Why Diversity In Tech Matters: 'People Solve Problems That They See'

Host Michel Martin talks to a roundtable of activists and innovators about the future of technology, and recruiting the next generation of African-Americans and Latinos into the tech field.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. If you've been following the program, then you know we have a very deep interest in technology - how it's created, how it's used and how it affects the country. We've been particularly interested in groups that haven't had as much access to this vital area. In our "Women in Tech" and "Blacks in Tech" series on Twitter and on the radio, we've been able to experience in real-time the impact of so called minorities and women are making on this country's science and technology engine. And I think it is fair to say the engagement we generated close to 200 million impressions on Twitter demonstrates incredible appetite for knowledge about the contributions of these thought-leaders, entrepreneurs and scientists. And as our program winds down, you know our last program is August first, we wanted to touch base on some of these important issues a least one more time. So we've called upon Ben Jealous. He is the former president and CEO of the NAACP. He recently joined Kaper Capital. It is a Bay Area group that invests in social-impact tech startups. He's with us now in our Washington D.C. studios. Once again, welcome back.

BEN JEALOUS: Thank you, it's good to be back.

MARTIN: And your new incarnation. James Oliver, Jr. is the founder of WeMontage and was part of our "Blacks in Tech" series. He joins us from WHID which is in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Welcome back to you Mr. Oliver.

JAMES OLIVER JR: Thank you, it's good to be here.

MARTIN: And also joining us, entrepreneur Francesca Escoto of Latina Startup Tour. She joins from WUSF which is in Tampa, Florida. Francesca Escoto, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

FRANCESCA ESCOTO: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So Ben Jealous, let me start with you. When you left the NAACP to join Kaper Capital - does this tie into your civil rights background in some way or is this just a fresh start for you?

JEALOUS: You know - look - I think it's both. I think it's both and I think like most people, the first 10 years of my professional life I excelled because I was willing to do things that were new every day if possible. And in the second decade I excelled because I found a few things I was better at than most and was willing to them over and over. So this is exciting to me personally because - it's - it's an opportunity to - to do something in a new way, but it's something I've been doing for a long time, which is trying to figure out fairly simple ways to solve big social problems for hundreds of thousands or millions of people. And some of the issues that we're dealing with at K-Cap are precisely the same I dealt with at the NAACP. But we're finding more effective ways to actually move the ball forward. I'll give, you know...

MARTIN: Just give me one example.

JEALOUS: Sure. The cost of inmates calling home is something I was dealing with the FCC with on for years and we just never seemed to get very far because there's a whole lot of profit in it. It can cost up to $3 per minute.

MARTIN: Per minute?

JEALOUS: ...Per minute to call home, depending on where you are. So at K-Cap we've supported a guy named Frederick and Frederick has a company called Pigeonly. And Pigeonly has disrupted the market for inmates calling home from - from first federal prisons and now state prisons dramatically - dropping the cost by about 90%.

MARTIN: So you don't have to go through the whole regulatory hoops - the flight hoops.

JEALOUS: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: You just find a technological solution to the problem.

JEALOUS: He just took - he just took Google Voice-type technology and used it to help folks who are imprisoned get a phone number that is local to the prison but connected to their home thousands of miles away, and cut the calling home by about 90 percent in the process. You know, similarly we have a company up in Washington Heights called Regalii. They've cut the cost of people sending money home to a foreign country also by about 90 percent versus Western Union -and made it safer. You know, in the past, look - and - and even for many people right now - when they want to send money home, say to the Dominican Republic, it cost them about 30 percent. But also, you know, their grandmother who is waiting, is waiting at a storefront window where people have her marked the moment she walks out and they know she is cash in her pocket. What Regalii have done is cut that cost, but also made it possible to transfer the funds on the cell phone.

MARTIN: OK, I think we - I think we get it. One of the other efforts that the Kapor Center is supporting is an effort to take tech tools directly to Latino communities around the country. Francesca Escoto is part of that. So, Francesca, why don't you tell us about the Latina Startup Tour.

