.
“I brought up inclusion. And then like, honestly, the energy in the room shifted. It was just like, ‘What do you mean… inclusion?’ And you can feel everybody in the room tensing up,” Byrd says.
Dixon may be onto something by positioning his project as a way to fill the void for entrepreneurs of color.
In his office, he keeps a binder full of letters of support from current and previous city council members, universities, and accelerators, as well as a letter of intent from a grocer who would be part of the development.
But his dream is still far from becoming a reality. The biggest hurdle in his path is money.
With funding in question, EVE's future is still uncertain
Dixon is counting on the city to pitch in at some point, but some city officials aren't so sure.
Quinton Lucas says he's excited by the idea, but isn't convinced that it will see investment from the city.
"I don’t know if this is the type of project, particularly given that we’re contributing $28 million a block or two north, I don't know of this is the type of project for city funds directly to be put into," Lucas says.
"Frankly, I can’t be sure of that yet because I don't know the full contours of what the project is ... But I would certainly hope that significant private capital takes the lead in this project.”
Dixon is reluctant to say whether he has any private investors lined up for his project.
His go-to refrain is, "we're getting ready to close the deal."
Still, Dixon has faith that the Enterprise Village Ecosystem will become a reality.
And in October, he took one small step forward.
C.S. Carey, a recycling company in Kansas City donated their new forest mower to help remove all the trees and brush growing on part of Dixon's property, right across from the Kansas City Neighborhood Academy.
Dixon watched with tears in his eyes, as a thick layer of trees fell to reveal the building where he attended school as a child.
"Words cannot express really what’s going on in my heart right now. This is the first step to a new beginning,” he said.
And despite the hurdles the lie ahead with money and politics, he says he's determined to move forward.
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and a reporter for KCUR 89.3 Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.