Last night I had the privilege and honor to volunteer with the Greater Foundation by being both a mentor and judge to underserved youth who are learning entrepreneurial, technical, and business skills. Walking into the youth center where the event was being held was a bit of a culture shock – but only until it transported me back to my own youth where I participated in things like the Boys and Girls club, church outreaches, etc.
There were teenagers,…well, being teenagers. Some were listening to loud rap, some were playing Grand Theft Auto on worn couches, some were playing pool, and others were just huddled together chatting away. All seemed happy and it was serene, even heartwarming.
And then once I got inside the event room itself where the Greater Foundation’s staff, volunteers, and participants were gathered, I got to experience another curiously peaceful environment filled with youth, collaboration, and an electrifying buzz of innovation. With walls plastered with things like Nelson Mandela’s “Deepest Fear” quote and other encouraging images and messages, the space seemed like the perfect incubator for the world’s next visionaries.
Now why would I leave my own five sons at home to go teach five other families’ sons (and one other families’ daughter) skills on life in the startup lane? Well…I didn’t quite know the answer until the event was over. And I’m sure glad I went.
My own oldest son could very easily be considered having the background of an underserved youth. He was the son of a single teen mom on welfare (me), grew up in affordable housing, and moved schools and houses more times than one can even count. And though my heart and soul wants nothing more than for him to succeed in his own experiments with self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism, when he tries to tell me about his ventures, I can’t help but hear myself being unsupportive at times. It’s weird – I want to serve him by protecting him. But with these youth I didn’t even know, I wanted to serve them by inspiring them.
So what does this all have to do with the event last night? I learned that having an arm’s length between me and the youth I am volunteering for actually helps me to learn how to be a better supporter of my own son on his entrepreneurial journey and how to widen my perspectives in general. In fact, when I got home at 8PM last night, I gathered all three of our older boys together with myself and husband and gave them an inspiring speech about how our world is suffering from a massive disease relating to the lack of diversity in the startup ecosystem.
You see, the kids I worked with last night were a very diverse group and all had ideas I never would have thought of. They were solving problems that weren’t even on my radar. And when the pursestrings of capital are held by wealthy, educated, white, straight men, they are bound to support the innovation that caters to them and we will ultimately miss the innovation that serves the rest of the world.
How can we venture to solve issues relating to poverty when we are lacking impoverished entrepreneurs? How can we solve the crisis of over-incarceration of black men if we aren’t fostering the innovations of the next generation of black male youth? And how can we generate a massive influx of female engineers and scientists if our society still radically separates childhood experiences into male and female, blue trucks for boys and pink dolls for girls.
As much as we have improved, we have massive progress to make. In fact, the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know and the more I feel stunned that there is not more being done.
If we do not include the very people who are being affected by real societal problems in the equation, we will not successfully innovate for the solutions. And I’m not talking about focus groups and just hiring more diverse candidates. I’m specifically saying we need to incubate, accelerate, and fund founders who do not fit the typical mold. Founders who look, talk, act, think, feel, and experience things differently than what we are used to.
They will be the next generation of visionaries and perhaps they will be the ones who will solve certain problems that have been engrained in the American way since the beginning of our time on this side of the water. They will lead the rest of us to the solutions for some of the most pressing issues facing the world today including poverty, racism, and sexism.
I recently watched a YC Startup School video with Paul Graham and Geoff Ralston and at the end, someone in the audience asked if YC was going to reach out to founders in high school. Paul and Geoff wholeheartedly said, No! To quote as best I can, Paul said, “If [a high-schooler] starts a successful startup…that means the footloose and fancy free days of your life are over.” And Geoff says, “I agree – to go to high schools and encourage kids to do this incredibly hard thing instead of having fun and being kids…that’s awful.”
Taking time to “go be a kid” sounds like a fantastic idea – if you are a privileged and supported youth living in a thriving suburbia. But what if you are an underprivileged or at-risk youth? What if your destiny is already set once you hit 19 and you’re on your way to single parenthood, drug addiction, legal problems, dropping out of high school – or are already there? Shouldn’t we teach these youth that there’s a way out? That maybe there is a genuine path out of the generational poverty that’s all around them and that there are mentors who are willing to show them how to get there?
This is the value I see in the Greater Foundation. Only one training session, a few emails, and one volunteer session down and I’m already hooked. I already see the big picture. This agency and my mission in life are so closely aligned that I feel a true sense of validation – that what I am fighting for, others are too. And this gives me the strength to keep up the fight because we might actually have a shot at seeing these goals come to fruition within my very lifetime.