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As nationalism rises, Silicon Valley’s black leaders strengthen their resolve

The Third Annual Culture Shifting Weekend

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L to R: Denmark West, Lloyd Carney, Pamela Joyner, Robin Washington, Issac Vaughn, Andrea Hoffman
L to R: Denmark West, Lloyd Carney, Pamela Joyner, Robin Washington, Issac Vaughn, Andrea Hoffman
Photo: Devlin Shand for Drew Altizer Photography

“Welcome to the Blacks in Silicon Valley Trump rally,” Andrea Hoffman said to boisterous laughter throughout the room. And with that, the 2017 Culture Shifting Awards Brunch was underway.

Last weekend, on a cool Sunday morning at one of the nicest hotels in Silicon Valley overlooking the Santa Cruz mountains, black CEOs, entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors had gathered to network and to celebrate a handful of leaders who had broken down barriers and proven that skin color does not determine to which degree a person can succeed in Silicon Valley.

This was the third annual Culture Shifting Awards Brunch, organized by Hoffman, the CEO of Culture Shift Labs. Hoffman has been at the forefront of the push for diversity and inclusion for nearly 20 years, and has built a network of black executives and entrepreneurs paralleled by few.

Back in 2015, I attended the inaugural event, which saw about 200 attendees and included a think tank the day before the brunch, with another 300 people on the waiting list. Two years later, Culture Shifting Weekend has added a third day, moved to a bigger venue, and had over 300 black leaders attending the brunch, with 800 people on the waiting list.

Hoffman told me she had two main goals when she created Culture Shifting Weekend back in 2015. “To raise the profile of the vast number of leaders and pioneers of color so that others have a more accurate perspective of what's out there,” Hoffman said. “I think corporations, nonprofits, and their peers lack this perspective. Even the media lacks this perspective.” She also wants to encourage and enable networking and collaboration between people who care about diversity and inclusion by creating an event where the most influential black executives can come and network.

“It would not have been possible if it wasn't for the connection that was made at this very event last year.”

Deals getting made off the connections built at Culture Shifting Weekends isn’t a new phenomenon either. Laura Weidman Powers, the co-founder and CEO of Code2040, met Alphabet executive David Drummond at the first event two years ago, which ultimately led to a $3 million grant from Google for the nonprofit. “It would not have been possible if it wasn't for the connection that was made at this very event last year,” Powers said on stage last year.

According to Hoffman, deals were struck and funding was also secured by entrepreneurs from this year’s event, including commitments made to companies that presented during the Saturday think tank.

Nearly every major tech company in Silicon Valley was represented, including Apple, Google, Intel, IBM, SAP, and HP, just to name a few. Even Hollywood was represented, with a Friday discussion about how Black Hollywood and black leaders in the tech industry could work better together that included Cheo Coker, the showrunner for Luke Cage.

Future black leaders of Silicon Valley and politics, including Maci Peterson, CEO of On Second Thought — only the 14th black woman to raise over $1 million in funding in the Valley — and Michael Blake, the 35-year-old former Obama aide, New York Assemblyman, and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, were introduced to a room full of potential partners that could help them for years to come.

L to R: Jose Gordon, Devin Wenig, Aisha Oyebode, Gbenga Oyebode, Damien Hooper Campbell
L to R: Jose Gordon, Devin Wenig, Aisha Oyebode, Gbenga Oyebode, Damien Hooper Campbell
Photo: Devlin Shand for Drew Altizer Photography

As you would expect, diversity was the topic du jour of the weekend, with conversations about strategies to help companies improve diversity and become more inclusive being had at every event I attended. But as the world has gotten bleaker over the past year in the midst of a Trump administration, the conversation, justly, shifted to even more serious topics at times throughout the weekend. With the rise of nationalism sweeping the US, Europe, and even Africa, as we learned during the weekend, talks weren’t limited to affecting change in Silicon Valley as they once were, but also about affecting change globally.

There was an intimate dinner on Saturday night to discuss tech developments in Nigeria with lawyer, investor, and philanthropist Gbenga Oyebode and his wife, philanthropist and human rights activist Aisha Oyebode, one of the most prominent couples in Nigeria. Executives and partners from Apple, Intel, and Ernst & Young were in attendance.

Aisha Oyebode, a co-convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, spoke about the ongoing struggle to find and return the 276 girls that were kidnapped from a school in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram back in 2014 (57 girls have escaped so far). Mr. Oyebode spoke about the numerous startups and business opportunities in Nigeria — which will surpass the US to become the third largest country in the world by 2050 — and explained how the wave of nationalism that has swept the US and Europe is also rearing its head in Africa.

Photo: Culture Shift Labs

The actor and activist Hill Harper, who hosted the brunch, told a story about sitting next to the Oyebodes and striking his own potential deal. Harper learned that Nigeria can produce the oil he uses in his skin care line, turning that conversation into a potential partnership that could bring jobs to the people directly affected by Boko Haram’s kidnappings.

“We need you to allow your genius to shine.”

“We started talking about northern Nigeria and the fact that there’re Baobab trees in northern Nigeria. And then we started talking more about the fact that Aisha is doing great work in northern Nigeria, with women in particular, and we also know [about] Boko Haram and the 276 girls that were kidnapped in northern Nigeria,” Hill continued. “And then she said that most of the women in northern Nigeria are the folks working in agriculture, and we talked about the idea of cultivating Baobab trees for my products out of Africa. So one, we can provide jobs; two, we can hit populations that are extremely vulnerable; three, we can figure out a way to connect an American business here — my business — to something going on there, and we have like a triple, quadruple net victory out of a simple conversation at a dinner.

“We’re going to create that type of action. We want more of that and we need that, because we need you to allow your genius to shine.”

While the problems of the world will make it tougher to create diverse workplaces in the short term, the enthusiasm shown for creating more opportunities and a better working environment  for people of color was not diminished in the least from what I saw at the inaugural event. Two years ago, the problems discussed seemed surmountable with time and effort from all parties involved. Now, the issues are more complex, involving far more than unmotivated companies resisting change, but at least for the 300 attendees, their resolve hasn’t changed.