The Competitive Advantages of Being Authentic

“Yes, I do jump rope in heels – have you heard of Black Girl Magic?” - Jessica O. Matthews

When I hit play on Jessica O. Matthews’ AfroTech talk the other night, I had no idea what to expect. I had never heard of her or her company Uncharted Play before that moment. I was about to make dinner and was looking for something interesting to listen to. And since Blavity had just released the videos from their inaugural event, I was game!

Lightning Talk with Jessica O. Matthews - AfroTech Conference
Lightning Talk with Jessica O. Matthews - AfroTech Conference

Not too long into it, I felt a great sense of shame. Like, have you ever met someone online or in real life, or come across an article or a social media profile that you never heard of before, that hits you in such a way that you suddenly feel deep shame? Like for real shame – that you never heard of this amazingly talented, gifted, beautiful - whatever - person before?

Well, that’s how I felt about 2.5 minutes into Jessica’s TEDx-style talk. Shortly before the shame set in, she said something thought provoking and I took that as my opportunity to show my support and tweet it out.

“I don’t know how to swim, but I know how NOT to drown.”

Not, even 15 minutes later, I found myself hands deep in raw meat and fumbling to pause the video so that I could tweet an incredible stat:

There have only been 13 black women who ever raised more than $1 million dollars. (Jessica raised $7 million – the largest Series A that any Black woman has ever raised.)

But, before I could get my hands clean enough to pause it, I was thinking, Wow! This is gonna be one of them really tweetable talks! I was all, Damn girl, yaass! And then two seconds later, literally in tears.

I quickly realized I wasn’t tweeting through this one. And that I wanted to do more than that. So, I cleaned my hands, rewound the video and just listened without interruption.

And still, after listening to it again for a second time, I’m left feeling all the feels, lol.

She just said so damn much, and in a language, and in a way that I could totally relate to. Not as a Black woman, of course. But as a woman, yes. As an urban chick with thick thighs (peep the video), a member of the community, and a woman married to a Black man – yes, most definitely.

I wanted to write out some of the things she said, because I wanted to be able to easily re-read them – I could have written out the entire talk it was so good, but I thought I’d focus on a few of the gems, and let you catch the rest on your own - because you are most definitely missing a lot of the magic if you don’t watch it for yourself.

A few gems…

1) On raising money from a VC - “I’m not Mark Zuckerburg.”

I don’t think anybody in here can just jump in and say, “I got an idea. Give me money.” That’s not our experience.

One evening during a conversation with Nate Jones, I said, “I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of raising money from a VC. Because the reality is, I’m not Mark Zuckerburg. Yeah, we might have went to the same school, but I know he wasn’t on the step team…like, I am nothing like these people here in Silicon Valley. And ya know businesses, they go up and down, but people, they connect with, they give a little bit of space to people they know, people they’re familiar with. And if I don’t look anything like them in my gender and my race, like, how are they going to understand me and how I make certain decisions, and why I did this and why I did that. How am I not gonna get fired five minutes from being in the door?”

And without missing a beat, he was like, “Jessica, Mark Zuckerburg could have never created the SOCCKET.” He was like, “What in the hell would this boy have pulled from to create an energy generating soccer ball for people in Africa? What was his experience that could have led to that? He has his experiences, he created that. But, you, your experiences as a woman, who from Nigeria, living the life that you have lived, having the experiences you’ve had, YOU created this SOCCKET ball. And any decent investor’s gonna see the value in that – the value in YOU, and what you bring to the table to create these things.”

Photo: Jason Reed
President Obama, Jessica O. Matthews, and the SOCCKET Ball - Photo: Jason Reed

2) On finding a place at the tech table.

What we’re really thinking about here then is, how do we take the things that we normally consider as our obstacles, particularly as people of color, particularly as anyone who doesn’t fit at the table, don’t feel like they fit in this world – how do we take those experiences and realize that that’s actually the future?

Most of the world looks like me, so why am I afraid to start a company and build shit for the people who look like me?

Why are we so afraid to engage? If people don’t want to fund us, they’re missing out.

3) On diversity.

If they’re missing out now, that’s their loss. The reality of the situation is, we have value. Significant value.

Diversity is not about charity, diversity is about good business.

So, then I said, ‘okay how do I then double down?’ ...we could either sorta code switch – try to play down the things that make us different, and just do the things that make people more comfortable – or we can double down on the things that make us, us, and let the people who are attracted to that come. And so, that’s what we did.

We have a diverse team because we want to serve a diverse world. This is not about charity, it’s about good business.

