How The Former CEO Of The NAACP Is Bringing More Diversity To Tech

Ben Jealous is using his background as a social activist to revolutionize Silicon Valley.

What do you do after achieving your ultimate professional goal before age 40? If you're Ben Jealous, who did just that when he became the President and CEO of the NAACP at 35, you start all over again. When Jealous announced in December that he would be stepping down from his position, he—along with the rest of the world—assumed his next move would be academia. Instead, he is the one cramming. As a new partner in Bay Area firm Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact, he’s taking a crash course in computer coding, technology, and venture capital investment to help improve diversity in the tech industry.

For Jealous, who joined the firm in February, the unexpected change was exactly what he needed. "I succeeded in the first decade of my work because I was willing to try new things every day; I succeeded in the second decade because by then I had found a few things at which I excelled and was willing to repeat them every day," he says. When his old friends Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein approached him about joining their venture capital firm, he saw a chance to "get back to stretching my brain again every day."

Ben Jealous at an NAACP rallyPhoto by Eric Wingerter

It was also the opportunity to exercise old talents. Two decades ago, Jealous honed his leadership skills as an undergraduate student activist at Columbia University. Upon graduation, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford's Department of Social Policy and Intervention, served as the Executive Director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and, in 2008, was tapped to head the NAACP. While there, Jealous made considerable strides in transforming the organization from one that people referenced when talking about the history of the '60s into one that played a visible role in new-millennia America—including joining state and local movements for marriage equality, working to outlaw racial profiling and the death penalty, and defending voting rights.

It is this ability to organize and lead social change that makes him a natural fit for Kapor, a firm committed to funding startups in underserved communities both domestically and internationally. "It reminds me of the early days of my career as an organizer," he says about brainstorming with the tech leaders who he believes will change the world. "The best entrepreneurs, like the best organizers, think big and make the future come faster. [And] there is no industry that thinks bigger or faster than tech."

However, as revolutionary as the thinkers in Silicon Valley may be, the tech industry, says Jealous, "has not set a high bar for increasing inclusion." The numbers of tech workers are dismal in terms of diversity, with current Bureau of Labor Statistics data saying the industry is less than 30% African-American, Latino and Asian combined. There are even fewer people of color running their own tech businesses, and in the past two years, income has dropped for Blacks and Latinos in the field. It is a disparity that Jealous insists Kapor will continue to fight using "any means that work."

Those means include Kapor's support of organizations like Black Girls Code and the Hidden Genius Project, as well as their own Level Playing Field Institute, which seeks to eliminate barriers to science and technology for people of color. Jealous is currently on what he calls a "listening tour" of the U.S., meeting with tech leaders, investors, and community organizations to uncover how Kapor can build coalitions and turn their goal into a movement. "Good leadership starts with listening to the stakeholders. One sector can't do it on its own," Jealous says. "The task of making Silicon Valley work to its fullest is going to require a real commitment by venture capital firms, entrepreneurs, business leaders, political leaders, media partners, academics, community organizations, and foundations."

Jealous likes to explain the challenge in terms anyone can understand—from Silicon Valley giants to Trekkies. "We need Captain Hernandez, not just Lieutenant Uhuru," he says about TV's most famous techies. "If Captain Kirk found geniuses from places as disparate as Vulcan and Scotland, we can find more of them in Harlem and Appalachia."

[Image: Flickr user Warit Chongkolwatana]

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • There is no individual or organization with greater catalytic impact toward diversity & inclusion across the landscape of the innovation economy than Johnathan Holifield, Esq, the Vice President of Inclusive Competitiveness at NorTech, a tech-based economic development powerhouse in Cleveland covering 21 counties in northeast Ohio. Johnathan is single-handedly moving the entire TBED field and the Ohio Board of Regents toward adoption of Inclusive Competitiveness strategies and frameworks that will fundamentally disrupt the current economic paradigm in every region in the nation.