Black Is the New Black: An African-American Entrepreneur's Manifesto
Donald Thompson, President and CEO of Creative Allies and a member of YPO
May 24, 2016
Today's business environment is faster-paced, more aggressive and more open than at any point in our history. Yes, you read correctly -- I said more open.
Sure, issues remain that affect those of us who have a darker pigmentation in our skin, are female or are part of the LGBT community. However, none of us have to think back too far to realize how far we have come. I am not naive. I have spent the last 20 years in the technology space, and I have never done a significant deal with or worked for someone who looks like me. So before we go any further, I get it. Things aren’t fair, diverse or very inclusive in the tech space. The question is, “What are we going to do about it?”
While this article centers around the African-American perspective, since that is my experience, I believe the same considerations can be applied to any group looking to break barriers in business.
It starts with the kids.
There are plenty of headlines about diversity and inclusion and plenty of articles communicating the historical data about lack of diversity in the past at Big Company X, Y and Z. Current data shows that there are still not many African-Americans in the technology field. I commend the positive response from firms like Google, IBM, Intel and others for their initiatives to improve the number of hires from underserved communities. However, we must start earlier by encouraging African-American kids to focus on becoming job creators versus job seekers. We have to create an ownership mindset, the mental model that allows our kids to see entrepreneurship and risk-taking as the foundations of greatness in business, and reframe the expectation that a four-year degree and a good job is enough.
For those of us on the front line of change in the business world, we need to educate young people about the commitments and courage required to swim upstream in spite of the obstacles. Personally, I was not able to win by clocking out at 5 p.m. every day. My attitude and commitment towards hard work gave me the mental toughness to push through issues that would block the progress of others. I didn't allow myself to believe that work/life balance applied to me until I had accumulated momentum in my career. My parents always preached that I had to be twice as good to get half as far, period. By embracing that truth, I never expected fairness, only opportunity. I didn’t feel excluded from the “club” when I wasn’t invited to lunch. I didn’t even take lunch because I was using those five hours a week -- 260 hours a year -- to pass those guys. I created a personal brand where my performance spoke louder than my ethnicity or academic pedigree.
According to Maya Beasley, a diversity expert, “Any student of color looking at the numbers from the tech giants is going to be turned off… They don’t want to be the token.” My hope is that our young, talented African-American professionals who are skilled enough to be hired, resolve not to care about the negative -- except as fuel to be an inspiration. Someone has to lead the charge, take the hits and change the narrative from the inside.
Years ago, I was invited to Pinehurst #2, one of the premier golf courses in the U.S., for a business meeting and golf outing. I still recall the feeling as I walked inside and saw people that looked like me serving food, carrying bags or parking cars. None were playing golf. An African-American locker room attendant turned to me and asked, “What do you do?” I explained my role as CEO of a North Carolina technology company, and that I was there trying to win a large business deal. He asked what advice I could pass on to his studious grandson to succeed in the business world. In that moment, was I a token or an inspiration?
Priorities can drive change.
We have youth leagues in abundance for African-American kids to put a ball through a hoop, but we need to be just as committed to mentoring students who want to start a business. Many of us have the means to put our money into tech startups led by women, people of color or those in the LGBT community as opposed to purchasing the bigger house and newer car, but we don’t make that a moral imperative. I encourage those of us who have the desire to make a change to also count the steps we are taking to make a difference.
In my role as a member of boards of directors of private firms, I encourage organizations to look at their diversity numbers. As CEO of Creative Allies, I ensure that our team reflects our commitment to diversity. As an investor, I provide a meaningful percentage of my investments and mentorship to minority-owned startups. The action for all of us is to invest time, money and expertise to build a more inclusive future.
As an emerging leader or employee, your job is to be a top performer in whatever you do currently. Our society will always promote, encourage and create opportunities for winners. The world will not be fair because we wish it to be. However, by taking personal responsibility for our success in spite of obstacles, and instilling these entrepreneurial values in our youth, we will smooth the path for those who come after us, and enable more of them to climb to the top of big companies (or build their own).
This change will come when African-American executives and business owners reach back into their communities, universities and entry-level floors to create a new paradigm for our industry. We cannot eliminate injustice from the world, but we can condition ourselves to win with the tools we have today.