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My Bout with Racism in Corporate America- A personal Story

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This is how racism operates – a personal story…

I’ve been relatively private about my life and I enjoy things that way so most of you probably didn’t know this, but in 2013 I moved to Detroit during its bankruptcy to work with multi-billionaire Dan Gilbert, Chairman of Quicken Loans, Owner of Cavs, and overall really great guy on various special projects; it was a dream (truly a prayer) come true!

After about a year of working closely with Dan, we co-founded a tech startup together. I’m forever grateful to him for investing in me like that and in other ways. I led this company as CEO for a little over a year before I was suddenly ousted. It all happened within a week. September 15th, 2015 I was told that we had a problem, but not to worry. “We would figure it out.” I wasn’t told what the problem was at that time, but the very next week on September 22nd, 2015 I was escorted out of the building by security. I don’t know why they felt the need to have me escorted out by security, but such is life and some things you may never understand

To say this experience was traumatic for me would be an understatement, because on top of being rushed out of a company I co-founded and suddenly finding myself unemployed, I also was 3 days away from moving to/closing on a house that I had newly constructed which was less than a mile from my office and I was getting a dream come true deal on that house (through a $75k hud grant, a $20k live downtown incentive, and $20k reduced from the house via negotiation…

I was getting this house that appraised for just shy of $300k for $175k, that house last I checked now goes for just shy of $500k), I would have still closed on the house, but the day I was suddenly let go, they advised I pull my mortgage application (I was getting my mortgage w/ Quicken Loans…I’d later find out that I could have still closed, but it all happened so fast and I didn’t know it at the time). 

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Image credit: Kwaku Osei

I also learned the painful lesson that people I thought were my friends, were not really my friends. My offense? Being a young black male with a vision that worked hard to stick to it and execute on it. Of course that’s not the “official” reason lol – but let me try to briefly explain what happened. 

When Dan and I started the company, I was still doing work for him. Sooner or later I told him if we’re really going to do this thing I needed to be able to focus on it exclusively. He agreed and I carved out some office space on another floor to create some distance. The early days of the company were tough; I now better understand why corporate entrepreneurship is so hard to pull off. There was so much bureaucracy that I had to cut through – so many internal processes built for Quicken that were forced onto us – and anyone that has done a startup knows that the only thing that gives a startup a fighting chance is its ability to be agile and nimble. I wasn’t afforded that capacity as CEO early on, but I diligently fought to cut the red tape. These fights would take months and several meetings – time that I really wish I would have been able to put towards my team and the startup. But I didn’t complain – at least not much lol. This was still by far a dream come true!

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Image credit: Kwaku Osei

Fast forward and we’re making some real deal progress. Dan also has stepped up his commitment towards the venture; we land on him investing ~$2.8M into the thing to give us a real go! I’m excited as anything as you might imagine. Well, sooner than later that situation slightly changed. One of Dan’s advisors says something to the effect of “you’ve been burned before Dan, why don’t you give them some money and let’s set up some milestones and if they hit those then they get the rest of the money.” This made sense to me so I came up with the milestones and the target date, which they agreed to. Under the new agreement we would now get $1.2M with $1.7M guaranteed as long as we hit our marks

So far so good, but here’s where things get tricky for me. As part of this new agreement Dan also suggests an advisory board is put together; it would be a temporary one but so he could be fed updates along the way. This also made sense to me. The issue was the group of individuals who comprised the board were managers across the Rock Ventures Family of Companies. Only 1 person on the board, Jake Cohen, had any experience with startups. He was a gem, but was unfortunately outnumbered. Nothing against the rest of the board (with an exception of 1 person lol). They were good at their jobs, but managing a corporation and running a startup are 2 wildly different things….

As a young black male – I KNEW I had to show I was coachable. So when they provided a good amount of ill-advised guidance, I still took and implemented some of it — against my own desires. The advice I didn’t take? No one outright said it, but they treated me as if I was being stubborn or acting like I thought I was some major visionary and who’s vision they couldn’t see. In truth I just felt that I was the one working 70+ hours weekly on this business, talking to our users and prospective customers so I better understood the pain points we were solving for them and what excited them about what we were building – but what do I know lol. 

