I try to publish an e-mail newsletter regularly as a means of sharing and discussing current events with friends and colleagues. I haven’t published one lately because I haven’t known where to begin. As soon as I decide to write about one travesty occurring in our world, an even greater one seems to rear its ugly head. Viral pandemic. Economic collapse. Police brutality. Climate destruction. Racial subjugation. Military misapplication. Voter suppression. Tribal politics. Failing alliances. Following the rate of real and potential disasters is like drinking from a fire hose – it’s just too much.
And what can I contribute to the discussion? Our national crises and leadership malfeasance are widely known and clearly documented by journalists, politicians, academics, authors, ex-military leaders, and everyday people. We are bombarded by e-mails, funding appeals, social media posts, and of course 24/7 cable news stories. I struggle against a feeling of powerlessness, and in reacting to that feeling I can:
- Tune out the noise and enjoy life, one day at a time
- Focus on and write about things other than the crisis of the day
- Pile on to the cacophony of social media voices
- Share noteworthy information borne of my unique experiences
Over the course of the past few months, I’ve done a fair amount of (1) and (2), and a lot of (3). However, I’ve determined that the way I can be most useful is (4). I happened to be born at the dawn of an epic struggle against racial hatred and subjugation, a struggle popularly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement. My experiences before, during and after that struggle – as a black youth, a student, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a community activist, an educator – have yielded the perspective and generated the findings I now feel a need to share. For example, I’ve learned why it is so excruciatingly difficult for a black person to succeed at building a technology business, and I’ve learned what it takes to succeed despite that difficulty. I’ve learned why organizations that purport to serve the interests of racial minorities so often fail to do so. I’ve learned why, despite the enormous wealth and intellectual prowess that exists in the United States, so many peoples’ basic health, education and general welfare needs go unmet.
Where does my perspective come from? What puts me in a position to credibly opine on these subjects? Well, let me try to explain. Many people tend to think of their lives as consisting of three phases – growing up, working, and retirement. As I reflect on it, I would label the phases of my own life as “discovery,” “experimentation,” and “impact.” I spent eleven years extensively documenting the first two phases of my life – discovery and experimentation – in the book “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” which I published back in 2012. I can’t and won’t recount all of that here – suffice it to say that my outlook on life was shaped to a large extent by the events I saw play out during the civil rights movement.
My mother and father migrated to Flint, Michigan from Albany, Georgia around 1950. My mother had received her nursing degree from Grady Colored School of Nursing in Atlanta. My father had served as a U.S. Army Signal Corps radio operator in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, but before and after his military service he worked as a salesman for a black owned insurance company. My parents decided to make the move north after my mother was seriously reprimanded for using a “whites-only” bathroom on her job at Phoebe-Putney hospital in Albany. The move to Flint proved fortuitous for the entire family because, owing to the postwar expansion of the auto industry, Flint, Michigan was a land of opportunity.
Despite the economic opportunity afforded by my family’s new northern locale, racism and discrimination were rampant. For perspective, I often share with my students a picture of the NFL Detroit Lions taken in 1953, the year I was born. The students often have trouble deciding what is more astounding – the fact that the Lions were league champions that year, or the fact that there was not a single person of color in the picture! The picture illustrates vividly that it was and is racism, not some innate lack of ability, that caused blacks to be excluded from so much of American life.
The year after my birth, 1954, was the year when, in civil rights terms, all hell broke loose. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark, unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. That ruling, as much as anything else, gave rise to the tidal wave of change and the opening of opportunities I experienced throughout my formative years.
In 1963, when I was 10 years old, I witnessed from afar the March on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Each of those events created an indelible mark on my psyche and made the world seem simultaneously promising and unstable. The mid 1960s brought signs of progress – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act – but also more reasons to despair – the Vietnam War, the murder of Malcom X. Then came perhaps the most shattering year of my youth, 1968. The April murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. The June murder of Bobby Kennedy. The election of Richard Nixon in November. It seemed for much of that year that evil was not only alive and well – evil was winning.
And yet, through it all, there was a feeling that the struggle was worth it – that things were changing for the better – that blacks were finally beginning to gain traction in America. My mother was promoted to Assistant Director of Nursing at Flint’s Hurley Hospital – the first black nursing administrator in the city. My father, though precluded for most of his life from exercising the love of radio and electronics he had nurtured in the Army, had secured a job as a maintenance technician at the main U.S. Post Office branch in Flint, and had set up a basement workshop in our home where he tinkered and repaired radios and TVs for neighborhood folk. His love of electronics rubbed off on me, and by the time I reached high school I knew the shape my professional career would take. In college, I told anyone who would listen that my plan was to start my own electronics business, sell it by age 40, then spend my time “studying anthropology,” which to me meant trying to figure out how the world works and why people act as they do.
My career journey took me to General Motors Institute, then to University of Michigan, which led to AT&T Bell Laboratories, which led to the basement of my Little Silver, New Jersey, home. Twelve years after finishing high school, I embarked on an epic struggle, my grand “experiment.” I and two black co-founders left the prestige and security of the foremost research and development organization in the world, AT&T Bell Laboratories, to start a business, Telecom Analysis Systems, in my basement. Many friends and colleagues thought I was crazy, but I was on a mission – a mission to prove that, unshackled from state-sanctioned racism, empowered by the civil rights movement, educated at the finest institutions, trained at the forefront of a newly accessible industry, I could achieve something my father couldn’t realistically aspire to: create and run a successful technology business. I viewed that quest as my personal contribution to the civil rights struggle.
The business I started, Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), was a success. The journey was unbelievably difficult, yet incredibly enlightening and financially rewarding. Twelve years after our basement beginnings, my co-founders and I sold TAS to a U.K. based company for $30 million. At 42 years old, I was two years behind the schedule I had set for myself. The experiment was complete, and I was more than ready to begin my “anthropology studies.”
Shortly after leaving the company I started, I served as volunteer board president and then director of a tiny after school education program in Red Bank, New Jersey. In a matter of weeks, I went from running a global multi-million dollar telecommunications business to serving after-school snacks to grade school kids. I found the experience invigorating and enlightening. I learned firsthand why so many black and brown kids were doing poorly in the local schools. I started a community-based education advocacy organization to address the causes. Over time, my community colleagues and I brought about seismic positive changes in the local education system. We made a difference, and we learned a lot.
And so began 25 years – a quarter century! – spent carrying out my self-directed, self-funded “anthropology studies.” In 2007, I returned to Michigan from New Jersey to spend more time with my aging mom. In 2012, I began teaching entrepreneurship courses at The University of Michigan. In 2014, I started the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative to empower entrepreneurs to improve the quality of life in urban communities, including the once thriving but now devastated cities of Flint and Detroit.
Growing up in Flint, Michigan during its glory days, at the height of the civil rights movement; starting a black-owned technology company in my basement and building it into a significant global player; engaging with communities in New Jersey and Michigan to attempt to understand and solve some of their most vexing problems; these experiences have given me the “anthropology education” I have sought since high school. At last I understand how a good portion of the world works: businesses, community organizations, cities, individual people. My new mission is to share that understanding with others to incite debate, action, and solutions. The need is urgent, the time is now. My hope is that, together, we can do what the high school student in nearly all of us wants to do: make the world better.