Thursday, May 31, 2007
Black Folks vs. The Future
Blacks Vs. The Future:
Okay, I promised to talk to you a little bit about being black, doing tech stuff, and approaching the investment community.
Let me start by saying that my first experience with this phenomenon was with a product called an Illumiplate, a license plate that actually illuminated from within. Not to be confused with license plates with little lights or neon borders, the digits of the Illumiplate glowed incandescently. You had to see it to believe it: the plate actually had glowing digits you could read from half a mile away. So, of course, cops loved it, and wanted to get black folks Illumiplates immediately.
Anyway, this brother I know patented the plate and the proprietary technology and built a company around the product, and we then took it to the VC community and the state and federal government. It was a beautiful invention, like the coming of blue jeans. You could certainly imagine that, within ten years, everyone would be driving a car with a plate like this because it had so many aesthetic and functional competitive advantages. The plate's surface was basically a digital canvas, so from a vanity perspective you could have a honeymoon photo or an Outkast logo in all its blazing glory on the front of your car. It was ridiculous.
We talked to congressmen. People in the military. State troopers. They all loved it. We began looking at the various states, the billions of automobiles across the world, and it became apparent that this was a multi-billion dollar product.
But we had two major issues: 1) the inventor and all the founding members were black; 2) we didn't have the right friends: people that know great people and give great advice.
Politicians openly wanted to get cut in before any legislation moved forward to allow the Illumiplate on the streets. VCs wanted the technology, and wanted to throw us some nickels and dimes for coming up with their new cash cow.
We had no friends in the tech community. No leverage. No counseling from folks in the appropriate industry, which would have certainly helped seeing as our friend who invented the product was set on running everything and keeping the lion's share of pie for himself.
It was an amazing mess.
But for me, the most striking thing was how white people would look at the product. They would hold it in their hands, flipping it back and forth and damn near trying to crack it open to see how it worked, and then ask technical questions that, perhaps, they thought we couldn't answer.
To many of these white businessmen, it seemed simply inconceivable that we had done this. That it wasn't a top research lab or university that pulled this technological feat off: that it was just a few n*gg*s sitting alone in a room. Perhaps it was just as far-fetched to them that we would be able to successfully commercialize this product, build the General Electric- the entire infrastructure- needed to push, market and distribute this product around the globe.
Perhaps, in some regard, they were correct, but here's where the paths of whiteness and blackness differ. As James Brown said, we don't want nobody to give us nothing. Open up the door we'll get it ourselves. With money, you can hire folks that have much more experience than you, build infrastructure, market things properly, make things happen. Take a leap: treat a young black guy like Mark Zuckerberg and you never know what might happen.
We just need a fair deal. Not a they're-some-n*gg*s-they-don't-know-the-difference deal.
We never expanded our team. We never pulled in the money. We never built a coalition to make it possible. And the invention died. Maybe died's not the right word. Went back to that place where good ideas go, where they can be born again to a white person, who knows the right people, attracts the right level of funding and then gets on the cover of Forbes magazine smiling.
Like Col. Sanders, who probably never cooked a piece of chicken in his life, bragging about his secret spices.