ESCOTO: Absolutely, yeah. First of all, thank you to Kapor for what they are doing. They are very intentional about identifying talent in communities of color and supporting it through both development training but also financially. What the Latina Startup Tour aims to do - we're reaching 800 women in eight cities in 2014, and the goal is to bring the training to them. We deal with both a gap in technology access but also language access, and so there's a lot of lingo that is built up and whether you call them accelerators, incubators, whatever - throughout Silicon Valley. Well, that doesn't reach our communities and it doesn't reach them in a language or at an academic level that they can fully grasp and so we are taking that on the road and we're making sure that we bring that to Latinas. We are the fastest-growing entrepreneur segment in the U.S. We are starting businesses at a faster pace than any other group and what we're trying to do is bring awareness to these Latina mothers, in many cases, and recent immigrants that - you know, you make a dress, you're seamstress. You make 50 dresses, you're really good seamstress, you make 100 dresses, you're into garment manufacturing. You make...

MARTIN: So what's the plan here? Is the plan to allow - to - to - to give people opportunities to understand how technologies can improve their existing businesses? Is it to try to encourage people to encourage their children to pursue STEM careers? What's the - what's the goal of this immediate project here?

ESCOTO: The goal here is to help Latinas see themselves, not only as users, but also creators of technology. And to see their businesses as opportunities to embrace technology and to become partakers of the tech startup economy.

MARTIN: OK. James Oliver, Jr., you were part of our "Blacks in Tech" series back December of 2013 and I do want to hear about your company and what you're doing but I'm also - I'm really interested in this whole question of what - the whole question of diversity in the tech field. What would make - what makes a difference in getting more people of different backgrounds into this field? So briefly, I understand that WeMontage - am I - am I pronouncing it properly?

OLIVER JR: Yeah, you are.

MARTIN: And you - it - it makes - tell me what you do. You can create, what? Big wall display art with family photos, right?

OLIVER JR: Kind of, yeah. So it's the only website on the Internet that I know of, that will let you take your pictures and turn them into large custom photo collages on removable wallpaper.

MARTIN: And -and that's particularly helpful, say if you have family members who are in assisted living or nursing homes or something like that.

OLIVER JR: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: So it's to jog their memories. it's also of a size where it's easy to see.

OLIVER JR: Yeah college dorm kids - dorm students as well, exactly. Just - you know, really any place you want to display photos or you can't put nails in the wall, like people in military housing, when they move out they have to pay fees - move-out fees for putting holes in the wall - but anybody who's a picture enthusiast, it's an affordable alternative to things like popular canvas wraps, as well as picture frames, which are incredibly expensive for custom framing.

MARTIN: What - what gave you the idea for this? I'm just wondering - forgive me - I don't mean to be crude about it, but do you think your background had something to do - your own identity had something to do with what gave you the idea?

OLIVER JR: Oh, my God, no. It was actually my wife was watching an interior design show on television and they were in the basement covering the wall with these big black-and-white collages and for me, that was really a moment of inspiration. And I say inspiration - I mean that in like the spiritual sense. It was like a huge ah-ha moment for me. But in terms of why thought I could do that - my background is not tech-oriented. I'm the guy that wants to start up a tech company but doesn't know how to write a lot of code but I would attribute that to my mom who taught me ever since I was a kid, that I could do whatever I put my mind to and then - I went to Morehouse College and graduated a million years ago, I'm not going to say when, but, you know, going to Morehouse - they instill in you a certain confidence and I think, you know, a combination of my mom and - is - something really stubborn about me because I'm a Taurus and just I believe I can, you know, persist and these things done.

MARTIN: But - Ben, I was going to go back to this whole question of the diversity in the field and why do you think this - why does it matter?

