Tulsa Remote Puts Oklahoma’s Second Largest City on the Map

Mark Radcliffe had been living in New York City for over a decade. He had friends and a nice life going.

Still, around the 10-year mark of his time in the city, Radcliffe felt there was something more that he was after. He was ready to try calling a new location home. The end of his lease was coming up and he decided to start thinking about new places to move to.

Radcliffe, who works in advertising and is also a musician, had earlier left a position as an English teacher to start something new in New York.

“I quit that with no plan about what was next in my life,” he said during a recent Zoom interview. “And it was a very ‘here goes nothing, I’m just trusting my gut’ kind of moment. I left with no plan. And all my friends, [said] … this is a terrible idea. But anyway, it was exactly what I needed to do.”

Fast forward 10 years into New York City, and he felt the same way. It was the beginning of 2020, and the pandemic was just hitting the United States.

“I was reading a lot of articles,” he said. “I was a big believer that the pandemic was going to mess up cities in a big way, at least temporarily … If we’re just going to work in our living rooms for a year, I thought, I’m going to work from a cheaper living room. So that’s where it sort of started and I wasn’t sure where I would go at first.”

He thought about Detroit. Then about returning to his roots in Maine or Vermont or starting anew in Park City, Utah. None of the places stuck, though.

Then Radcliffe, 53, stumbled upon an article about a new program called Tulsa Remote. It pays people $10,000 to move to Oklahoma’s second-largest city for a year, to be a part of Tulsa’s community, while being a remote worker, which, as many of us are now familiar, is someone who works or contracts for a company without a formal or central office, often from home or a coworking space.

“That’s pretty fascinating,” Radcliffe said. “And just the content that they showed of Tulsa on the website instantly had me [asking] why haven’t I heard more about this town? And I thought, yes, this looks like Asheville looks like Nashville looks a little like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. It’s kind of gritty, kind of organic — an authentic feel.”

In September 2020, Radcliffe moved to Tulsa as part of the Tulsa Remote program. Once his year-long commitment was up, he stuck around.

Tulsa is located in Oklahoma’s northeastern region. With a population of more than 400,000 and the second-largest city in the state, Tulsa’s economy historically relied on oil and gas. In fact, the 1920s oil boom is seen throughout the Art Deco architecture that permeates the downtown business district. Prior to that time period, in the 1800s, Tulsa became the home of the Creek Native Americans who were removed and relocated from their ancestral homes in present-day Alabama and Georgia, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Around the same time oil boomed, a terrible incident occurred in Tulsa that forever changed the city.

The Tulsa Race Massacre, a two-day assault in 1921 on an area known as Black Wall Street, left many dead and wounded and destroyed a large swath of Tulsa’s Black community.

Today, Black Wall Street is undergoing a resurgence, and programs, including Tulsa Remote, are supporting Black entrepreneurs and workers in the city.

Many of the remote workers who were initially drawn to Tulsa for a variety of reasons are staying put. Radcliffe is among the 76 percent of Tulsa Remote participants who stayed in the city past their commitment, according to an economic impact report on the program released this summer. According to the website, which tracks remote worker relocation programs, there are nearly 200 programs across the country in urban, suburban, and rural settings. The Tulsa Remote program is the largest.

In 2018, community leaders at the George Kaiser Family Foundation saw the potential for the city of Tulsa to attract a diverse group of talented professionals from across a wide range of industries to relocate and become part of the Tulsa community.

The foundation had seen, through programs like Teach for America, that once individuals came to Tulsa and experienced all the city had to offer, they’d likely stay. They bet that if they could incentivize knowledge workers to give Tulsa a try, they’d end up planting roots in the community too.

So, Tulsa Remote was launched on the idea that if they could help break down the barriers individuals face when considering a move — if people were able to experience Tulsa with access to a support system of like-minded remote workers upon arrival and receive financial support to give the city a try — they might decide to call Tulsa home.

