April 3, 2015

When Benjamin Jealous was an undergraduate at Columbia 21 years ago, he said, there were nightly shootouts in Morningside Park.

The former president and CEO of the NAACP recalled celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday against that backdrop: The group toasted to surviving into adulthood.

“But I couldn’t bring myself to raise my glass,” said Jealous, impassioned. “The notion cut me like a knife that someone thought, in this country, that to simply survive past one’s 21st birthday… was an accomplishment.”

Jealous’s remarks were entitled “At the Intersection of Tech and Social Impact”; his visit was the latest event in the Dean’s Seminar Series in Race and Policy.

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In opening remarks, Dean Merit Janow reminded the audience that the initiative had been launched to engage scholars, commentators, and civic leaders more deeply.

Introducing Jealous, Janow highlighted what she called a “truly remarkable record.”

Before becoming NAACP president at age 35—he was the youngest person ever to lead the organization—Jealous had been a Rhodes Scholar, an investigative journalist, and a community organizer who worked to ban the death penalty, outlaw racial profiling, and stop mass incarceration, among other initiatives.

Upon joining the NAACP he helped the organization grow to become the largest civil rights organization online and across other platforms.

All this earned Jealous a spot on the 40 under 40 lists of both Forbes and Time magazines.

Considering technology and its relevance to social policy, Jealous would discuss how technology could be used to solve lasting social problems, and emphasized the importance of entrepreneurship.

But upon taking the podium, Jealous said he came from a “family business” of civil rights activism.

“They were all fighters, and they were taught to fight out of necessity,” he said. “We were given that option.”

Jealous said that for him, arriving at Columbia meant having to choose between “making money and changing the world.”

“If I wanted to change the world, the real possibilities were either through direct advocacy or direct service,” he said.

“What excites me now is we can provoke change through the market system, too,” Jealous said.

Having retired from the NAACP at the end of 2013, Jealous now is a partner for Kapor Capital, the Washington, D.C.-based venture capital investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

“We are seeing how startups can change the world,” he said.

Janow began the Q&A session, which followed Jealous’s remarks, by asking how to foster the imagination and vision needed for technology and disruptive influence.

Jealous emphasized the importance of organizers, particularly in the demand economy. But, he said, the need to empower is equally important, if not more so.

There is a lie we believe that capitalists tell us, Jealous said: “We must lie, exploit and destabilize communities in order to make a profit.”

One overlooked but still powerful force, he said, are the people who are locked out of the economy. For instance, Jealous described how he has begun looking to formally incarcerated people.

Other questions also prompted discussion of how to help people overcome limits to their talents, and the tensions between venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs.

“The most important thing is that folks feel empowered to scratch their own itch. That’s the real opportunity here,” said Jealous. “Entrepreneurs scratch their own itch.”

Indeed, Jealous emphasized the need to “train kids to be entrepreneurs.”

“We have to stop seeing entrepreneurism as something you do after college,” he said. “We have to see it as training people in high school. Obviously college helps. [But] most of the smartest people I know, never finished college, and we need to understand that.”

— Tamara El Waylly MIA ’15

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