I believe that innovation comes from struggle, so as long as you’ve experienced struggle in some way, whether it’s from an ethnic, racial, gender perspective, or even a socioeconomic perspective – that to me is the magic, that to me is the piece, the seed from which we can grow something really meaningful.

4) On choosing Harlem.

We entered into a community we thought would feed us so much positivity, so much good.

Think about the Harlem Renaissance and what it meant for our people. What it meant to have this beautiful, amazing community of thinkers and dreamers and visionaries and people who weren’t looking for validation from any one else, just trying to help each other grow.

And we had the thought, that if the tools of the Harlem Renaissance were the pen and the paint brush, typewriter, then the tools of the Harlem Tech Renaissance could be the laptop and the 3D printer, and the soldering iron. But, in both situations we’re talking about technology that catalyzes self expression, that catalyzes self actualization. Again the things that help us become more human and live this one life that we have. And that’s what I wanted for my team.

Jessica O. Matthews and Uncharted Play, Harlem NY

I wanted my team, you know, from walking from the subway to our office to see the world. When we were down town, you know, you would see maybe two types of people living their lives all in one way. You move uptown you see seven types of people living their lives in fourteen different ways – you see your rabbi on 96, you see your barber on 125th – but literally, it’s like CNN, it’s like the world right in front of you, just while you’re going to work. Imagine then how your engineers will design, how your designers will build, how your marketing people will narrate, what they will say when they have the world around them.

5) On gentrification.

Within the first two months of being in Harlem we invested $100,000 in vendors within the community.

It was important that we hired from the community, that we created a non-profit called the Harlem Tech Fund with the specific purpose of making sure that we were ushering in urban renewal, not gentrification. To make sure we were training a pipeline of people, of talent within Harlem and the Bronx that we can hire, that we can engage with, that we can work with.

6) On expansion.

The final area, where we made the decision to be more authentic, to be ourselves was in the selection of our market. We work almost primarily in Africa and in the emerging markets for a reason. One, because it’s representative of our team and the microcosm of Harlem in and of itself, but also because that is where the growth is.

We’re going to expand in the places that not only need the power and are hungry for the progression, but in places where for someone like me, who’s a double minority, I switch down to one minority. It’s amazing.

It’s amazing to go from being a Black woman to just being a woman – it frees you.

7) On the election and our future.

Before Tuesday night [the election] I would always tell myself and my team: “Everyone wants to be Beyonce’, but no one wants to put in the work.” (Cookie Lyon quote, also on the wall in her Harlem space.) ...and then with the election results, it felt like, well no, we’ve always been working, we’ve always been trying to be Beyonce’, but if you’re telling me to be Beyonce’ it means that I have to work for nothing, I don’t know if I – maybe I can’t be Beyonce’. Maybe I can’t be the Beyonce’ of energy, maybe I can’t do it.

Like, how can you tell people who have been working so hard, who have had the last three years that we’ve had, where our men are getting shot in the streets just for wearing hoodies, where we are getting beaten by… and prisons… you’re telling me that now is the time to work? Now is the time to do more? I’m already… I’m exhausted.

So, I said to myself, this is true, you have to put in the work. But I need more. Cookie Lyon, you’re inspirational, but you’re not inspirational enough right now. And so I dug a little bit more and I found this – this is actually one of my favorite lines from Zora Neale Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me, and I thought about it…

“No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. (interrupts herself, “By the way y’all, she’s talking about us.”) The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame…The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult…The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.”

Clearly, we’re getting pretty close, and some people have gotten a little afraid. Clearly we’re doing something right, we’re working in just the right way, and we’re worrying some people.

And you know what? If we don’t see Tuesday night as a loss, but as a sign that we’re getting pretty close to winning, well then it changes the game. If we realize that everything we’re doing right now is so amazing and exciting and we’re building the future, and that for some people they’re just afraid, because they don’t want to lose their spot.

Remember that line in Love and Basketball? “Never let a freshman take your spot.” Remember that? ...In that, maybe this isn’t a setback. Maybe this is them getting into formation because they’re now taking us seriously.

No worries.

I think it’s time for us to start forming - ourselves, start taking care of each other - ourselves, building each other - ourselves. Realizing our talent and our value, and organizing into something amazing. Building the future, building the products, and the systems, and the platforms to take us there. Let’s get it.

Learn more about Jessica, Uncharted Play and the amazing products they’re creating, at Blavity.com.

Peep some of the other talks while your at it!

You’re welcome ;)
Sherri

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