I lined up 5 major pilot partners for our product (Xerox, VCU, CCS, Triad Retail Media, and DCA). They’re excited and I’m excited. Up until then we had only been piloting within QL, but due to a series of false starts and the product not being truly useful for a good portion of us, testing within QL it wasn’t the best sandbox for us. That being said, that summer a good portion of interns expressed real excitement for what we were doing and them being fresh to the org and thus to the product made me confident…well we are getting close to finally piloting outside of QL but I’m butting heads with the board increasingly frequently, I only had 1 ally on the board, Jake Cohen, the VC guy who deals with startups for a living – go figure…  

Suddenly on September 15th – the overly arrogant perfect picture of white privilege “chair of our board” says hey Kwaku we’ve got a problem, but don’t worry we’ll figure it out…I’m like okay…?!? Days go by and the writing is on the wall some major changes are coming…despite this I try my best to focus on the company and still hit our upcoming milestone…it wouldn’t matter, Sept 22 I was escorted out by security, it was embarrassing as hell, in fact it was indecent the way that was handled but ok fine…

To this day most of the people within Rock Ventures and QL don’t know this story. 5 years later I still run into folks that say “hey, so what happened to you?” I could talk about the reason they told me I was being fired, but it wasn’t the real reason…now let me be clear and honest…was I perfect in this position, no not at all, I made plenty of mistakes, did some things that were foolish, and I was 25 at the time so I was still growing, but I will tell you despite the multi-faceted challenges I was put up against – to this day I’m proud of how I lead and how I evolved as CEO over time…

I give myself a B (an A easily for effort) and anyone that knows me knows I’m a tough grader…did I deserve this opportunity, I didn’t deserve/expect it to happen and in all honesty I probably didn’t deserve it but I thank God it was afforded to me, but I will tell you what I know for certain, I didn’t deserve being ousted in the way I was…especially because the official reason they gave me for my firing I had witnessed done in the organization several times by others without nearly the same consequence (thanks Milton Fletcher, my executive coach, for advising me to share the lesson here: As a black male, I don’t have the license to do what others might be able to…)

So let’s talk racism here

I was replaced by a nice guy (a white guy 1 year older than me I think that started at Rock Ventures same time as me) he was paid about $30k/year more than I was when he replaced me, he occupied the CEO role up until a few months ago…the company since he took it over for 4 years thereafter didn’t do a fraction of what I accomplished with the company within about 6 months with less resources etc…it looks like they are finally about to do something meaningful almost 5 years later…

Also Read: Cornerstone Partners focused on black and diverse businesses invest £170,000 in Coordinate Sport

My replacement CEO is no longer CEO, but is supposedly still with the company where he now makes clean into the 6 figures (btw if you read this please take no offense, I’m not discounting you and I think you have proven throughout your life that you are highly intelligent and highly capable and in fact I respect you) the other black leader at this company is being severely underpaid compared to the others, it’s crazy to me that this is happening given the tremendous amount of value he brings to that team…let me close on this thought – racism is when a billionaire supports me in the multiple ways he did but somehow despite that the organization still plucks me out

BTW: I am not the only person that Dan Gilbert has supported in this way, so what’s interesting to me is when I look at what others have been given the space to do vs. what my situation was it startles me – more leeway, support, and other leaders that did things that were FAR worse than my official reason for being ousted, some of them are still with the company today, those that aren’t left on their own terms (as far as I can tell anyway)

Am I complaining? 

Are you kidding me…I co-founded a company with a billionaire when I was 24! That experience gave me tremendous exposure and validation because I was doing things that people could only dream of, I was living my dream and it showed me that all of my dreams and prayers can become reality, I’ve carried that knowledge with me ever since…and I’m extremely thankful to Dan Gilbert and several leaders of Rock Ventures, too many to name but in short Angel Price, Betsy Stone, Karen, Matt Cullen, Jim Ketai, Jake Cohen, Todd Lunsford, Richard Mandell, David Carroll, Steve Ogden, Matt Rizik, Bruce Schwartz, Doug Seabolt, Matt Roling, Victor You, Sam Vida, Ross Sanders, Maria LaLonde, Leslie Andrews, Tony Nuckolls, Todd Albery, Howard Luckoff and truly countless others

