189918-at-the-core-of-technology-is-a-human-an-interview-with-ayori-selassi

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

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.

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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.

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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.

Overcoming Re-Traumatizing Narratives

KN: Our history as black Americans is, in many ways, a terribly traumatic one, as it is marked by the familiar atrocities of slavery and racial terrorism. You’ve talked to me before about ways we as black folks traumatize ourselves, or re-traumatize ourselves, with the restatement of that very painful history.

“We have to take all of our knowledge of technology and re-architect it to work for human beings rather than corporations. We have to start over.”

AS: Recently I went to an event. It was a fireside chat with Katherine Finney, who was named a White House Champion of Change. She was trying to educate people about this conference that she is organizing called Focus 100 in New York City. She was talking about her story, and then the audience started to participate and again came the horror stories, again came the mention of things that would literally cause everyone in the room to gasp. And you could suddenly feel the energy of an entire room of people change to kind of like this seizure of panic, of “not again” just from the story that someone’s telling of something that happened to them.

It was toward the end of the event so everyone left with that as a reminder, that kind of trauma back on the surface. I just think that that’s really unhealthy. We have a tradition of oral storytelling in our culture that’s very beautiful and powerful, so we have to be more mindful about how we use our stories. We have to start to move in a direction that’s gonna help us to achieve more rather than sympathy with each other’s social pains because that doesn’t really get us anywhere. What do we do with that story? We may feel like we’re not alone, but we already know that we’re not alone.

KN: How does that analysis of what needs to be done inspire your work in Tech Women and with Oakland Startup Weekend?

AS: I think that in our hearts all people have an ability and a desire to solve problems. When we did Startup Weekend in Oakland, this was the first hack-a-thon focused on black male achievement. With a hack-a-thon, we want to show people every resource and tool that they have at their disposal and experiment with solving problems that affect their everyday life. So, when those kids came in and they said, “Hey, we want to build a homework helper,” you know, “We want to build a platform that would help motivate students to finish their homework, so that they can get money for their family to help them go to college, based on the homework assignments that they complete” it’s crowdsourcing their college fund. It wasn’t just somebody talking about a problem; it was somebody presenting a possible solution.

People weren’t just admiring the problem. They were done admiring the problem. What they wanted to talk about was the way to solve it. And that’s really how we need to be changing our stories overall; that’s how our stories have to be told from now on.

KN: Why was it significant to bring the startup weekend to Oakland?

AS: Oakland is just an historic city. It’s the West-most city with the largest population of African-Americans, and it’s one of the most diverse cities on the planet. It has a historical relevance in American history as being the place where the Black Panthers started. It’s where free breakfast programs started; it’s where diabetes education and sickle cell anemia treatment started. There’s so much that is rooted in the fiber of Oakland and that makes it a very special place.

The other thing that makes it special is that it’s right next to Silicon Valley. But Oakland hasn’t developed in the same way that, resource-wise, Silicon Valley has. Companies haven’t traditionally flocked here to build their businesses. Why is this happening in Oakland? Well, this is not just happening in Oakland… it’s happening all around the country. When you introduce a new technology and you begin to commercialize or industrialize a concept and it gains traction and then becomes the standard, the next stage in that process of commercialization is reduction of cost, which usually results in outsourcing. Then you start having jobs shift to other countries or shift to cheaper areas where the labor is cheaper.

Cities like Oakland have been affected by that. The middle class is declining. Poor people are being pushed out of these major cities. And that means that our economy is not working for our people. With Oakland, I think our unique opportunity is to say, “We can take these opportunities that we have before us, and help folks see this as an opportunity to innovate their own lives and create businesses and build families and communities.” Then, it can be done in other places in the U.S. as well. The great thing about Oakland is that we have these resources, we have the educational institutions, we have the corporations, and all of these people who have great, vast, experience, powerful networks. If we can take Oakland and leverage all of that power that we have and actually use it to bring the people up to make them economically independent, then I think our whole country can become more successful. We can take that energy and spread it around the world, as well.

I think we could really change the world. When I think about startup weekend in Oakland, I think that’s what it represents.

