"Focus on people and not on tech": Meet the CEO of Silicon Harlem

8 min read
04 Apr 2019

iving in New York’s Harlem neighborhood motivated Clayton Banks to make sure that everyone in his community, including the marginalized, had access to info and tech. That’s how the idea of Silicon Harlem was born. In an interview, Clayton explains why it was important for him to build a tech hub in Harlem.

When Clayton Banks, a cable and communications professional, realized that technology would drive businesses and communities into the future, he decided that the only way to make sure that the coming shift would benefit all players equally was through infrastructure.

His idea was to deliver reliable broadband and share expertise with those in need of it, particularly communities in Upper Manhatten that weren’t by default at the forefront of the technological shift.

In 2014, he cofounded Silicon Harlem, a for-profit social venture intent on building up New York City’s Harlem neighborhood into a tech and innovation hub.

The organization works with networks to provide state-of-the-art broadband and runs the annual Next Gen Tech Conference, an event which attracts tech leaders to the neighborhood and brings entrepreneurs and businesses together.

Photo: Startup Guide

Why build a tech hub in Harlem?

21st-century life and the economic engine behind it are rooted in technology and innovation.

In order to ensure that urban markets and dense areas like Harlem don’t get left behind, it’s important to build the infrastructure that allows for startup activity, such as incubators, coworking spaces, accelerators, and capital funding.

I’m looking for those types of communities to thrive.

What’s the importance of physical spaces like coworking spaces to technology innovation?

We’ve found that the most important driving force for the future is inclusion. How do we get more voices to the table? When you look at technology and innovation centers, a large part has been centered on the West Coast where there’s not as much diversity as in New York City.

The most important driving force for the future is inclusion.

Having physical places in your area allows you to populate it with people from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. That’s New York’s advantage. In order to build the economic engine of the future, you need technology companies here, now.

What does diversity bring to tech?

One of the incredible realities of this moment is that we’re moving into the fourth industrial revolution, and it’s being defined largely by technology and innovation. Everyone and everything will be connected.

When you look at the infrastructure, you see it’ll require all voices, whether rich or poor; it’ll require all voices to ensure that the next infrastructure we build for our country creates equity in access and exposure.

It’s not the easiest way to get things done, but it’s valuable. That’s why one of our values is to make sure we’re inclusive in everything we do.

How did you decide to start Silicon Harlem?

One thing I identified early on was how, as we moved from analog to digital, incumbents in the telecom industry were struggling. You needed a wave of capital to go from a typical operating center to a digital platform, and it was so difficult to make that transition.

I decided to explore software and next-gen connectivity. That took me from traditional cable to the advanced technology business, which includes both optical networking and wired and wireless connectivity.

That was a driving force: to be part of the future. Having worked in traditional communications, I knew I had a lot to say and to share with people who haven’t had that experience.

At the same time, living in Harlem and having that exposure also motivated me to want to ensure that people who are often left behind, who are marginalized or trailing, had access to the information I had access to. I thought if they got it, we could make a difference in how things function.

How did you build the community around Silicon Harlem?

I saw a window where advanced communications could be deployed in Upper Manhattan. We could galvanize the community and get them focused and thinking around technology and innovation.

After that, we addressed the educational aspect of all this, thinking about how much people in the area know about broadband, the Internet of Things, etc., and how all of that relates to the infrastructure being upgraded.

The idea was to start with exposure, and have that drive adoption of new technologies and interest in them. In our area, 40 percent of households didn’t have high-speed internet at home, not only because of lack of access but also lack of exposure and high cost.

First, I wanted people to get the connection. Now, we have to work to get the price down so it’s affordable.

How did you go about educating and exposing the community to tech?

We’ve been emphasizing how important it is to incorporate and substantiate science, technology, engineering, and math learning in the public school system. We’ve worked with the Department of Education to deploy after-school programs.

That’s how we’ve been able to touch the lives of young people in our city with concepts they can take on with them to college. The Caribbean Culture Center has retained us over the last four years for STEM camp each summer.

We have hackathons, and events for senior citizens to demystify tech, and last year we taught people to build their own video games. The point is, we touch lives.

What are the best decisions you’ve made as you built Silicon Harlem?

We’ve created our entire business philosophy to be citizen-centric. We weren’t as focused on what we could do from the technology perspective or digital literacy or education.

We were most focused on asking, What are the current issues the everyday citizen is facing in our community? We wanted to find out what the deal is here. And we found out about issues outside of tech, like noise, garbage and vermin.

When we can talk about those things, not just how fancy our router is, we make the connection more deep and intimate. Then, when we share tech-enabled solutions, there’s an acceptance level. That’s something we’re proud of.

People always have the same goal: to improve the quality of life. If we all get that, then every year we should try to find new tools in our toolbox to make that happen.

Even when we created our first meetups, which featured experts, they were really designed to bring the community together. We had reputations for writing white papers and going to Congress and talking to politicians and academics and high-level private sector folks, but once we realized a bottom-up strategy was working, it made our trajectory clearer.

We also wanted to focus on building an ecosystem based on communication: being able to communicate with our elective officials, the academic community. Columbia and City College are right here, so it made sense for us to speak that language, and we wanted to make sure it resonated in the private sector too.

What was the moment you realized your idea was working?

We held a big meetup. We were always going downtown for tech meetups, so we said, let’s do one uptown. Five hundred people came out to our very first one.

We were like, “Maybe there is something up here.” From that point on, we were doing meetups every month or so, and big crowds kept coming out.

Also, the first conference – our Next Gen Tech Conference. We had good attendance and experts from all over. It was eye opening to see our vision come to fruition. When we saw the people tied into the idea of the hub and serving people new tech and innovation, that was an aha! moment.

What mistakes did you make?

One of the things we’re still a little challenged by is how we manage resources. To build a tech hub, attract companies, get people connected to the internet and do digital literacy means lots of resources.

We have to be more aggressive in raising capital. There are so many opportunities coming our way, but without the resources to accommodate, we have to move more slowly.

Did you raise money from outside firms?

We’re completely self-funded. We’re making an offering for the first time this year. It took the first four years to build our brand and to build loyalty. Now that this platform is built, we feel it’s time to build resources and accelerate.

We’re looking at private institutions rather than crowdsourcing. We’d rather have a large partner involved who can continue to capitalize us as we grow.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

Be clear with what you’re doing: don’t try to do everything. Get a customer.

What would you tell other community builders in the tech space?

Galvanize the community first. Think of our name: Silicon Harlem. It creates a perception shift, connecting Harlem to Silicon Valley. For us, part of the challenge is making sure that the perception is there.

Creating a great brand is important. You have to solidify the anchors that not only build the hub but also sustain it – focus on people and not on tech. People always have the same goal: to improve the quality of life. If we all get that, then every year we should try to find new tools in our toolbox to make that happen.

That’s what tech has done rapidly: create the tools to enable life to be better. And that’s the ultimate outcome for anyone innovating, building tech hubs or building companies. It all leads back to the person. You’re humanizing technology.  

What do you like most about working in New York City?

I love the people. I love it in all different ways There’s nothing better than going from neighborhood to neighborhood, and I just love the architecture of New York.

We’re suited to be one of the greatest cities in the world because of topology, and the diversity and the comradery. There’s no more loyal person than a New Yorker.

Main photo by Startup Guide