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Image credit: Kwaku Osei

Final note

These days I’m thankful that I was pushed out, I may still be within that organization to this day otherwise… I had a great time there, but God works in mysterious ways, see now I’ve started businesses and I’ve failed and suffered tremendous setbacks so it’s taken a while, but in the last couple months my newest ventures have been growing INCREDIBLY. It’s truly remarkable and at times I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming (or is this a bug in the Matrix?!? Lol jk)…I am now the founder vs. co-founder and now I’m finally in control and in a position to show the world what Dan saw in me when he decided to take a bet on this young black male…

Wriiten By: Kwaku Osei, CEO at Cooperative Capital

Africa speaks

Transitional Justice: Evaluating the Importance of Reparation, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation- A South African Perspective

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Image source: Days Of The Year website

According to Benyera, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after the end of Apartheid. Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence and injustice during this time could come forward and be heard at the TRC. Further to this the perpetrators of violence would give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.

The TRC hearings made international news and many sessions were broadcast. The TRC played a crucial role in the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa and, despite some flaws, is generally regarded as very successful.

The mandate that the TRC was given was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation. The TRC  had several members which included; Archbishop Desmond Tutu (chairperson), Dr Alex Boraine (Deputy Chairperson), Mary Burton, Advocate Chris de Jager, Bongani Finca, Sisi Khampepe, Richard Lyster, Wynand Malan, Reverend Khoza Mgojo, Hlengiwe Mkhize, Dumisa Ntsebeza (head of the Investigative Unit), Wendy Orr, Advocate Denzil Potgieter, Mapule Ramashala, Dr Faizel Randera, Yasmin Sooka and Glenda Wildschut.

TRC AND RECONCILIATION ACT

TRC was set up by an Act of Parliament, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. This Act gives effect to the aim of TRC which is to:

  • make proposals for measures that will give reparation to victims of human rights violations; and
  • rehabilitate and give back the human and civil dignity of people who suffered human rights violations.

Further to this the Act also says that the Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation must endorse and provide recommendation to the President in terms of ways of assisting victims. It is the President and Parliament, and not this Committee, who will decide what to do and how to do it. The recommendations from the Committee will be in the Final Report sent to the President after the Commission has completed its work.

Therefore the role of the Committee is to make recommendations which deal with interim reparation which is for those that require immediate assistance because of the gross human rights violations they suffered.

The Act requires the President and the Ministers of Justice and Finance to establish a President’s Fund. Victims who qualify for assistance will be paid from this Fund.

The importance of reparation, reconciliation and rehabilitation can be described as  what can be done to assist victims overcome the damage that they suffered and to make sure that these human rights violations or  abuses never happen again. Although this could include money, a financial payment is not the only form of reparation and rehabilitation that the Committee recommends. The Committee looked at individuals, communities and the nation as a whole when making recommendations to achieve reparation and rehabilitation.

REPARATION

In terms of Compensation section 1 of the Promotion of National Unity Act 34 of 1995 defines reparation as any kind compensation, ex gratia payment (payment in favour of), restitution, rehabilitation or recognition which would mean that government is responsible for the payment of reparations. The (TRC report vol. 5, 1998. Ch. 5) stipulates the following five elements of the reparation and rehabilitation policy:

1. Urgent interim reparation: These reparations are more focused on individuals with urgent financial or services need and there was a small budget to facilitate it. The urgent interim reparation was the first form of monetary reparations and it was meant for approximately 17 000 victims who were in dire need of help (Daly 2003: 378).

2. Individual reparation grants: These kinds of grants were those paid to Individual victims of human rights violations for a period of six years would receive monetary reparations. These reparation grants needed to promote three goals, namely,

According to Daly 2003, it was of paramount importance to recognise the victims’ suffering and restore the victims’ individual dignity, facilitate service delivery and subsidise daily living costs.

MECHANISMS FOR RECONCILIATION

According to the Justice site, the committee on TRC had come up with guiding principles which then aided with proposals that prompt and promote reconciliation these included the following;

Development centred: A development-centred approach means that individuals and communities are helped to take control back. To take control of their own lives through the dissemination of information and the use of knowledge particularly with regard to available resources and to help them use these resources in the way that benefits them most.

