“For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”
To contextualize this for our current condition: We must come to see that equity too long delayed is equity denied.
Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Garry Johnson III: I’m an educator, startup founder, and ecosystem builder on a mission to build a more inclusive and equitable innovation ecosystem. To the dismay of some, I don’t plan on going away until the mission is complete. To others, I’m a ray of hope.
During the summer of 2020, a fire that’s burned inside of me since I came to understand the inequities of the world as a young man was stoked by not only the public mutilation of Black bodies but also our country’s responses to it. James Baldwin stated that “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Well, the reawakening that summer has led us to be the angriest we’ve ever been. Our collective fire burns hotter than ever.
Most fail to truly understand the shift that occurred as we transitioned into this new decade. We are in the midst of a movement. Ignore this, if you must, at your own peril.
I could explain in vivid detail how I’ve since been treated as a Black man in America. I could go on to tell you how I’ve been chased in broad daylight and verbally assaulted with violently racist threats. I could express to you the confusing combination of joy and concern of taking my younger sibling to her first protest. The feeling of watching from a distance while others take to the streets to demand change, for fear of contracting and spreading a deadly virus to high-risk family members. Being forced to work from home, yet having my safe zone warped into an inescapable hostile work environment. Of navigating sidewalks littered with glass broken by hijackers of a movement I care so deeply about. All of those, however, are stories for another time.
Are we positioning our state as a place where innovators of all backgrounds and identities see inclusive and equitable opportunity?
When historians across recall our country’s response to the Black Lives Matter Movement, especially as it relates to our business and tech communities, Delaware’s contributions will be shamefully absent. Even on a more personal note, how will history view your individual contributions during this pivotal time?
We demanded systemic change, yet were recycled into the same systems of oppression. We cried out for change, yet our warnings were unheeded. Our cries for justice and equitable opportunity are consistently drowned out by fleeting guilt and temporary shame. We called for justice, and again were put on hold.
I’ve come to realize the perpetual dissatisfaction in our rate of change is evident in the fact that we challenge ourselves to “reinvent” Delaware once a year.
As we mourn the one year anniversary of a pandemic which has exacerbated the inequalities that exist across ZIP codes, industries, and tax brackets, we must again ask ourselves: Are we positioning our state as a place where innovators of all backgrounds and identities see inclusive and equitable opportunity? Delaware has the unfortunate nature of being a tiny place where many have never been, and never plan to be. Unless we make great strides in building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive ecosystem for all, our fate is almost certain.
As humble as I can be, I’d like to believe that my call-to-action last summer had an impact on the shifting focus of platforms such as Startup 302, and the creation of initiatives such as E3. (Full disclosure, I sit on the steering committee for Startup 302 and assisted in the launch of E3.) In the grand scheme of things, I must admit that, unless we see accelerated change in the months ahead, I believe my effort was a failed attempt.
The reality though, for me as a Black founder, there have been more opportunities and investments made available outside of our state than within it. My work has been validated in that our community of innovators has grown to cross continents and attract the support of industry-leading accelerators and investment groups. We continue to architect the future with minuscule funding. As has been true for centuries, we must persistently be the change we wish to see in the world, whether it be in nonprofit, business, or corporate settings. This is about Delaware’s future, but it’s also so much bigger than our little state. Ecosystems and economies have been forced to coexist in a mutually beneficial fashion. There are blurred lines where our borders used to be and our destinies are as interconnected as they’ve ever been.
If you say you’re supporting underrepresented founders, yet the majority of your investments go to white female-led startups and Black founders remain in the minority, what progress has truly been attained?
A couple of things that concern me, for example, is our answer to the spotlight on the rate and amount of funding invested into Black-led startups. We say we need funding, and are provided pitch competitions. Pitch competitions do not provide the same access to capital that investments do, and therefore, these competitions are a vitamin, not a painkiller. Commitments to investing in more underrepresented founders is a cover-all statement and often not equitable when impact metrics are broken down. If you say you’re supporting underrepresented founders, yet the majority of your investments go to white female-led startups and Black founders remain in the minority, what progress has truly been attained? Similarly, it’s not enough to buy a couple of products from Black-owned small businesses in your neighborhood if it’s not a part of a long-term commitment to circulating money in your community.
We told you that Black founders are over-mentored and underfunded, and what did you do? You created more mentorship opportunities. We told you there’s a pipeline issue in transitioning from education focused pre-accelerator programs to accelerators with significant investment capital offered, and what did you do? You created more pre-accelerators.
Yes, we’ve seen more programs popping up that support Black founders, but many seek to support “top tier” founders that graduated from top universities or already have $1 million in annual recurring revenue. Unfortunately, many of these new programs are more of the same: pitting founders against one another in competition-style formats that are not collaborative, inclusive, or equitable.
Many also fail to recognize that our country is becoming increasingly diverse. What is standard and commonplace today, will soon become obsolete. Products and services designed for traditional mass-market adoption are being disrupted by more inclusive solutions which serve previously underserved markets. These markets are in no way “niche,” and are becoming the new mainstream.
For our local business community, this is less of a call to action, and more of an opportunity for collective reckoning:
Diversity in your leadership: How have you improved?
Diversity in your board of directors: How have you improved?
Diversity in your employees and staff: How have you improved?
Diversity in your investments and grant recipients: How have you improved?
Diversity in your professors, instructors and student body: How have you improved?
Please make no mistake: Diversity is not inclusion and inclusion is not equity. We must do everything in our power to ensure everyone is invited to contribute to and benefit from our economy, that each of our spaces represent the diversity of our communities, and that everyone involved is equipped with the resources necessary to thrive. If you truly aim to provide equity, give us power and authority.
As the world opens back up, my final question is this: Are we truly building back better, or returning to business as usual?