JEALOUS: Well, you know, it gets actually to what you were just talking about, which is that it's not so much about identity as it is about your lived life - what you experience. People solve the problems that they see. When you talk about somebody who starts a new - a new business it's because they're trying to scratch their own itch. And so, if you're in San Francisco there is not just one startup, there are probably 10 startups for every problem that a rich person has. If you go across the bridge to Oakland where - where we have our offices there's a whole bunch of problems waiting to be solved and there's not even one startup to solve them. What you see with a Pigeonly, with a - a Regalii, even with a WeMontage is - is somebody's seeing something that most of the folks who are of the class, if you will, starting startups these days don't see. And for us...

MARTIN: So they wouldn't necessarily think about what it's like to have to pay a fee to take something off the walls, so it would not necessarily occur to them that this is a problem.

JEALOUS: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: They wouldn't necessarily understand.

JEALOUS: Because when you're packing up in Pac Heights, you don't - you don't pay a fee to take something off the walls, right? But...

MARTIN: Good.

JEALOUS: ...The key point here is that there's profit in that. Because most people are like the people in Oakland if you will...

ESCOTO: I got...

JEALOUS: You know, and not like the people in Pac Heights and increasingly throughout San Francisco.

MARTIN: Francesca, you wanted to say something?

ESCOTO: Well, yeah. I'm like bursting here. That's exactly it. What happens is we, are solving problems, we're just not calling it technology. And so we are marginalized to some extent, either by ourselves or society - there's a lot of factors that go into that - but we are solving problems, we're are not calling it what it is, so we're not participating in all the full extent of this economy. So what we're doing - and I think that it's the same thing that the other gentlemen are talking about - what we're doing is - OK, you don't know how to code, guess what? It's OK, because you could still solve this problem. There are people who can code. What you need to bring to the table is the idea. You need to bring the problem and we'll help you get the tools and the resources to solve the problem.

MARTIN: James, what about you? And I'm also particularly interested in whether you feel as a - as an African-American entrepreneur that there - are other obstacles for you that don't exist for others like you? I mean, for example is it a question of whether you put your own picture on your website?

OLIVER JR: That's a great question. Just circling back to what she said, I think she's right and fortunately for me, I was really fortunate enough to get into a tech accelerator in Wisconsin called Generator. And you know, they were very helpful in helping me bring the idea to the market with access to resources, credibility etc. - and raising capital. But yeah, I mean, there're a couple things I think about that I don't think the average entrepreneur thinks about. Like for example, like you said on our website are twins who, you know - have African-American twins who are just beautiful - they're 18 months - well, I think they're beautiful, and that's the feature image on the website. And just, you know - I wonder sometimes if, you know, that could that be hurting my business. You know, I don't know, but I'm not changing it because I love my kids.

MARTIN: I hear you. They are gorgeous.

OLIVER JR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me give a final thought to Ben Jealous here. Could you tell us - I promised I would ask you about the Impact Generation, what does that mean?

JEALOUS: We have a rising generation in this country that is totally wired - that knows that they can make a huge profit, but that that also wants to make the world better at the same time. And you know, I have faith that that generation will ultimately get, sort of capitalism in our country back to what it was supposed to be a long time ago when it was about people in villages making the most of their possibilities. Back then if you will, who you were - your reputation had something to do with whether or not you were successful. Today, you actually have to be very intentional if you want to bring, sort of who you are, and what you're about, and how you make money, into one place.

MARTIN: Alright, well let's hear more about this in the future - we hope we'll be talking more about this in the future. I'm speaking with Ben Jealous of the Kapor Center for social impact and Kapor Capital - former president and CEO of the NAACP. James Oliver Jr., is the founder of the WeMontage. Francesca Escoto of Latina Startup Tour. They were all here with us today. Thank you all for joining us today.

JEALOUS: Thank you.

ESCOTO: Thank you.

OLIVER JR: Thanks.

MARTIN: And the social media note - you can follow our conversations on Twitter and Facebook @NPRMICHEL.

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