Simple, Efficient and Fair: All the available resources were used in a way that would give the most benefit to the people who receive them.

Culturally Appropriate: The process of rehabilitation needed to be sensitive to the religious and cultural beliefs of the community.

Community-based: Community-based services and delivery should be strengthened and expanded. For the people by the people.

Capacity Development: Local capacity building as well as the delivery of services were addressed as part of addressing the imbalances of the past.

Promoting Healing and Reconciliation: The aim of TRC was to bring people together and to promote understanding and reconciliation.

LAND REFORM

The TRC land reform programme consisted of three components that were adopted: According to an article by Diale the components were as follows; first, the restitution of land to those that were dispossessed of land after 1913; second, redistribution to rectify the racially skewed distribution of land which was resultant of colonial and apartheid policies, and; third, tenure reform for those whose tenure was insecure because of past discriminatory laws and practices.

The Restitution of Land Rights Act, No 22 of 1994, geared the Chief Land Claims Commissioner which would oversee the Regional Land Claims Commissions, which subsequently investigate cases and take them to the Land Claims Court for settlement. Because of the slow initial rate of delivery, the Restitution Act was amended in 1999 to provide for administrative settlements of claims: the Land Claims Court which would be used only in those cases where agreement could not be reached – as in the Dukuduku land claim.

Dukuduku Land Claim case

The Dukuduku forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa is subject to one such claim to land restitution, which remains unsettled for over 10 years. The Dukuduku forest was supposed to be incorporated into the wetland park as an World Heritage Site. The forest houses many subsistence farmers, of which some form part of the group of land claimants. There is an interplay of community and authority and in so doing setting the pace of  where claims for historical redress materialises both in processes of land restitution and in the acquisition of land through ‘illegal squatting’.

Knut G, suggests that  Dukuduku forest encompasses and explores the strongly desired and well deserved restoration of lost rights to land and resources and the formalisation of these rights which then draws on both our past and the present to form a caveat with its intricately woven complexity it  defies such straightforward processes. The land claim process feeds into existing struggles and creates new ones, and in this way, the larger cause of the land claimants – to obtain recognition of property claims and land belonging – is infused by conflicts external and internal to the community of claimants.

In closing, redressing the imbalances and injustices of the past require countries to find ways of emerging from conflict and repression by addressing human rights violations. Transitional justice is entrenched in accountability and redress for victims. Ignoring massive abuses is an easy way out but it destroys the values on which any decent society can be built. Therefore the toughest balancing act must be engaged by finding a balance between the law and politics of the past and in doing so putting victims and their dignity first, it signals the way forward for a renewed commitment to make sure ordinary citizens are safe in their own countries – safe from the abuses of their own authorities and effectively protected from violations by others.

Written by: Dr. Kim Lamont-Mbawuli

 

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Sunsets and Waterfalls Book Launch: Restoring Hearts for a Better South Africa

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Sunsets and Waterfalls Founders, Cindy Jacobs and Toni Erasmus (Source: Toni Erasmus)

Being plunged straight into an unprecedented global pandemic and having been challenged with the devastating realities of our country, Sunsets and Waterfalls (S&W) saw an opportunity in realising that South Africans hold the answers to their own generational outcry. With that being said, straight out of a pandemic, Sunsets and Waterfalls (S&W) was birthed. Founded by Cindy Jacobs and Toni Erasmus, S&W is a platform for  South African women, children and families – empowering all to share their raw and real stories.

These two women have a shared vision to drive change at both grassroots and government level, where they aim to develop and impact South Africa and her leaders to restore the soul of our nation by tackling the core issues of our nation- one story and one heart at a time.

On the 1st and 2nd of May 2021, Jacobs and Erasmus launched their poetry book “Sunsets and Waterfalls”, a poetry book designed to connect and empower all people to own their raw and real stories. The book is a compilation of over 300 poetry pieces and 300 impactful line art illustrations by Carter Constant, depicting the raw and real-life events and stories of two women who have bravely overcome the traumatic experiences and enlightenment of their broken hearts.

“We need young leaders with new ideas, new approaches and empathy to effect meaningful change.” This was the view of Melene Rossouw, co-founder and director of the Women Lead Movement, speaking at Gallery South, situated in Muizenberg on Sunday, 2 May 2021 – one of the events of their weekend launch.

