At the Core of Technology Is a Human: An Interview With Ayori Selassie

Keenan Norris

As a young professional in the entrepreneurial world of Silicon Valley, Ayori Selassie argues that technology's primary purpose should be to serve human needs first and foremost.

Reared in Oakland and the South Bronx, Ayori Selassie has found a home of sorts in the dizzyingly dynamic Silicon Valley. Hers is an atypical journey. Her mother decided to homeschool Selassie and her siblings due to the horrendous public schooling options they were provided with. Having already converted to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, an African faith largely unknown in America, Selassie’s mother was not afraid to depart from social norms where she found them unproductive for herself and her children. This self-reliance informed Selassie’s own path as a tech autodidact: While still a teenager, she taught herself computer programming, and has worked as a product manager, sales engineer and entrepreneur.

"That’s the mind shift that we need to make with technology and innovation: we have to remember that it’s the person and it’s the society and the community that we are solving problems for."

A young black woman working in the Wall Street of the West, Selassie is conscious of the blessing and the curse that is innovation. The economic under-class, including many black people and her Oakland hometown itself, has largely been left behind in the new economy. Combating this, she’s organized a community of technologists, activists, and businesspeople in numerous ventures aimed at increasing African-American and women’s access to and interest in emergent technologies.

As part of the State Department’s Tech Women initiative, she’s mentored female tech entrepreneurs in Egypt and the Middle East, and has met with Dr. Jill Biden at the White House to talk about technology, access, and education. At home in Oakland, her Shark Tank-style PitchMixer events have given a platform for East Bay technologists and entrepreneurs to pitch product to investors. In spring this year, she helped facilitate the first Start-Up Weekend in Oakland. Focused on empowerment through entrepreneurship, the two-day, three-night tech boot camp attracted a predominantly black contingent of innovators from Stanford and Berkeley students to high school and junior high-aged innovators. In the summer of 2014, she served as lead organizer for the YesWeCode hackathon in New Orleans, in partnership with Qeyno Labs and Essence Jazz Festival.

Her family’s faith, though initially frowned upon in the Bay Area, has inspired a global consciousness that’s led Selassie to Africa first as a Christian worshipper and now as a partial observer mistrustful of how an increasingly technologized West might impact the Mother Continent. She looks to the growing economies of Africa -- Rwanda going wireless, to use one example -- and is interested in innovation there, but wary of how an anti-humanist tech incursion would necessarily distort human values.

From left to right: Jill Wetzler (Twitter), Akiko Takashima (Intuitive Interactive), Ann Stock ( U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs), and Ayori Selassie (Salesforce) [Courtesy of Ayori Selassie]

Keenan Norris: Wall Street firms and hedge funds have been criticized for elite education selection bias, meaning that if you don’t have an Ivy League or Stanford degree on your resume, forget it. If Silicon Valley is Wall Street West, is it any different when it comes to hiring?

Ayori Selassie: It is and it isn’t. There is a difference here because the tech culture is fueled at its core by entrepreneurs. There is no educational requirement to be an entrepreneur other than being able to deliver a product to a market with demand. If you get that part right and become a successful tech entrepreneur, the likelihood of a Google or Facebook falling over to recruit you will be high.

My career started with entrepreneurship and the self-starting nature of an entrepreneur is highly respected in the tech community. But yes, there are still challenges related to success in entrepreneurship and pattern matching. For example, when it comes to venture capital investments, VCs [venture capitalists] tend to look for the Ivy League or Stanford MBA grads to fund because just like Wall Street, VCs have had the most success with Ivy League entrepreneurs. This is the very discussion that was raised to the mainstream when Soledad O'Brien produced Blacks in America: The New Promised Land on CNN.

Tech company recruiters also play favorites; they know what hiring managers like. Hiring managers are impressed by famous tech schools on the resume; it gets their attention and makes them more receptive to the candidate. So institution bias exists at the point of funding entrepreneurs and again when sourcing talent to hire employees for those businesses as they scale from startup to enterprise-grade businesses.

That said, I've also heard one of the original VCs explicitly state that he avoids funding MBA grad-led businesses because they aren't innovative enough. This anti-MBA way of thinking speaks to the investor who is seeking the Rose that Grew from Concrete type of entrepreneur who made something amazing in her garage even though she never graduated from college. I know a few people with stories similar to my own -- homeschooled and self-taught -- who have also reached a point where their expertise goes without question because they've developed a track record and portfolio to speak to their expertise without being coached through it at an elite institution.

They are as close as you can get to self-made. They've created something from nothing with very little guidance. While those from elite schools may have more opportunities due to their network, and how they are perceived, it is what you do with the opportunity that counts. Wall Street and the market would benefit if more people realized that.

KN: When you think about the phenomenon of Black Twitter, it’s obvious that black people are not alien to the tech world, and yet black people are such a small presence in Silicon Valley.

AS: I think there’s a social element to that. In Silicon Valley, where I work, you hear a lot of people selling the concept of what we do as magic. “Oh, it just happens automagically.” This concept of the mystery of technology and this magic in technology leads people not to ask questions, and the more questions you ask about technology or how something works, the more you’re gonna meet people who have no idea how it works under the covers. Therefore, the less you’re gonna feel comfortable asking those questions. So I believe it’s really important to make sure that people who understand the technology are accessible to regular people and are skilled at communicating with regular people. I try to take the mystery out of it because I think it’s so important for people to be able to understand it.