The Tulsa Remote economic impact report shows that as of December 2022, 2,165 workers have relocated to the city through the program, and they have generated $306.7 million in direct-employment income. Further, in 2022 alone, the 1,852 Tulsa Remote participants living in Tulsa contributed more than an estimated $203 million in new labor income to the city of Tulsa. The economic activity that these program participants generated led to an estimated new sales-tax revenue of $2.5 million for Tulsa County and $3.1 million for the state of Oklahoma.

“Tulsa’s traditional economy is dominated by oil and gas extraction and aerospace manufacturing, which are industries not conducive to remote work,” according to the report. “By contrast, Tulsa Remote participants generally work in the knowledge economy as managers and program directors, financial professionals, marketers, consultants, and software developers. The induced employment that Tulsa Remote members give rise to is likewise distributed across a range of industries, with the most significant gains in health care, accommodation services, retail, and finance. Moreover, some Tulsa Remote members and alumni eventually quit their remote work in Tulsa to start businesses in the area.”

Tulsa Remote Managing Director Justin Harlan said the report shows that the program is paying off for Tulsa.

“I’d say what I’m most proud of is the retention and then the multiplier effect,” he said in an interview for Common Good. “The fact that we really placed a bet in creating this program on the fact that if people could kind of get a taste of what Tulsa has to offer, they’d stick around. And I think the fact that 76 percent of people who have come to Tulsa since 2019 are still here today just speaks to what we know is true about the city and to the kind of momentum that we’re creating here alongside so many amazing community organizations that are making it all happen.”

The report estimates that in 2022 alone, Tulsa Remote participants’ household spending created 722 full-time-equivalent local jobs. The program is also changing the makeup of the city.

“Since 2020, Tulsa Remote members as a group are more ethnically and racially diverse than the overall population of Tulsa County,” the report states. “And since 2022, members are more diverse than the population in the city of Tulsa. Non-white applicants make up more than 48 percent of the finalists who have accepted their offers to move in 2023.”

The pandemic has changed the way people work, and how they think about work, Harlan said. Tulsa Remote was one of the first remote relocation programs to exist, and the pandemic helped grow its popularity.

“I think Tulsa Remote is a great example of people kind of reprioritizing and finding a place that offers a high quality of life at a very low cost of living,” Harlan said. “Being able to save time on your commute and prioritize community and meet people who have some shared background, but are not working at the same place as you … I think there’s a lot to be learned about this little experiment as it relates to what people care most about and how that might be shifting in the wake of the pandemic.”

The multiplier effect, Harlan said, was something he didn’t anticipate but was an effect that was clear in the research. The city gains three residents for every two Tulsa Remote program participants.

“That group of people actually outweighs the number of people who are leaving after their year commitment, which I think just speaks to, again, what’s happening in the city and the fact that it’s not just impactful for a participant that we might pay them, but so impactful that they want to tell others about it and bring them here to the city with them,” Harlan said.

Claire Tomm knows about the multiplier effect. She and her husband relocated to Tulsa through the program with their two young kids. Tomm had a friend who had been in the program, so she knew a lot about it before even starting the application process, she said.

“We remained close after she moved to Tulsa through the Tulsa Remote program,” said the 40-year-old design consultant. “And my husband and I were kind of itching to do something similar to get out of the city we had lived in for almost a decade. And, like everybody, we were kind of getting antsy with the pandemic lifestyle and everything. We needed to shake it up.”

Tomm was part of the program from October 2021 to October 2022. She and her family ended up staying in Tulsa and bought a house. “We’re committed now,” she said. “The people here are, generally speaking, pretty easy to know, pretty open, pretty welcoming.”

Soon, Tomm’s family started feeling a part of the community. Her husband got into mountain biking and her daughter started kindergarten.

“It takes a long time for a place to feel like home, but we very quickly saw the potential and felt really comfortable starting to build up a community, which was cool,” she added.

Community is a huge part of what keeps people staying in Tulsa, said Ben Stewart, executive director for Tulsa Remote and senior program officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which supports the Tulsa Remote program.

“I think the ability for our members to see a future for themselves and their families is here, and they are really able to hit the ground running, so to speak. … Tulsa is a community that is very open,” he said. “I think that whether that’s a storyline of starting their own business or buying their first home, or having a yard for their family and their dog, the experience is individualized to every member, but the mosaic of those stories is very real.”

