I don’t remember the specific moment when I fully accepted that my life in America was structurally compromised, that there was a glass ceiling along with four constricting walls to opportunity.
That not being a highly gifted athlete, artist, or celebrity of some sort whose job is to entertain the American public meant that in the American collective conscious I was surplus to requirements, a problem to be tolerated.
However, I do remember the specific moment when I realized that America was killing me. It was late 2016. I lived in Oakland at the time, where I had moved after two years in San Francisco at the end of which I could no longer stand being in that city. I had been lonely, angry, and frustrated for a while, and this trifecta of negative emotions had been gradually growing in intensity.
The idea had been to get San Francisco under my belt so I could always say that I had lived in that famous town. I would do this for a couple years after which I would make the move across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, buy a condo, and ride out the next ten years leading up to my repatriation back home to Africa.
What I hadn’t accounted for was how fast and total rejection by San Francisco would be. I moved there in April of 2014 and within a year I found myself driving across the Bay bridge into Oakland on weekends just to get away from the obnoxiousness.
It is hard to describe the experience. But essentially, San Francisco had been infiltrated by a new generation of what can best be described as white privileged suburban offspring who had no interest in, or need for diversity.
Having been raised in the American suburbs, the cradle of American white privilege, completely insulated from the rest of the country’s ethnic composition, these people naturally sought the familiarity of those like themselves. Diversity was an academic concept, something they had encountered only on screen or as part of a soon forgotten college elective, an abstraction they would never have to deal with in their lives.
They flocked to San Francisco in droves, following each other post college. Friends bringing friends. Enticing them with breathless exhortations of how fantastic and unbridled life was in that town. It was their time, tech was the thing to do, and San Francisco the place to be.
So many arrived from the Boston that at some point you could pick them out right away. They referred to each other as ‘Massholes’, a tongue in cheek fake derogatory term that they were actually secretly proud of. San Francisco felt like an Annex of Boston, overrun by Massholes, and anyone who knows anything about how bigotry is distributed in America will know that Boston is quite prolific in that regard.
My hopes of an exciting, all embracing, cultural experience in the city by the bay were dashed by the juggernaut that is America’s dominant reality. White supremacy.
The monoculture was suffocating, the social rejection painful, and the isolation crushing. In these conditions, my anger stewed. The backdrop of all this was a period when the smartphone was exposing to the world America’s erstwhile hidden fetish for destroying black bodies.
Over a number of many months in the mid 2010’s, the relentless drum beat of black killings at the hands of police, all caught on cell phones for the world to see was unstoppable.
Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile…..it was relentless.
But Philando Castile’s slaying was the one that broke me.
I woke up one morning in the midst of all these senseless carnage and as is the morning ritual for most of us, grabbed my phone to sync with the world, and there it was. The video of a mortally wounded man on the passenger side of a car, his soul slowly leaving his body, his distraught girlfriend filming the entire scene while keeping the killer calm to preserve both her, and her child’s life, who was sitting in a carseat in the back of the vehicle.
It looked like a scene from an amazingly well acted movie scene. It assaulted your psyche and your mind didn’t know what to do with it. I could not find a comfortable narrative for what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears.
I went through the rest of my morning routine in a shocked stupor, numb. In the short bus ride to work through San Francisco, I noted the nonchalant faces of my fellow passengers, white millennials, on their unperturbed urban adventure. I searched their faces for any sign of that readily recognizable sense of anguish that follows a shared traumatic experience. We all know it. In fact, it is a human coping mechanism. We seek each other in times of shared distress. We lock eyes with strangers and know they share our distress.
But there was none. In that moment, it was clearer than it had ever been to me, that despite occupying the same physical space we existed in parallel universes. There was no way you could have missed what was raging across the internet that morning and continued on with your life without it’s effects registering on your face.
Did they not get the same internet I did?
I made it to work in this morose mood. The sales team had a meeting that morning. As we congregated in one of the conference room, I half hoped someone would bring it up in the pre meeting banter, but it didn’t happen. I was not going to bring it up, as a black person you internalize not making white people uncomfortable is part of survival in America. Voluntarily crossing the street when approaching a white female, just to make her feel comfortable. I have done that multiple times. Life behind enemy lines, you make adjustments for the oppressor.
