It took Garry Johnson III traveling almost 3,000 miles away from Delaware to really start seeing himself as a potential leader in the tech industry. The AfroTech Conference of San Francisco attracted 2,000 Black entrepreneurs ...
[caption id="attachment_211677" align="alignright" width="240"] Garry Johnson III is a Delaware-based entrepreneur and the founder and direct of First Founders accelerator. Faced with the little infrastructure to support early-stage ventures, the small capital pool in Delaware and odds stacked against Black innovators, he decided to create a network to raise their profile and find more opportunities. | PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
It took Garry Johnson III traveling almost 3,000 miles away from Delaware to really start seeing himself as a potential leader in the tech industry.The AfroTech Conference of San Francisco attracted 2,000 Black entrepreneurs and tech professionals in 2017, and Johnson was there as part of a project on developing the tech workforce while he was studying for his master’s degree in entrepreneurship at the time. Netflix executives and leaders from Google and Facebook were there, and a Black woman led a session on user experience design. It wasn’t until Johnson was sitting in on that session did he start to see himself in her shoes.“San Francisco is the motherland of innovation, and there’s a bunch of people who look like me, talking about building the future,” said Johnson, founder of First Founders, a tech entrepreneur accelerator. “It was something I didn’t see back in Delaware, on the corporate or the startup side.”In Delaware, white people hold top leadership roles at major law and financial firms as well as legacy corporations like DuPont, W.L. Gore and Chemors, according to a Delaware Business Times review. Roughly one-third of the state’s overall population are people of color, yet there are only two leaders in Delaware’s top 30 largest private employers who are persons of color. Wilmington, the state’s largest city and the home of the majority of those companies, is 55% Black.The lack of diversity in top Delaware corporate roles and entrepreneur funding has been a longstanding issue. But since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked calls for systemic change nearly a year ago amid a pandemic that also exposed deep inequalities, some in the corporate world have been discussing how to make radical structural changes.
[caption id="attachment_211678" align="alignleft" width="240"] Goes-Williams Associates president and CEO Devona Williams has seen the arc of how corporations talk about diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace. In the last few years, the push to rethink these concepts has only grown stronger. | PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
Unlike previous moments in the Black Lives Matter movement, corporate consultants like Devona Williams believe the perfect storm created by the pandemic has created a heavy pressure to accelerate that change inside the C-suite and the boardroom. But that pressure needs to keep pressing on corporate leaders to invest time, energy and capital in Black talent to start seeing the change.“What does it take to turn an ocean liner? I think some companies are working through the change, and for the first time a lot of companies are willing to roll up their sleeves and ask what needs to happen,” Williams said. “Because we're still in it. It's hard to see what the end point is. But there’s so much work that has to be done.”
Trajectory of change
Williams herself faced her own struggles before launching Goeins-Williams Associates, her performance consulting business that has worked for nationally known companies like AstraZeneca, YMCA of USA, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, MBNA and Wilmington Trust. Before launching the firm in 1986, she worked for corporations before ultimately taking early retirement as a mid-level executive at DuPont.Those issues she faced throughout her corporate career ranged from a rigid schedule that conflicted with getting Williams’ son on the school bus to patronizing comments.“You had the glass ceiling, but back in the day I would call it the brick wall for Black women,” Williams told DBT.When Williams first started consulting, worldwide and local companies were just starting to talk about diversity when the late 1980s recession forced corporations to start thinking globally to take advantage of new marketplaces. The idea was to “value people’s differences” in a way that did not threaten those in power, she said.That later gave way to diversity training, so managers and employees could understand unconscious biases and how they may limit performance. But when smartphones allowed anyone to record and upload video easily, it opened the door for viral moments of companies behaving badly. That was when Williams started seeing companies consider how to create inclusive spaces. Since then, but especially in the last two years, the conversation has been turning quickly to equity and justice.
[caption id="attachment_211676" align="alignright" width="240"] Delaware State University president Tony Allen leads the state's only historic Black college. From experience, he knows connecting young professionals with the right network is critical to career advancement. | PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
Delaware State University President Tony Allen, who spent many years as an upper mid-level manager at MBNA and later Bank of America, was afforded the opportunity to sit at the table when many other Black professionals might not. Reflecting back on his financial career, Allen said he realized the importance of doing the work flawlessly and getting his colleagues to understand audiences that are often marginalized.“It’s not enough to be seated at the table. When you get those opportunities to speak up, relative to how we’re treating all our people, you have to take them,” Allen said. “I would say the conversation today about equity is a specific response to the long-held illusion that we all start off with the same opportunities when that is not the case. When you recognize that point, it opens the door to grow your organization in a way that best reflects their customers and communities.”
Networking in the First State
Over the past year, Allen heard over and over again from some corporate leaders: “I’d hire more people of color, I just can’t find them.” But with thousands of trade and industry associations linked to colleges — including historically Black universities and colleges like DSU — and the 2 million Black professionals still active with the nine historic fraternities and sororities today, he says there is no excuse.“You have to build a pipeline, and you have to be intentional about it. For these executives, they have to be intentional and that means they have to make some tough choices,” he said.Part of the problem is that with a majority of white leaders in corner offices and the boardrooms, it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to hiring new talent, he said. Those opportunities tend to be offered to professionals in their network, who mostly look like them.“You’ll find that young Black professionals figure out a way to get specific credentials to their field,” Allen said. “But if they don’t have that right network or aren’t brought in at the right level, it becomes a struggle throughout their career.”
