Former CEO of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous shares his thoughts on the importance of investing in diversity
The AT&T Foundry innovation centers are fast-paced and collaborative environments. AT&T and technology providers work in the AT&T Foundry to deliver applications and services to customers more quickly than ever before. The AT&T Foundry – along with AT&T Foundry sponsor Ericsson and Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur and Digital Vertigo – host a series of curated, intimate discussions called Futurecast. These discussions with thought leaders are designed to vet, debate, and ultimately spark ideas that will set the course for our collective technological future.
About this Futurecast: In recent years, the lack of diversity in the tech sector has taken over the headlines. The true cause for the dearth of minority representation in tech is regularly debated: from too few role models, to insufficient access to opportunities for people in impoverished communities, to unconscious bias. We all agree the evidence is there; for example, only six percent of U.S. tech workers are African American, and seven percent are Latino. These low proportions are just one indicator of overwhelming systemic and societal gaps that minorities face with regard to access to opportunities, wealth, and education.
Benjamin Jealous has spent his career working to close such gaps. At 35, Jealous became the youngest-ever president of the NAACP and helped increase the organization’s online activists by more than 500,000 people. In his current role at Kapor Capital, he is committed to funding startups in underserved communities in the U.S.
What duty, if any, do tech companies have to increase the diversity of their workforce? How can tech companies use their significant capital and influence to make an impact on the lack of underrepresented minorities in the industry, from STEM education, to recruitment to retention? What are the benefits of impact investing over the traditional philanthropic model, not to mention traditional investing?
Guest Post by Marcellus Haynes, Developer and Founder of Technologists of Color
On October 5th, AT&T hosted another installment of its Futurecast discussions featuring Ben Jealous of Kapor Capital. The event began with an hour or so of drinks, hors d’oeuvres and mingling among a wide range of Atlanta tech dignitaries, entrepreneurs, community leaders and others. There were a few start-up companies providing demos and information on their new, innovative products. Monseiur and Covello – two companies founded by African Americans – attracted plenty of attention and even interviews as they explained their respective automatic bartender and mobile apps. The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial and almost electric as the evening progressed to the main event.
Once it was time to take our seats for the discussion, the mood seemed to change a bit as everyone seemed eager to hear what our esteemed and featured guest had to say about the topic of the night – Investing for Inclusion. As mentioned by our host Andrew Keen during the introduction, Ben Jealous is the perfect person for this conversation. With his experience leading the NAACP and now a venture capitalist in San Francisco, Mr. Jealous has experience on both sides of the equation. He has served as a spokesperson of the underrepresented and now is working for a company that places great investment in finding solutions for the very same group.
Ben is a partner with Kapor Capital which he says has the goal of finding simple solutions to relatively complex problems. During the course of the interview and discussion, Ben made several key points. When asked “What makes you, you?” Mr. Jealous talked about his belief in a higher power and his willingness to take risks. He explained that he learned both at an early age and that they have carried him throughout life. His belief in a higher power is what defines him and not any individual, organization or otherwise. He further explained that our country is rooted in risk-taking and that it is what’s necessary to advance in life.
A second interesting point Ben made is that he has never seen a pitch from an African American entrepreneur that did not have a social slant to it. Mentioned in the discussion was that many startup companies are created out of pain and so it makes sense that African Americans usually create a product to in some way address a social problem. He said, “it’s just what we do.”
There was some disagreement with a third point that Ben made on “thinking big.” He feels that where many African American and minority entrepreneurs fall short is that they fail to think big enough. He remarked that when you get in front of a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, they’re going to want to know your plan five years down the road as opposed to how you plan to make money tomorrow. Co-founder of the Atlanta startup Covello, M Cole Jones disagreed in part with Mr. Jealous’s idea. He explained that in his experience, he has had to focus on first creating a product or service and showing some value before he could get companies like AT&T to partner with Covello or to hire them as a vendor.
What It Means to Invest in Diversity
As the discussion continued, I noticed the conversation centered mostly on the lack of diversity in the technology industry. Often when attempting to facilitate a discussion on diversity, it is very difficult to keep the audience from harping on the many examples of discrimination, racism, etc. Our organization – Technologists of Color – has hosted similar events and we have experienced the same problem. We always aim to leave our events with potential solutions, but inevitably we find ourselves in a struggle to extract any sort of answer to the problems.
In my estimation, organizations such as the Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact represent an answer if not THE answer to the problem – an organization created with investing in diversity at its core. This type of organization does more than simply allocate funds for various diversity projects. It “relentlessly pursues creative strategies” and “primarily works with underrepresented communities” to directly address the root of the problem. We need more minority founders and Kapor Capital has a proven track record for investing in minority-run startups. We need more minority students in technology and the Kapor Center for Social Impact funds and partners with organizations that teach technology to students. We need more organizations and/or companies, public and/or private, solely dedicated to addressing the root of the diversity problem.
Read other Developer experiences attendees at past Futurecast below and visit the Futurecast portal for more on upcoming events:
- Futurecast at the AT&T Foundry: Nir Eyal and Habit-Forming Products
- Futurecast Featuring Steve Case: Innovation, Revolution, and the Future of American Innovation
- Learn About How to Engineer a Culture of Creativity and Why a Failure Resume Can Help Propel You Forward
Marcellus Haynes is an Independent Software Consultant and founder of the Technologists of Color organization, which strives to grow the African American tech community in Atlanta. He has built software for Fortune 1000 companies such as Cox Communications and Chick-fil-A, as well as start-ups such as Engauge Digital (now Moxie) and Bridge2Solutions. Marcellus has a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Florida and is an active member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Inc.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is a partner at Kapor Capital, an Oakland-based venture capital firm, and former President and CEO of the NAACP. A Rhodes Scholar, Jealous was named by both Forbes and TIME magazine to their “Top 40 under 40” lists. He sits on numerous boards including the external board of advisors for AT&T’s Aspire Accelerator. Jealous’ new book Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding features personal essays from prominent figures in the black community. A national bestseller, Reach is required reading for freshman at Morehouse College this Fall.