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Working from home? You could get paid $10,000 to do that from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The "Tulsa Remote" work-from-home program has boomed during the pandemic, fostering economic development in the heartland — and forging a new future for a city with a painful past.
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Tawny Ann De La Peña, 32, has navigated the last decade of her life at a nonstop, big-city pace. As a former local television news producer and Los Angeles native, slowing down and moving to a small city was never on her horizon, she said — until she and her wife were each offered $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, through a remote work program called “Tulsa Remote.”

 “If I thought about my life three years ago, I would have never ever guessed that I would have ended up in the smack dab middle of the country,” she said. “But it’s been such a pleasant surprise and it’s presented me with so many opportunities.”

Some of those opportunities have included starting her own freelance copywriting business, upgrading from a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California, to a five-bedroom home with a backyard in the heartland while cutting living expenses by over $500 a month, and opening up her mind to new social and political perspectives. Most importantly, she said, she believes the affordability and novelty of Tulsa has given her the chance to feel like her “whole self.”

The affordability and novelty of living in Tulsa gave one woman the chance to feel like her “whole self.”

“If you think of the science of it, it’s like you’re opening new neural pathways in your brain,” she said. “And so you’re creating more possibilities.”

When De La Peña and her wife, Raphaelle, made the move together in April, they were joining the now more than 1,300 people who have relocated to Tulsa since Tulsa Remote first began in 2018. According to the program's executive director, Ben Stewart, more than 90 percent have stayed beyond their required year.

Image: Tawny Ann De La Peña and Raphaelle Buenafe
Tawny Ann De La Peña, left, with her wife, Raphaelle Buenafe.Courtesy Tawny Ann De La Pena and Raphaelle Buenafe

Tulsa Remote enjoys the patronage of native son George Kaiser, a philanthropist who made his fortune in oil and whose family foundation has already poured enormous funds into creating cutting-edge early-childhood education programs. His support of this program has made it a nationally renowned experiment in trying to transform a city’s workforce.

Remote work programs have seen renewed interest during the pandemic as Americans took their work home or in a new direction, and Tulsa Remote has boomed as a result. The program received five times the number of applications in 2020, compared to 2019, Stewart said. Similar incentivized remote work programs have popped up in other parts of the country, including Life Works Here in Arkansas, Movers and Shakas in Hawaii and Ascend West Virginia.

Aside from the $10,000 — disbursed as a house down payment or over time — Tulsa Remote members also get assistance with house hunting, access to co-working spaces and weekly social and professional events.

Stewart said Tulsa, built during the oil boom of the early 1900s for a population that never fully materialized, is ready to absorb new arrivals without displacing the people already there. He sees Tulsa Remote members as “additive community members” of the city, those that can bring jobs with them, rather than take jobs away from local residents.

“Tulsa Remote really seeks to build community at its core. Tulsa Remote would not be successful if Tulsa wasn’t that community,” Stewart said. “And what I see happening, more and more, is our members getting involved in building relationships with local Tulsans so we aren’t in an isolated bubble, especially post-Covid.”

Addressing potential flash points such as the local housing market and labor pool, Stephen Ross, professor of economics at the University of Connecticut, said Tulsa Remote's additive population of less than 0.5 percent would not have any substantial impact for local Tulsans.

However, any potential economic development that comes out of the program could impact these markets, Ross said.

“If they do generate economic growth, any positive effects they have will likely spill over to more economic growth, not crowd out other economic growth,” he said. “Does that mean higher housing prices, higher wages and longer commutes? Always.”

A new study from the Economic Innovation Group, an entrepreneur advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., found that the program is estimated to bring in 592 jobs this year, 394 of which are attributed to remote workers and 198 new ones. EIG also found that Tulsa Remote is estimated to add $62 million in local earnings to the city this year.

In addition to fostering economic and community development, the program also seeks to grapple with Tulsa’s racist past: In 1921, a white mob murdered hundreds of residents and destroyed 35 blocks of what was then one of the greatest concentrations of Black wealth in the United States. Then, decades later, highway construction destroyed the neighborhood’s economic prospects again.

Dr. Freeman Culver III, who serves as president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce in the Greenwood District where “Black Wall Street” once stretched, said Tulsa Remote is a way to bring the entrepreneurial spirit of pre-1921 Tulsa back to the city.

“We have a great opportunity here to bring that momentum that we had in early 1900s with the oil boom and to kind of do it again,” he said. “To make Greenwood prosper the way it should, we need people from all different backgrounds.”

“To make Greenwood prosper the way it should, we need people from all different backgrounds.”

Kim Grey, a banking consultant who moved to town with Tulsa Remote, said that as a Black woman she felt somewhat isolated here when she left Chicago in March 2020. However, she said, Tulsa Remote has helped to change that.

“I’m starting to see a lot more faces that look like me, other people of color, other minority groups, which is great because I love diversity, I embrace it,” she said. “But it’s still very hard living here knowing the past of what happened.”

The program interviews applicants and selects them on the basis of their community spirit, their professional background and their chances of contributing to a vibrant, diverse workforce, Stewart said. The program reports accepting slightly more men than women so far, with white members comprising 61 percent of the program, Black members 13 percent, 9 percent Latino or Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian/Alaskan, with mixed races making up the remainder. The majority relocated from states like California, Texas, New York, Colorado, Georgia and Florida.

As for how the momentum of a remote work program will fare as more Americans return to the office heading into the new year, Stewart, who said the program will continue accepting applications indefinitely, has minimal worries.

“I think at the core, talent is really in the driver’s seat and what you’re seeing — pretty dramatically — is the fact that talent wants that flexibility more than ever,” he said. “And, as more and more companies choose to, you know, listen to their employees, I think remote work has a very strong future ahead.”

Back at her new five-bedroom home, where she and her wife have a spacious office each, plus a basketball net and a home gym, De La Peña said she imagines remaining in Tulsa for three years, maybe even six.

“I feel like I’m writing my future as it happens,” she said.