[caption id="attachment_211679" align="alignleft" width="240"] United Way of Delaware president and CEO Michelle Taylor sees the future in a hopeful light. The Delaware Racial Justice Collaborative is hosting forums about racial equity with top Delaware leaders to keep the conversation ongoing. | PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
And those opportunities aren’t just limited to career advancement. United Way of Delaware President and CEO Michelle Taylor credits some of her success in the C-suite to tremendous mentors like former DuPont chief operating officer Richard Goodmanson and Delaware Hospice Board of Trustees member Dale Stratton, both of whom helped expand her own network.“I remember the first meeting I had with Goodmanson, and he told me I had three strikes against me. I was Black, I was a woman and Delaware was a good ole boys’ network,” Taylor said. “He wasn’t mean, he was trying to be real, and looking back I appreciate it. In some ways I’m still trying to navigate the network, but he and other mentors significantly helped open doors for me and brought me to meetings I wouldn’t normally be at.”
Funding the future
In the entrepreneurial world, Johnson said that the inequities in venture capital funding are holding back Black innovators. A 2018 Kapor Center for Social Impact study shows that 21% of computer science degree holders are Black and Latinx, but they make up just 10% of the tech workforce. About 98% of startup founders are white or Asian.In Delaware, with few venture capital firms and a small crop of pitch competitions, the available funding pool gets even smaller for Black founders. Early-stage entrepreneurs can find support through incubator programs at DSU or the University of Delaware, but Johnson saw that with how the current ecosystem was set up, there was not enough room for early-stage founders, especially those of color, to succeed.“As an underrepresented entrepreneur, knowing the statistics are bleak and the chances of getting funding are minimal, you have to persevere,” Johnson said. “When you’re an underrepresented founder, it’s likely you’re bringing a solution to an issue that relates to your life experiences and it’s likely they don’t understand the experience or the problem you’re solving — you tend to not to get the investment.”Pitch competitions where entrepreneurs compete for funding used to be Johnson’s main source of revenue for his early endeavors. But he said he was more successful in building his own network rather than leveraging the visibility into capital funding, which in part inspired the creation of First Founders, which serves as a platform for people of color or those from low-income communities. The program held a national competition on its Innovation Included Podcast, which netted 20,000 listens. The hope is that visibility will translate into further connections.“Scrappy founders are going to take advantage of every opportunity, but they can be over-mentored and underfunded. Last summer, we did see a lot of commitments from venture capital firms to have their doors open, but I’m not so sure I saw people realize this is a money problem,” he said.There are some corporate titans that have stepped up to support establishing the pipeline. Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase hired 30 employees from Zip Code Wilmington and invested $1 million at DSU. The financial firm, with at least 11,000 employees in Delaware and thousands more worldwide, announced it would commit $30 billion over the next five years in various initiatives to decrease the racial wealth gap. That includes $350 million for underserved small businesses, and an additional $42.5 million to its "Entrepreneurs of Color Fund," a program that supports Black and brown founders. “These are obviously big numbers, but to bend the curve around the racial wealth gap, we have to make meaningful progress around homeowner rates and investments in businesses,” Brian Lamb, JPMorgan's global head of diversity and inclusion, told DBT. “We know that if we put money to work in markets like Wilmington, it’s going to have long-term economic prosperity in these communities that historically have been left behind.”
The will and the how
In Allen’s decades-long career, he believes the willpower to dismantle barriers that keep people of color from success has never been higher. The problem though is that many businesses are struggling with how to achieve it, he said.
[caption id="attachment_211681" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Roughly 6% of top 30 employees in Delaware have a CEO, president or market leader of color. Black leaders talk about work being done to open more seats at the table. | PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
“I don’t think we can give bigger businesses too much credit because they can afford it, and the smaller companies may not have the resources,” he said. “It’s the ‘how’ they struggle with, because that can take serious self-reflection and actualization on how to achieve these principles. And a lot of CEOs will have to make tough choices when it comes to filling these positions.”Taylor is optimistic that this moment, with the right army of supporters behind it, can resonate further in Delaware than ever before. In 2015, United Way of Delaware launched the Delaware Racial Justice Collaborative (DRJC) to support community-based initiatives that promote racial equity and social justice, but it found minimal success. After last summer though, Taylor said the renewed push gave the DRJC new life with 150 organizations behind it and key local leaders like JPMorgan Chase’s Tom Horne and Bank of America’s Chip Rossi now listening.“I'm a believer that people need to change because they want to change, not because they're forced to. We have people willing to start having these conversations about tearing down this culture that exists,” Taylor said. “To have that knowledge is critical, and as I’m talking to some of these CEOs, I’m trying to get them to understand that hiring is where they can lean in the most and own that in a big way.”For Williams, who is still consulting small corporations and Fortune 500 companies, she believes most of the change is still occurring behind the scenes for the moment. It’s in the boardroom where companies are taking a hard look at their vision statement, and then their policies to see if it reflects that vision.“You have to be willing to pull the covers off and look at things that you might have had for a long time that can no longer make sense, like your hair policy or how to define the policy on a diverse workplace,” she said. “But if there are no opportunities, people will leave. If people are not fully included in the leadership in a non-superficial way, they will also leave to where those other opportunities can be found.”By Katie Tabeling