Wayne Sutton: Why black leaders matter in technology
By Wayne Sutton, Special for USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard to believe that on the eve of 2015, instead of ringing in the new year, minority communities are marching across the country to send the message that black lives matter.
As a black man working hard to make a difference, it is sad that we have to start there: at life. Because life is just the beginning. What about quality of life? Creation of wealth? Contributing to an innovative society?
I ask myself: How do we change how America views African-American men? And how do we create more opportunity for African-American men?
The key: The technology industry, and bringing up a new generation of black technology leaders.
Over the past decade, the African-American community has been mobilized by technology.
We spend the most time on social media services. We are avid smartphone consumers and we are the No. 1 demographic on services such as Twitter and Instagram.
You can see the power and influence of African Americans in the response to the police deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. They have used these services to organize protests and create national awareness campaigns. To put it in perspective, the March on Washington in 1963 was attended by 250,000 people. With social media today, you can reach millions of people per tweet, Google+ post or Facebook status with hashtags such as #handsupdontshoot and #blacklivesmatter.
Yet few African-Americans benefit from jobs and wealth inside these social media hubs — let alone having a place in the leadership, on the board of directors or are founders of a start-up that goes on to become a household name.
There is a notable exception. Omar Wasow might not be a household name, nor is he credited with starting the revolution in social networking. But he founded BlackPlanet in 1999 long before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, and he scaled the platform to millions of users before selling it for $38 million to Radio One in 2008.
There’s a saying in African-American culture: “Often we forget those who have paved the way for many.” As part of the diversity “Oorah” cry to create monetary role models, we keep saying we’re looking for a “black Mark Zuckerberg.” We should be looking for the next Wasow.
Mentoring is a simple yet effective way to do that. Shared experiences can help an individual save time, avoid making the same mistakes and open wide the doors of opportunity.
So I asked black male leaders in technology: “What advice did your mentor provide to help you become successful today?” This is what they told me.
Partner, Y Combinator
One of my mentors was our first lawyer at Justin.tv. His name is Carlos Ellerbe. What he told me is that it takes seven to 10 years to make a start-up into a billion-dollar company. He was right. It made me understand how important it is to start with a good team because we are going to be working together a building for a long time.
QA Engineer, Snapchat
Take the time to build valuable, meaningful relationships versus attempting to connect with any and everyone in a seemingly glamorous position. Integrity beats titles any day!
Investment associate, Kapor Capital
It’s not just about having a seat at the table; it’s about having a voice. It’s also not just about you “making it;” it’s about you leaving the door open for the next generation.
Founder and general partner, Cross Valley Capital
I never really had a mentor and that was, ironically, the best advice I guess I (never) got.
It was like being a young boy growing up with my father not around. The parent may overlook his or her importance to the child, but the child never forgets. So the lesson I learned was the responsibility to do the opposite for someone else. So now I go out of my way to mentor and advise others. It’s more important to me than my own success.
Director of IMPACT, co-founder of SkillTarget
“Write it down.”
This is a very simple piece of advice that has been incredibly helpful. Writing life goals, drafting legislative outlines, writing organizational plans, writing ideas, drawing wireframes, and writing code all start with putting pen to paper; or fingers to keys.
Effectively and frequently taking the ideas swirling around in my head and translating them into prose and points has been integral to any success I have had.
A mentor told me to “stop focusing on how I can make money and become focused on how I can make others money.”
CEO and co-founder, VUE
Two things I’ve found that work are 1) Focus on solving a problem and test it quickly by either getting people to use it repeatedly or pay immediately; and 2) Don’t give up too soon. There’s truth to pivoting but sometimes it can take a couple years until you really start hitting on the pain point, don’t die on your way.
Paul Carrick Brunson
Founder and CEO of Brunson Holdings
Invest in yourself. This is a very simple concept, but incredibly important. I was taught to spend a significant amount of my time dedicated to self-development (whether it be a new language, exercise, computer programming classes, etc.). The moment you stop investing in yourself is the moment you have written off future dividends in life.
Partner, Collaborative Fund
My mentors told me that the best way to “get lucky” is to maximize opportunities for luck. More specifically: to meet and know every talented person available to me, because great people are the source of opportunity.
CEO of Brand Camp University
As a community we consume everything and own nothing. It is time design the future versus buying what someone else creates.
Co-founder of The Phat Startup
Advice I received was not from a personal mentor but from Jim Rohn. I saw an old YouTube video from the 70’s where he repeated advice from his own mentor:
“It is the set of the sails, not the direction of the wind that determines which way we will go.”
Learning how to change the way I perceived a challenge or even a victory has helped me tremendously. It’s key not to put too much focus on things you can’t control.
Wayne Sutton is a serial entrepreneur and general partner at BUILDUP.vc. He has more than 14 years of experience in technology, design and business development.