Back in 2014, former NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous joined Kapor Capital. He partnered with the venture capital arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact (based in Oakland, California) to help close the gaps in access, opportunity, wealth and participation for startups and nonprofits that have potential to expand opportunity for all Americans, particularly communities that have been left behind.
Kapor’s mission is to provide educational access for all Americans, diversify the tech industry, and support startup companies that have a positive social impact. They make seed-stage investments in tech companies that close gaps in education, healthcare, economic inclusion and access to opportunity for Americans.
Jealous also sits on the board of directors of Kapor’s Center-funded Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers faced by people of color in science, technology, engineering and math. A Rhodes Scholar, Jealous has been named to the 40 under 40 lists of both Forbes and Time magazines, and he was #1 on The Root’s 2013 list of Black leaders under 45. He’s also an advisor for multiple tech startups and serves as a board member at Pigeonly and board advisor at PayNearMe.
We caught up with Jealous to talk about his role at Kapor, making social impact, and what needs to change to better diversify and close the gaps in tech.
EBONY: Most people know you as the head of the NAACP and as a community activist. Can you talk a little bit about your role at Kapor Capital and how that work is an extension of the work you’ve always done?
Ben Jealous: I’m a partner as a social impact venture capitalist, investing in ideas that have the potential to solve significant social problems by scaling through the marketplace. I came here because it was exciting to me. It was a way to try a new approach to solving tough problems, which is in the groove of my career, which has been seeking relatively simple and effective solutions to complex social problems.
EBONY: Can you talk about how social impact investing will help to solve some of society’s most basic issues, like poverty, crime or homelessness?
BJ: The opportunity for social impact investing is to help solve particular social problems. For instance, Pigeonly has helped cut the cost of calling home from federal prisons significantly. Regalii has made it easier and safer for immigrants to send money home to their relatives. NoRedInk has made it easier for teachers who have large classrooms to help all of their students learn how to write better simultaneously, no matter what their relative writing skill is. That’s the opportunity for social impacting investing. Just as is done with public policy, it’s about taking a big problem and breaking it down into digestible chunks, and then addressing that piece of the larger problem.
When you invest in a new business, you can either invest in an expensive solution that solves the problem for a small number of people and have that be successful, or you can invest in a inexpensive solution that solves the problem for a large number of people. Given the demographics of our society, there are a lot more economically struggling people than billionaires. And yet the reality has been that it tends to be many more startups trying to solve the problems of the privileged and very few trying to solve the problems of the underprivileged.
What we found is that there are real returns being made and real problems to solve by backing entrepreneurs who focus on solving problems for underprivileged communities. We at Kapor Capital go out looking for entrepreneurs who are intimately familiar with the problems they are trying to solve. That’s one of the reasons why our portfolio companies, roughly half of the companies, have been founded by Blacks, Latinos or women, who are traditionally blocked out of venture capital deals.
EBONY: So are you just backing tech companies?
BJ: Tech is becoming a part of everything. It’s like investing in electrical appliances 120 years ago. There was a time when electricity was being put into everything, and there is a point now where technology is injected into everything.
EBONY: You’ve been on the Board of Advisors with the AT&T Aspire Ed-Tech Accelerator. Why did you take a role there, and why is it important for these types of programs to exist?
BJ: What’s exciting about the AT&T Aspire Accelerator is that you have one of the world’s biggest companies, which is also one of the biggest supporters of philanthropic education, deciding to invest in starting and accelerating the growth of ed-tech companies focused on solving problems for children in public schools. The possibility that exists there from real investment in small teams of highly motivated, brilliant young entrepreneurs on one hand and the support of one of the world’s largest companies on the other and, especially with AT&T investing in mobile technology and television, there’s just a world of possibilities. It’s been a very exciting partnership and project.
EBONY: What are some of the companies you’re excited about right now?
BJ: I’m excited about Pigeonly, which not only has made it cheaper for inmates to call home, but also makes it cheaper for people to get family photos to inmates behind bars. I’m also excited about Call9, that’s cutting the time for ER doctors to see nursing home patients in distress. Right now that can be an hour or more. Call9 cuts it to less than two minutes through a combination of on-site EMTs and mobile technology based telemedicine. It’s saving the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens, and quite frankly, the ones who are most likely to call 911. I could go on and on. We have more than 110 investments and are working with new companies every month, and I’m excited about a lot of it.
EBONY: How does Kapor decide what to invest in?
BJ: We hear about 2,000 new ideas a year; we invest in a couple dozen each year. The companies we are looking for are companies that seek to solve social problems and have real promise to scale their solutions quickly through the marketplace. We’re looking for early signs of traction and things that distinguish a company as a need-to-have as opposed to a nice-to-have. People don’t necessarily need a new social media app, and so we turn a lot of those down.
EBONY: What do you think is the key to getting more minority-led startups the same kinds of monies that companies like Uber or Pinterest receive to be successful?
BJ: Things are changing rapidly in Silicon Valley and that gives me a lot of hope. As Mitch Kapor, my partner always says, “Entrepreneurs tend to scratch their own itch.” It’s also true that investors tend to invest within their professional networks. There has been a small but rapidly increasing number of Black and brown venture capitalists, and that bodes well for Black and brown entrepreneurs.
You can see the value of that in companies like Pigeonly. Their first investors were firms that have Black investors as part of the investment team, and it was a Black founder who was passed over by many traditional firms. And you see that with a company like Mayven that is revolutionizing how hair is sold by beauticians, which was originally overlooked and is now a rapidly growing company having real success.
That’s where I put my faith. Every month there is a new Black partner or new Latino partner at a firm, and the number keeps inching up. Every year, the percentage of Black- and brown-founded companies getting Series A investment goes up, and those are great signs.
EBONY: Why should tech companies like Apple, Google, Intel and Facebook even care about diversifying their workforce?
BJ: Genius is constant in every zip code in our country. If we’re going to overcome the projected million programmer shortfall 10 years from now, we’re going to have to do a better job of tapping the talent that exists in every zip code in this country. If we’re going to remain the global leader in innovation, similarly we’re going to have to become a more inclusive country in the midst of this more competitive world. Not only can’t we lead by simply cultivating genius in only a small number of our population, it’s just simply not sustainable.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.