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Ayori Selassie hosting a Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum during Women’s History Month in Berkeley, CA [Courtesy of Ayori Selassie]

KN: Tech leverages an amazing amount of power within our society and around the world. It’s democratizing access to information and free expression, and it’s also being used by our government to infiltrate social networking spaces and spy. There seems to be this real duality, and dilemma, when it comes to what all this technology will mean for us? Will it increase divides in the society, or will it shrink them?

AS: Yeah, I think “dilemma” is really the right word… Organizations are facing this dilemma of how they are to evolve. How can we keep up with the shifts that are happening on this ground level? We couldn’t even predict these changes. We don’t understand these changes. Our organizations are too large and too slow to adapt to the changing landscape quickly enough… There is the formation of a new economy driven by the needs of the people, and if someone answers that call they can create a very successful business.

Crowdsourcing, for example, is something people have wanted to be able to do. They want to support a cause they feel is important without being forced to have to go to big banks to do it. The internet has enabled that concept to scale and be very successful. There’s more and more of what you might call a resource-based economy, and there’s a lot of stuff that happens under the table, as well. And the more people create technologies to support these kinds of industries, I think the more empowered regular people are going to become. I really believe that. I really do believe that people are poised in a position to have the upper hand if we leverage the technology to innovate for our needs.

KN: But if corporations are having this much trouble adjusting, how is this likely to affect black Americans, who, on average, have less education, less generational wealth, than the average American?

AS: I actually think this is the biggest opportunity for African-Americans; the reason why is because one of the things that’s held us back is education. Education has held us back because it has typically been very expensive. Education just means “learning”, and we have somehow taken this word “learning” and culturally related it to institutions that require payment. I think that if we can help our community understand that learning does not have to be coupled with an institution, that you can take control over your own education, then they will actually see that as long as you have access to a computer, then, yes, you can build the next Facebook. You have companies like GitHub who created mechanisms for people to share code all around the world and collaborate. The open source community is doing incredible things with such technologies.

KN: Let’s conclude with Africa. The continent has something like seven of the ten fastest growing national economies in the world. Africa is a part of your life and work. What about technology and Africa?

AS: All my experiences together have brought me to thinking more about what it is to be human and what our needs are as a human species. The people I met in Africa understood really deeply what a human’s basic needs are. They haven’t mistaken their needs for consumerism. What were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak thinking when they created the Macintosh? What were they looking to really create by making this technology more accessible to people for innovation? They wanted a way of expressing and communicating and they created that, and what happened next was that the commercialization process forgot about basic human needs.

When you look at Africa and try and superimpose our technology and our solutions onto them, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve their problems because these technologies actually don’t solve our problems. I think it’s our responsibility to go out and learn from these other societies, what really works well in these places, what they’re doing, how they’re connecting, and how they’re really, truly meeting these human needs.

Then we have to take all of our knowledge of technology and re-architect it to work for human beings rather than corporations. We have to start over. When Wozniak was making the boards, he and Jobs were discovering challenges about these systems. We have to go back the same way Jobs and Woz went back and changed the way these computers were being made, we have to go back and change the way that our technology is being applied. We have to go back and reevaluate what we’re doing with this technology and make it really useful to a human being. We haven’t done that yet.

Recently, I was at a hack-a-thon. There were all these emerging technology companies there, and lots of really incredibly smart people in the room. We were all working to come up with different problems that we thought needed to be solved and helping each other solve these problems. The one thing that I noticed in almost every group that I sat down with was they were thinking about solving the problems of technology and none of them were solving the problems of the person, of the human being.

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. That concern should be the one informing us about how we ought to use technology. At the core of technology is the person, the human.

Keenan Norris’s first novel Brother and the Dancer (Heyday Books, 2013) is the winner of the James D. Houston Award for first books. The novel has also been nominated for the inaugural John Leonard Prize, a debut fiction prize that is part of the National Book Critics Circle awards. He is the editor of the seminal critical work Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape (Scarecrow Press, 2013). His commentaries have been featured in the Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Observer, and KPFK radio. Keenan holds an M.F.A. from Mills College and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, and teaches at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California.

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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