Why Business Diversity Starts At Home

Why Business Diversity Starts At Home

I sat down with Darrell Jones III, head of business development at Clef to talk about his volunteer work with TechEquity Collaborative in Oakland, Calif. We discuss the best ways for individuals to make a lasting impact on youth and how companies can breed inclusivity from the ground up.

Will Hayes: Can you tell the Forbes readers about your background and how you got into technology?

Darrell Jones III: I’d describe myself as “that guy in between.” My mom is Filipino and my dad is black. I spent half my childhood in the inner-city of Chicago and half in sheltered suburbs. Most of my identity has been grappling with the double consciousness of being an outsider, seeking reconciliation and never getting it. I’ve carried that with me into tech, so I feel at home amongst the “diversity in tech” conversations. My tech life started when I was a college freshman. I created a mobile app for people to raise charity funds. Later I co-founded a company to help international students apply to and succeed at American universities.

Will Hayes: Obviously you’re very entrepreneurial, which is one of the most exciting things about tech — the notion that you can use free information to build apps and start companies. Now you’re bringing that all together with the TechEquity Collaborative. Tell us about that.

Darrell Jones III: It goes back to this “diversity in tech” problem. It’s really a larger conversation as to how this country has dealt with racial inequality since its inception. I am a student of history and as Will Durant reminds us, the dominating classes of every era have taken advantage of technology to reap benefits and do great things. Traditionally, folks of color have been the ones dominated by others. The value I see in our work in tech is being able to invert that scenario — be at the cutting edge.

With the TechEquity Collaborative, we’re uniting different organizations in Oakland that seek to solve part of the “diversity in tech” problem — including increasing exposure to technology, education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. We believe a strong network that aids folks every step of the way will be more impactful than individual drops in the pond. However, such structural changes don’t happen overnight.

Will Hayes: Sounds like you’re taking a longer-tailed, more beneficial approach out in Oakland. Are people aware that tech opportunities exist outside of San Francisco and Silicon Valley proper?

Darrell Jones III: Awareness isn’t the biggest issue. In Oakland, there are 11,000 households that don’t have a computer or Internet access. While some folks realize that the plane of access to tech is horizontal, it’s much more of a resource issue. There are basic requirements to get into tech that most people take for granted. Answers to questions like, “Do you have a computer at home?” or “Do you have anyone in your family or community that can help you learn?” or “Do you have any enrichment opportunities at school or after?” or “Do you feel encouraged in tech?” are typically negative. The different aspects of becoming successful in tech are still stacked against the folks in our community.

Will Hayes: So it’s not limited access to tech per se, but limited access to information and knowledge. Do people realize the gap between what they can do and what others, even those living less than ten miles away, can do?

Darrell Jones III: If they do, it’s at a surface level and doesn’t penetrate deep enough to compel action where it matters. You have Head-Royce less than five miles away from Oakland Tech and yet the difference in access, opportunities and privilege is hundreds of miles, even a galaxy apart. That’s something people live and breathe, and for us to have those inequalities today shows clearly that folks are either not getting it — which is the lesser of two evils — or we get it and we just don’t give a damn.

Will Hayes: Shared responsibility is higher in situations involving all-out oppression, like the civil rights era. Now it’s a big deal when I talk to techy friends about diversity, but friends in other industries don’t care as much. It isn’t a shared condition for all individuals…

Darrell Jones III: You’re right, in the past the enemies were clear. When the enemy is easy to find, it’s easy to mobilize and form standards to measure reform. The formal barriers have fallen, but they’ve been resurrected into softer, more insidious barriers that are decentralized in nature. This makes it harder for people to put a finger on what the problem is. And when you can’t pinpoint the problem, it’s hard to form plans for resolving it. The same cultural binds that oppress, unite. When we destroy those binds, it’s difficult for people to unify. What we’re seeing now is folks trying to reorganizing around different binds and struggling to be effective.

Will Hayes: There’s pressure on successful and fast growing companies to reorganize, too. What do you see as the responsibility of an organization to ensure it’s doing the right things?

Darrell Jones III: At Clef, we hired a diversity consultant to ensure our culture is inclusive by nature, instead of purchasing a keg or other superfluous things. For you as a CEO of color trying to get a million things done, building an inclusive environment is the biggest thing you can do. That environment impacts anyone coming into your organization and it will spread to others. If your company isn’t in line with inclusivity and diversity internally, anything else you do externally is crap. It starts at home.

Will Hayes: Agreed, as an entrepreneur, the objective is to build a successful company. A lack of diversity keeps you from building the best business possible. However, I fear that most people lean toward the notion of meritocracy. It’s hard for me to accept this idea that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. How do you feel about that word, “meritocracy”?

Darrell Jones III: When I hear people talk about meritocracy… I question whose history they’ve been reading, whose life they’ve looked into and how objective that really is. You can’t expect children growing up on welfare with no access to education and mentors to be able to compete. For every thousand kids, you have one Barack Obama. You will have one Jackie Robinson. But far and away, the odds are not in that favor. That is privilege. When 50 out of 70 privileged kids do well and only 1 out of 70 kids here do well, I don’t want to talk about how the other 69 should have been better. I was a bright kid and when I was in the inner city of Chicago, I was surrounded by plenty of other bright kids. I’m here now and a lot of those equally intelligent kids, who had similar family structures — if not better because I had a single parent — don’t have the same outcomes. You can’t look me in the eye and tell me that’s meritocracy.

Will Hayes: Do you think being based in Oakland gives you an edge in helping overcome that problem? Could Oakland be the champion of this movement, could it attract the sorts of companies that care about this and become the symbol of inclusivity?

Darrell Jones III: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I see Oakland as the site of the new renaissance. I cast Oakland as the Atlanta of the West with the potential it has right now. You look across the board and there’s roughly a racial parity between the four largest racial demographics. That means there’s one of the highest concentrations of African Americans on the West Coast, and pair that with a tremendous history of social activism and civic participation and far more space. All of these amazing things are there, but we need to do it right. San Francisco is an example of the fight gone wrong, of moving too fast. In Oakland, we believe that companies can be truly of a city and not just in it. We believe that our success can lift up Oakland’s success and Oakland’s success can lift us up by providing people with talent to make us a bigger, stronger company. We believe in that and we are fighting for that.


No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.