KN: Let's remove this mysterious veil: how did you first get interested in computers?

AS: I remember a couple of forays into getting a computer in the house. My older brother Jamal and I, we would go to the Ashby flea market [in Berkeley, California] week after week in search of the mysterious computer. One time we actually bought something. We got it home and we couldn’t get it to work because it was really, really, really old. It was one of those things where you know somebody and they decide to take a risk and you tinker around and try and get it to work and it doesn’t work, but you don't give up.

We might have given up on that computer, but we didn’t give up overall. So, maybe a year later, a friend of the family gave us two really old computers; I think they were a 486 and a 386, old style computers that use those five-inch floppy discs and the hard drive was probably a megabyte, something crazy like that. Plain yellow and black screen, very limited graphics, interaction with the computer was through the command line -- and we didn’t have the internet. That’s what we started learning basic programming on. The experience we had with those first two computers developed a patience in us. We understood that computers were something that responded to you, and you had to be patient with and work with.

KN: This was all in West Oakland?

AS: West Oakland, East Oakland, and North Oakland.

KN: What are your non-tech memories of Oakland?

AS: The dominant memories in Oakland are on the negative side because we were different, or, I guess, perceived to be different -- because we had locks, which was not in style back then [the '80s]. My mom was one of the first African American women to wear locks, whereas other women were wearing afros; I think Rita Marley might have even grown her locks because of my mom! My mom made sure all her children had locks, and she’d craft us these crowns; these hats; she’d crochet them with her hands, and we would cover our hair in these hats. It was not the norm. People would harass us. It was really a bizarre expression of confusion about their roots. We had a lot of discussions about slave mentality… We’d have people running behind us singing Bob Marley songs, or, Jamaica! Jamaica! African Booty Scratchers, and Shaka Zulu.

KN: This despite the fact your family isn’t from Jamaica, or direct immigrants from Africa?

AS: My mom was born in Mississippi. Charleston, Mississippi. My mom, she was raised Christian. She adopted the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian belief system and baptized all of us in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. We were all baptized by the same priest who started the church in the Western Hemisphere; he was sent to America by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the King of Ethiopia, to establish the faith and Ethiopian Orthodox tradition here in the West, as Eastern Christianity is largely unknown here in the West. There’s a Russian contingent; there’s a Greek contingent. Ethiopian Orthodox faith is the only African Christian heritage that’s referenced all the way from the Bible, that’s linked all the way to David and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

We ended up being baptized by Abuna Yesehaq, the priest who baptized Bob Marley. The first marriage that he ever performed on an African-American couple was my mom’s marriage. Her marriage is actually really famous amongst all Rastafarians for that reason. People have pictures of her wedding in their houses that don’t even know her.

KN: You went to Ethiopia for the first time last year.

AS: One day I just sat down and I realized that, you know, I’m alive right now, my mom is alive right now, my daughter is alive right now, and we’re all together. We should be using what we have at our disposal to enrich our lives. There’s this one picture that we have when we had just landed in Axum. My daughter [Trinity] is there and to me that was like our Jackie Onassis moment, of Jackie walking off the presidential airplane: That experience for Trinity is what I hope her stand-out memory is. Rather than, say, what my memories were growing up, where I got teased and called an African booty scratcher.

Ayori Selassie shares an embrace with Heba Hosny, a TechWomen Emerging Leader from Egypt [Courtesy of Ayori Selassie]

KN: Tell me about your time working on the Tech Women project in the Middle East.

AS: With the Department of State, I mentored and advocated for women in technology in the Middle East and Africa. I was a mentor for a woman who came to the U.S, Silicon Valley specifically, from Egypt. I worked with her for three weeks, helping her develop a project on how social media can be used to amplify the voices of and interaction of smaller, disconnected communities -- for example, women in technology and in the Middle East: that was the particular population that she studied via social media. In return for her coming to America to be mentored, I then went to the Middle East to learn more about life experiences of people in the Middle East. The county of Jordan was the specific delegation that I decided to go on.

After Jordan, we went to Jerusalem. We went to Bethlehem. Everywhere you go, you just happen to see these black Madonnas, these brown-faced Madonnas. You see these brown-faced Jesuses, and brown-faced disciples. In America, there’s this Western European image of the Bible, but when you’re actually in the region everything you see is brown. All these people were brown. All these people have kinky hair. These people, they look like you. You wonder about everything that you’ve ever seen, and then you realize that anything you’ve ever been told about you need to go see for yourself.

In these places, there’s the Christian quarters, there’s the Jewish quarters, there’s the Muslim quarters, and there’s Armenian quarters. It’s segregated, which makes some sense because part of it is language-based. But it’s also very sad, so very sad that everything is so separated. There are some experiences I had that I won’t mention that were really sad; those religious lines, you know, whether you’re Orthodox, Greek Orthodox or Ethiopian Orthodox or Catholic or whatever, everyone’s forced to go to their corner of Jerusalem to be properly respected, which is really tragic. I think that it is important for people to understand that we’re a lot more fortunate than we realize in America. I think we really do need to understand that because I think if we understood that more clearly, we would really see the opportunities that we have before us and not let the obstacles distract us from the opportunities that we have.

Splash image: Ayori Selassie volunteering to build a school for first graders in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

Thumbnail image: Ayori Selassie addressing an audience of TechWomen at the U.S, Department of State in Washington DC.

All images courtesy of Ayori Selassie.

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