Chad Porter was already developing a track record with The WEARPACK, a backpack he designed with a detachable bag in front. Barnes & Noble was carrying his backpack and he had licensing agreements with two universities to emblazon their names on his invention.
But he had no investors and couldn’t get a loan. This isn’t uncommon for many new entrepreneurs, especially those who are Black. Porter went to last year’s FutureLAND conference, which focuses on entrepreneurs of color, knowing that he had to win the $25,000 pitch competition. Without the money, the now 24-year-old said, his dream of being an entrepreneur would have been placed on a very long pause or even become a dream deferred.
Sales for his company, CHVD JUSTIN, went from $40,000 in 2022 to currently “over six figures,” Porter said. The conference is now among his clients. The WEARPACK with FutureLAND branding is included among the conference’s VIP items.
“It not only gave us the capital, but it also allowed us to build a network with so many organizations within the city that actually turned into additional deals,” he said.
The two-day FutureLAND, which ends today, is part of The Land of Trailblazing Tech. This collaboration between the City of Cleveland and economic organizations, such as the Greater Cleveland Partnership, features six conferences and other events throughout October.
Some are new to Cleveland, including Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit and others, such as FutureLAND, have taken place here before. The conferences and events are either tech-focused or include tech issues among their offerings. FutureLAND’s organizers describe it as an “annual conference celebrating diversity in tech, arts and culture.” Organizers include an array of entrepreneurs, the City of Cleveland, the United Black Fund, which gives to nonprofits and Jumpstart Inc., which helps entrepreneurs.
The conferences and events combined are expected to draw about 10,000 people to Greater Cleveland, said Baiju R. Shah, GCP’s president and CEO. He said Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, which will take place Oct. 8-11 at the Cleveland Public Auditorium, is the centerpiece of The Land of Trailblazing Tech. Cleveland is one of the 10 cities included this year among the first Forbes 30 Under 30 local lists. Greater Cleveland isn’t considered a tech hub by most standards. However, wth 58,000 IT professionals, Shah said, the tech economy is already a presence in the region and has the potential to grow.
This is the first year for The Land of Trailblazing Tech, but already Shah and other collaborators are envisioning their “wildest aspirations.” They want to see “the tech, arts and finance worlds” come to Cleveland every October.
“It will be great for us in continuing to attract investment and attract talent to our region,” he said. “I’ve seen what’s happened over my lifetime to a music festival in Austin, Texas.”
Shah was referring to South by Southwest. The conference and festivals focused on the convergence of tech, film, music, education and culture annually attract several hundred thousand attendees.
FutureLAND attempts to fill a gap
When asked why FutureLand has been so important to him, Porter’s reply sounds like a joke but it reveals a deeper truth.
“I don’t have an uncle who can write me a $100,000 check,” he said.
Most people don’t. He said this is even more true for Black and other entrepreneurs of color. Porter said lenders, venture capitalists and others are often less willing to lend to such entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of Black people with good ideas for businesses,” he said. “We just do not have the same access to capital.”
Charron Leeper, co-founder and creative director of FutureLAND, agrees. She said Black entrepreneurs face obstacles based on past and current circumstances. For example, many now know about Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street because of the 2021 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of its devastation. White mobs nearly razed a prosperous Black business district and residential community. Many historians have attributed the racial violence to white anger about Black economic success in the context of American capitalism. While Black Wall Street is well known, there were many such attacks on prosperous Black communities and businesses throughout the United States.
Economic racism persists and has been documented. For example, the Federal Reserve System’s 2023 Report on Startup Firms Owned by People of Color pointed to racial disparities in funding for entrepreneurs. Even among companies deemed a low credit risk, based on self-reported credit scores, the report found that “entrepreneurs of color were more likely to be denied at least some of the financing they sought.”
“Systemic racism affects African Americans on such a neurological level and on such a cellular level that people really don’t understand it unless you’re walking or experiencing life as an African American,” Leeper said.
She said there is a need to support “people of color who share similar struggles,” including in gaining access to capital.
As the owner of Agency Thirty Three, a startup full-service creative and talent agency, Leeper knows this first-hand. She said the conference was designed to introduce attendees to a variety of things, ranging from new technologies that could make their businesses more efficient to organizations and people who support entrepreneurs. She thinks of FutureLAND as kind of a crash course built on this premise:
“How can we create something that would actually pour back into the local entrepreneurs?”
Shining a spotlight on Greater Cleveland’s tech community
Shah said The Land of Trailblazing Tech has several goals, including “creating better connectivity” among the members of the region’s tech community and attracting investors, businesses and tech professionals to Cleveland.
“This is about bringing the tech world to Cleveland and bringing the tech spotlight to Cleveland,” he said.
In addition to FutureLAND and the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, other The Land of Trailblazing Tech events include: INDUSTRY: The Product Conference; FutureLAND; All In for Tech Day featuring the 17th Annual Best of Tech Awards; Ohio VC Fest ’23; and the 21st Information Security SUMMIT
The Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit features high-profile speakers, including Grammy-winning recording artist Bad Bunny, entrepreneur Kendall Jenner and Pinky Cole, founder and CEO of Slutty Vegan restaurants.
“We’re so excited about the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit because the audiences that those participants speak to are the twentysomethings,” Shah said. “We want to make sure Cleveland and Ohio are shining brightly to Gen Z.”
Wanting to make an impact in Cleveland
Porter is a Gen Z for whom Cleveland continues to shine brightly. He wants to make it big here with his backpack business. This is not only to fulfill personal goals, but to also have a positive impact on the city.
The economics major designed The WEARPACK while a student at The Ohio State University. The signature chest bag allows a user to carry such things as keys, a wallet and a cellphone. The design provides for easy access to them and reduces fears about pickpocketing, as with a traditional backpack. The chest bag is also designed to be used as a handbag, shoulder bag or waist bag.
An uncle who has owned an East Cleveland dry cleaners for 50 years taught him how to sew. Porter then bought a sewing machine with money he earned from a campus job. Before long, his dorm room was doubling as a sewing shop. He went from selling 20 backpacks his sophomore year to 500 by his senior year. By then, Porter had secured licensing agreements with OSU and North Carolina A&T State University.
Since then, he’s signed licensing agreements with several more universities, high schools, fraternities, sororities and other organizations. His company, CHVD JUSTIN, has made 5,000 backpacks and the number continues to grow.
“In the next five to 10 years, we want 25% of backpack users to switch to our innovation,” he said.
The downtown Cleveland resident, who was raised in Richmond Heights, is currently looking for a warehouse and offices in Cleveland.
“Who knows?” Porter said. “Perhaps we will become to Cleveland what Nike has become to Beaverton, Oregon.”