Stewart noted that the program was an overnight success, with 10,000 applications in the first 90 days since they began accepting applications.

Tulsa Remote has spilled over into the creation of other organizations, too, like Tulsa Innovation Labs, which seeks to catalyze Tulsa as a tech hub. The George Kaiser Family Foundation has a host of programs geared toward improving Tulsa and offering opportunities for people who call it home. Some of those programs have offered jobs to Tulsa Remote alumni or led them to other opportunities.

Krystal Speed is another Tulsa Remote participant. The 43-year-old entrepreneur who owns her own HR consulting business says Tulsa has offered a lot of resources with which she has grown and expanded her business.

One organization that Speed got involved with is Build in Tulsa, which seeks to close the racial wealth gap in America by catalyzing the creation of multi-generational Black wealth through tech and entrepreneurship. Speed took part in a female pitch night Build in Tulsa put on and won first place in the competition.

“I am able to expand my network, but also to really think about the fundamentals of my business and really build an even sturdier foundation,” she said.

Build in Tulsa is another program of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Rooted in the legacy of Black Wall Street, Build in Tulsa is committed to providing opportunity for under-represented entrepreneurs who have historically been denied resources and funding. Build in Tulsa focuses on harnessing human capital, social capital, and financial capital to elevate Black entrepreneurs. We have created a network of accelerators, designed to meet entrepreneurs wherever they are in their journey,” said Ashli Sims, managing director of Build in Tulsa.

Build in Tulsa is providing an array of programs including training and workshops to get founders accelerator ready, including mentoring and networking events to introduce entrepreneurs to each other and to strategic partners, Sims said, as well as connecting entrepreneurs to potential sources of capital. Build in Tulsa is also addressing some of the barriers that many Black entrepreneurs face by providing free co-working space, cost-of-living assistance, funding for technology, and other business awards.

Sims said in the last two years Build in Tulsa has grown its network to include 316 entrepreneurs, facilitated more than 4,000 hours of training and coaching, and invested more than $5 million in Black and minority founders.

“I firmly believe that Black Wall Street is not a history lesson, but a blueprint,” Sims said. “It guides the work that Build in Tulsa does as we build the infrastructure necessary for Black Americans to build generational wealth. At Build in Tulsa, we view the work we’re doing as deeply rooted in the legacy of Black Wall Street. We are advocating for greater recognition and investment in this movement of Black entrepreneurs, and for policies and initiatives that support the growth and success of Black-owned businesses.”

Located in the heart of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, Juno Medical–Tulsa is a new clinic. Juno provides comprehensive, accessible, tech-enabled care for the entire family including women’s health, family medicine, pediatrics, same-day care, and more. Juno serves the entire Tulsa metro and offers virtual care appointments statewide.

Juno’s first clinic opened in Harlem, New York, in 2020, followed by clinics in Brooklyn, Atlanta, and now Tulsa.

“We serve the whole city with a special focus on addressing health disparities, as we understand the history of North Tulsa and Greenwood still impacts the broader community today. The 50-plus-year absence of health care in Greenwood, and the 10-year life expectancy gap that exists between north Tulsa and south Tulsa, made the 21 North Greenwood site an ideal choice for Juno,” said Chris Rogers, community lead for Juno Medical–Tulsa.

Juno is just one business that is shaping Tulsa’s future, and alongside the others shaping this Oklahoma city, there may be many more to come. Radcliffe said there is warmth to Tulsa that people may not experience elsewhere. It’s particularly welcoming to newcomers.

“But then one of the big things for me is that it has an incredible music scene. I really do sort of think of it as a sister city to Nashville — or as I call it, the Nashville of Oklahoma,” he said, naming some of his favorite venues, including Cain’s Ballroom, the Hunt Club and the BOK Center.

Radcliffe also bought a house in Tulsa and hosts regular dinners and other meet-ups with his friends.

“To me, it’s this nice size city,” he said. “I like sort of being on the underdog side. And I feel like Tulsa was kind of an underdog city that a lot of people are just starting to learn about.”

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