What Roe v. Wade being overturned could mean for startups in red states

May 31, 2022, 12:30 PM UTC

There’s been plenty of momentum brewing in Conservative states—in states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, or Texas. There are new startup studios and accelerator programs, and record levels of investments.

But the Supreme Court’s impending decision on Roe v. Wade is looming, and a leaked draft decision is throwing some of these new startup epicenters into the spotlight. Legislators in 31 states have introduced legislation that would ban abortion, per the Guttmacher Institute—and bans have been enacted in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Wyoming as of May 25.

“They’re telling me they’re not moving here. They’re not applying to our programs,” says Erika Lucas of conversations she is having with female entrepreneurs in Oklahoma City. Lucas, a former private equity partner, co-founded StitchCrew, an independent organization that partners with Google and the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder to support women and entrepreneurs of color in the region.

Lucas has been focused on economic development in Oklahoma for nearly 20 years, and has become a prominent voice in the startup community and an advocate for underrepresented people in the startup industry. I sat down with her to talk about what an impending SCOTUS decision could mean for businesses in red states—and who exactly is talking about it. (Some portions of this Q&A have been edited or shortened for clarity and/or brevity.)

“They’re telling me they’re not moving here. They’re not applying to our programs,” says Erika Lucas of conversations she is having with female entrepreneurs in Oklahoma City.
Courtesy of Erika Lucas

Term Sheet: How long have you been in Oklahoma City, and how have you seen the startup community develop there?

Erika Lucas: I was actually born and raised in Mexico. I came here the first time—typical immigrant story—with my single mother and my sister when I was 13 years old and didn’t know a lick of English. And I spent about three and a half years [in a small town in Oklahoma], and then I went back to Mexico to live with my grandparents. I couldn’t really adapt as well as my mom and my sister did. 

The second time I came back to Oklahoma was about 17 years ago, when I came to visit my mom, met my husband, and the rest is history. The startup community really has changed tremendously. Back then, I was focused on economic development in the traditional sense, meaning geared towards larger employers—not necessarily startups and entrepreneurs. To be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention back then, but I would say most of the development and most of the excitement around building a startup community has been in the last five to six years. 

Have you seen a lot of people move from other parts of the country into Oklahoma or is a lot of this happening from within the state itself?

In Oklahoma City, I think a lot of it is happening organically. We do have companies moving in. We do have people moving in. There’s usually already an anchor: Big companies are usually moving in because there’s a market for them, whether it’s supply chain driven or whether it’s consumer or business enterprise like in oil and gas or healthcare. 

Now when you look at Tulsa, which is our second largest metro area in the state, organizations like the [George Kaiser Family Foundation] have established programs like the Tulsa Remote program with Atento Capital. A lot of their focus is to bring in out-of-state entrepreneurs to establish their companies here and have a presence here. So I would say Tulsa maybe has been a little bit more aggressive at recruiting companies. 

What would it mean for Oklahoma if Roe v. Wade is indeed overturned?

We don’t even have to wait for for SCOTUS to make a decision, because our governor just signed the most anti-abortion law in the nation, [banning abortion at the point of fertilization], so we’re already there. The main problem that we’re going to see—and I don’t think that this is going to affect just startups, but our economy and our industry, in general—is talent. We have an unemployment rate that is actually under 3% statewide, which means our local employers that are already here can’t find talent. We need to import a lot of it, and we need to make sure that we’re developing that talent pipeline.

We know that women represent 50% of the population. We know that women represent more than 40% of businesses in the U.S. And we know that we represent more than 50% of the labor force. We also know that the number one determining factor in a woman’s trajectory, whether it’s in life or career, is our ability to make our own choices when it comes to reproductive health— being able to plan when and how we have families.

By passing laws like this, we’re sending the signal that we don’t care about [women’s] participation in the labor labor force… Why would you consider our state? I know that some of my fellow colleagues in economic development will argue well—you know—we’re low on taxes or we are a cheap state… Again, our biggest challenge is talent. We can have the lowest cost of business; we can have the lowest cost of tax infrastructure. But if I can’t have talent to actually grow my company sustainably, then it doesn’t matter. It’s not just women, because this is not a women’s issue. This is going to affect everyone.

What kind of impact have you already seen other policy decisions play on recruiting?

I think you see it all over the country, because Oklahoma is not the only state that is looking at this type of legislation. You have Texas and others… When it comes to entrepreneurship, I will tell you: If I’m talking to women, they’re telling me they’re not moving here. They’re not applying to our programs… There’s a lot of discriminatory laws that are being passed at our state legislature, not just in Oklahoma, but across the heartland, across the South, that makes us look like we’re not inclusive… People are paying attention to that and they’re not even taking us into consideration. 

Are you seeing startups and investors responding to the anti-abortion bill?

I think some do it behind doors, but to be honest, no. I have not seen more of my colleagues take a more public stand in our region, and I wish they would. Because this is not a women’s issue. This is not a social issue. This is an economic issue. If we focus on the implication that this is going to have on women’s ability to participate in the labor force, but also on our lifetime earnings and how we already have a wealth gap and a pay gap and this is just going to make it worse—this is an economic issue. That’s what we should be talking about, and I wish that more of my colleagues would be…

Capital is not going to be enough. If we’re serious about supporting marginalized communities—women, people of color, the LGBTQ community—providing capital is great, but it’s never going to be enough… It doesn’t matter how much money we throw at the problem. We’re not fixing the underlying costs that enable people to not just launch companies, but to achieve economic mobility in general. That’s why I truly believe that we need to be speaking up about these policies… If we’re serious about supporting entrepreneurs, then let’s support them. Let’s support them with a capital, with resources, and a network, but also with advocacy. And with reaching out to our legislators to talk about how this is an economic issue, and it heavily impacts our workforce development efforts. 

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
Email: jessica.mathews@fortune.com
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