The meeting commenced in typical procedural fashion. Everyone was normal, energetically advocating for personal interests and generally contributing to whatever topic was on the table. It was just another morning to them. I took in this scene as though one separate from it.
My soul was overwhelmed, yearning for that singular type of relief that comes with acknowledgement. The contrast of being trapped in such a blasé environment, where everybody was business as usual when injustice rolled like a river all around us was unbearable.
Throughout the meeting I kept hoping someone would bring it up. I desperately needed to connect. My heart was crying, but there was nobody to cry with. I was the only black person in the room.
The meeting ended, and I made my way back to my desk acknowledging defeat. Flabbergasted that I would still be expected to perform at my best while severely mentally and emotionally incapacitated. This was a new form of isolation that I had not yet experienced.
Prior to that point I had accepted that I existed in an uneven playing field and had developed a means of coping with that reality. Do great work, focus on what you can control, maintain the highest levels of integrity and everything should be ok.
But in this instance, my walls had been breached. No matter how stoically I had constructed my approach to life, setting my face like flint, I was still only human.
Systemic racism had once again stormed into my life, compromising my ability to do great work, making it impossible to focus. No matter how pragmatic you are as a black person in America, sooner or later, you shall be exposed.
I escaped from San Francisco to Oakland in March of 2016. In the beginning, Oakland had been a breath of fresh air. Seeing black people walking around was uplifting to the soul. I rented an apartment right in the heart of downtown Oakland. My daughters were nine and ten at the time and would visit on weekends. I got us each push scooters that we took out on weekends in our new urban environment. We felt at home.
But like most new things, the novelty soon wore off to reveal a town losing her soul to a swift gentrification. There were still pockets of cultural holdouts to the old ways. The spontaneous drum circles at Lake Merritt, the heart and soul of Oakland. The First Friday street fair, with all the energy and gritty elements of pure Oakland out in force. On sunny weekends the lakeside would be teaming with people. But the hipster vibe, with it’s coffee shops and indie restaurants was beginning to redefine the Oakland cultural landscape.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the coffee shops and restaurants, but I also knew they came at a cost, black people were being pushed out.
Investors and speculators flocked in searching for their next opportunity. People who would never dare step into that town a handful of years ago, as it was gripped in stagnation were suddenly all over. Anti gentrification sentiment was in the air. The tension between natives and newcomers flared . Protests happened. But like every other lashing out of an unprepared proletariat against the remorseless march of organized capital in a free market, these directionless efforts petered out with no impact.
The steady outflow of black and brown natives as they were priced out or enticed to sell long standing family property they could no longer afford to maintain, was taking place. Structural changes are often hidden from sight. There was no visible procession of former residents streaming out of town to point to. But you could feel it in the air. The faces and places of Oakland were changing.
By moving to Oakland I thought I had escaped the eye of the gentrification storm only to find it had shifted its locus. Once San Francisco was conquered, the insatiable beast of capitalism set its sights on Oakland, moving with impressive speed to infiltrate that town, brazenly inserting itself into neighbourhoods considered dangerous even by Oaklandians themselves.
Before you could blink twice, a white female was calling the police on a posse of brothers doing something so Oakland at Lake Merritt, BBQ and beats. That particular interloper ended up going viral for exercising her misplaced privilege. The blindness of privilege is astounding.
What I had hoped to find by moving to Oakland was not there. I knew what I needed; community, acceptance, permissionless existence. I had assumed Oakland would be the place where I could finally set my bags down and relax in America, in the bosom of a people to whom I did not have to justify my existence. A place where being black was good enough, no explanations required.
But one particular evening it was different. For the first time I recognized an uncomfortable warm sensation in my gut. Like something was slowly cooking down there. It felt like what I imagined inflammation or cellular level destruction might feel like, the onset of gradual poisoning. I knew something was wrong.
Loneliness, layered with the oppressive assault of microaggressions that marked my American life. Add to that the very real daily possibility of direct bodily harm from police, or random racist vigilante, or your garden variety mass American shooting was taking its toll. My body was adjusting to existence in a low grade terror environment. I was dying. The unrelenting assault that is being black in America was killing me. A crushing feeling of utter helplessness mixed with shame and anger. Systemic oppression had me boxed in.
Just two days prior to this writing I came across a Tweet by an American physician.
