Horace Williams has been looking for this moment for six years.
Williams is the founder and CEO of Empowrd, an Atlanta-based social impact startup that offers a mobile app that keeps users up to date on local voter statistics and ways to reach elected officials. Empowrd, which was established in 2015, has only recently gained momentum with investors, landing one of ten slots in Techstars’ Social Impact Accelerator programme earlier this year. The explanation, according to Williams, is that rampant election disinformation and suppression campaigns over the last year have prompted investors to seek out entrepreneurs with ideas for bridging the nation’s political divide.
Georgia is currently at the center of that divide. The state’s new voting law, signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp in late March, has been referred to as “Jim Crow 2.0” for making voting significantly harder, particularly in predominantly Black districts. Proponents of the law say it will cut down on voter fraud, despite Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger’s vehement defense of Georgia’s 2020 elections as free and fair. Some of the state’s largest businesses, including Delta and Coca-Cola, have spoken out against the law–along with dozens of prominent Black executives from across the country. Major League Baseball even moved this year’s All-Star Game, originally scheduled for Atlanta this July, to Denver in response.
Having an effect is much more difficult for the state’s small enterprises, who lack comparable financial clout or political clout, particularly as other states, such as Texas, consider similar legislation. Empowrd is one of the small businesses mobilising to combat the bill, moving beyond its normal business of offering a subscription site for elected officials and progressives, as well as API licencing of the company’s voter information software, for an ambitious public participation plan.
Over the past month, Williams and Clay have conducted countless phone calls, Zooms, and Microsoft Teams meetings among different Atlanta communities to try to raise awareness about the changes to the state’s voting rules. Sometimes, it’s a homeowners’ or neighborhood association. Other days, it’s representatives from the city’s tech companies. The idea, Clay says, is to connect with leaders who can then discuss the issue with their respective spheres of influence: “That personal connection is then a relationship, and that relationship builds a certain trust.”
Roughly 25 percent of those conversations, Williams estimates, are with small-business owners. “Anybody who takes on the task of running a business in a community has inherently taken on the task of being a leader in the community, whether they acknowledge that or not,” he says. “People’s emotions and passions and loyalties lie with people who take sides–because taking a side is taking a stance, and taking a stance is taking leadership.”
Of course, not all of Georgia’s small businesses, whether they favour or oppose the new bill, will rely on this topic right now. The Covid-19 pandemic is still around, and many of the state’s startups are struggling for survival. “Folks are trying to wrap their heads around the Paycheck Protection Program, new Cares Act legislation, new stimulus checks,” says Ryan Wilson, co-founder and CEO of The Gathering Spot, an Atlanta-based private membership club that has become a sanctuary for some of the city’s Black entrepreneurs.
Wilson’s club is following in the footsteps of Empowrd by mobilising the club’s thousands of supporters to galvanise Atlanta’s small-business population for the next political cycle. Wilson says the Gathering Spot’s voter literacy and public engagement programming has traditionally attracted about 50 people per session, but that figure has risen in recent months.
“While we don’t have the same opportunities as some larger companies in terms of leverage, I do think that at the end of the day, the small-business community is going to be effective in getting [the voting law] overturned–because we’re connected to our communities in a real way,” Wilson says. “The small-business community is not going to forget. And Black folks in this state are certainly not going to forget.”
Or, as Williams puts it: “I think Georgia’s going to vote.”