“In med school, I took an elective called “Stress”, foolishly thinking I was going to learn about meditation and yoga. Instead the professor spent 6 weeks proving that being poor or a minority literally destroys your health on a molecular level, and I think about that everyday” @jfitzgeralMD
She is a white female, which crucially lends her tweet that legitimacy afforded to an external, unbiased observer.
In 2016, I escaped to Mexico no less than 5 times just to get away from the crucible. At one point even pitched our CEO to let me work remotely from Mexico, a request that was declined. As you would expect, he was white Silicon Valley male, his life experience was the apex of privilege. There was no chance in hell he could understand that I was literally fighting for my life, that the very same environment that was so nurturing for him, was killing me. It would have been pointless to try and explain.
At that point there was nothing I could do to escape. I was dying and I knew it. My only hope was exit.
That November, they elected Trump.
This is a chapter from a book I am writing to be published later this year. I published the above piece as a response to the current global atmosphere on race. What happened next compelled me to publish the following:
Great story, and then what?
I posted an article on my experience [above] as a black person in Silicon Valley and it got some attention. Some tech CEOs were moved to action. This particular piece is a call to action for those moved enough by the original piece to support the work we are doing with Impact Africa Network to bridge the genius / opportunity gap for young talented Africans.
The last thing one expects on a Sunday morning is an email from a successful Silicon Valley CEO acknowledging what you have written, and informing you that the Executive Chairman at LinkedIn has posted your work on his platform. Shout out to Aaron Levie CEO at Box, who is now also a member of our 100 Founders Challenge.
Since it happened, I have been racking my brain trying to figure out how to turn this into results.
Stories that inspire, are the ones about turning adversity into outcomes, flipping pain into purpose.
We have all witnessed those hapless efforts to plug a ‘Sound Cloud’ after a tweet goes viral. Viral tweet 134K, Sound Cloud plug 22 likes.
But I do have something to plug, and it is nothing short of changing the African narrative!
I hope mine performs better.
In March 2018, after much soul searching and anguished second guessing, I made the decision to repatriate back home to Africa to immerse myself in the economic development struggle. This is what I have dedicated the rest of my life to doing, my TED talk if you will.
I had finally come to my ‘two roads divided in a wood’ moment, and realized I could either let my life peter out in an unhappy, warmed over false sense of financial ‘security’ in the Bay Area, or, I could dive head and feet first into the adventure of making an impact.
In January 2019 I launched a non-profit startup studio in Nairobi with a mission is to ensure young talented Africans have a chance at participating in the digital transformation of Africa as creators and owners.
Africa’s story is not just about poverty and disease. Those of us who grew up here know a different version exists, and it is about the potential of the continents irrepressible, abundant young talent.
But whose job is it to unlock that potential? More to the point, where could my suppressed 15 years of Silicon Valley experience be most useful?
At Impact Africa Network we offer 12 month Innovation Fellowships to talented college graduates providing them the opportunity to work on well-vetted ideas with like minded peers under the guidance of an experienced leadership team and mentor network.
We do 3 things:
► Develop innovation leaders
► Launch startups
► Build community
Why non profit?
Because it is the only financing model that can work for the patient, capacity building work that needs to be done at this very early stage. Don’t argue with me on this one.
This is hard, unglamorous work and only possible when one is truly in love with the process.
Impact Africa Network is a non profit charitable entity US 501(C)3 EIN 83–2020331
Despite the challenges we are facing the world is filled with individuals with amazing hearts, and I always knew we would find believers. Here are some of those who have stood in the gap so far.
The 10 10 10 plan
By 2030 our vision is to have developed 10 scale-ups, that provide 10K jobs, with a combined value of $10B.
Make An Impact
Most people are eager to be support causes they believe can make a difference. Like every non profit we are always fund raising and would like to invite you to be part of our micro-donations support program. It works just like Netflix.
We are seeking 500 champions willing to give $20 a month until December 2021. For this, I will send you a signed copy of the book before the end of the year.
Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn has committed to match every donor who subscribes to our micro-donations support program via LinkedIn.
Alternatively, click on the link below to get directly to our donation page. Choose the ‘Give Monthly’ option and become part of the solution. Leave us a comment while at it.
We also need mentors in; product dev/design, software engineering, digital marketing, finance, hr, legal, writing, PR & comms, and leadership. If interested, add that to your comment.
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