Young as they are, they recognise that this is not an exclusively personal and individual journey. They know that the soul of the nation, South Africa, is deeply wounded, and they seek to enable people in local communities to become active change drivers who can pursue social change at both grassroots and government levels.

“I’m really honoured to be sharing this day with both Toni and Cindy,” said Rossouw. “In my brief but deeply insightful engagement with these two exceptional leaders, I was transcended in both mind and soul,” she said. When she met them, Rossouw was immediately struck by the young women’s authenticity born of their ability to consciously explore their own wounded histories, personal and political.

“We want the entire South Africa to join in as we believe: When hearts unite, mountains move!”

Sunsets and Waterfalls is available for R295 and can be ordered online at Sunsets and Waterfalls OR email: info@sunsetsandwaterfalls.com

 

 

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Rethinking African Leadership: Right resources, wrong leaders

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African Leaders at the African Union building (Source: AU)

How possible is it that the continent with the most of the world’s natural resources, hardworking labour force and favourable climate conditions could have earned the title of being labeled poor and be reduced to beggars than those that have less resources? The scenario that Africa has created of being rich but not prosperous has presented a paradox whose puzzle needs a careful consideration to spot the missing link to enable Africa retain its rightful title, “The prosperous land of opportunity.”

Since the management of resources and the driving of the development agenda falls mainly on leaders, the attainment of real meaningful development can best be achieved when there is in place the right leaders who are selfless and put the interests of their countries and continent above their own. With many African countries having attained independence decades ago, what type of leaders should be put in place to change the African Narrative?

Development focused leaders

Over 20% of current African leaders have been in power for over 20 years and seem to have run out of ideas of what to do differently. They instead usually maintain the status quo of running affairs despite shifts in various development fundamentals. This trend has resulted in rampant corruption, political instability and economic stagnation because the leaders become preoccupied with how retain power and silence challengers at the expense of development. Most African countries are engulfed in discussing political issues and other non-development essential matters that have painted their countries black, thus affecting local investor confidence. For a country to be able to produce enough for exports, it must be able to focus on producing more than local demand and create a suitable environment for the each sector to thrive.

However, African countries have focused their efforts on political issues and planning how to win the next election instead of what milestone to achieve. This derails efforts to work towards real development. African countries have nicely drawn up development plans with well elaborated visions and objectives but the challenge has been implementation. Therefore, Africa needs leaders who are focused and determined to develop it.

Local solution believers

Speaking at the UN general Assembly in 1984, former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara argued that „it was time for men of Africa to come to their senses and turn to their societies to develop solutions that will be credible even at the international level. Leaders must carry out profound changes so that they free themselves from the foreign domination and exploitation that lead only to failure of the countries.‟ Africa needs leaders who believe in local solutions and will advocate advancing these solutions. Not leaders who always parade problems before advanced countries, seeking for aid and solutions like beggars who are helpless.

Statistics have shown that, while Africa receives help in various sectors, it loses more. The Health Poverty Action report research found that while about $134 billion flows in Africa in each year largely in form of loans, foreign investment and aid, over $192 billion is taken out in profits made by foreign companies, tax evasion and in costs of adapting to climate change which results into a net loss of about $58 billion annually. For how long will African leaders seek foreign help when they can believe and try local solutions suggested by their people? It is interesting to note that while it is the responsibility of leaders to improve the living conditions of their people and provide better health facilities, a number of African leaders would rather seek medical care from advanced countries.

Unsurprisingly, a number of African leaders have died in foreign countries while seeking treatment and this point to the fact that they do not believe in their medical facilities. Africa needs leaders who will eat, drink, work, rejoice and face problems together with their people and make a difference together. It is not enough to build hospitals that leaders themselves fail to go to or have schools which they cannot send their children. Therefore, Africa needs leaders who will inspire confidence in their people and be open to listen and support local solutions.

Accommodative leaders

The leaders that Africa needed at the time of independence achieved their aspirations and gained the freedom that they sought. But times and challenges have since changed and African problems are no longer about seeking independence and therefore, Africa needs leaders that can read the time and accommodate change. The problem of having long serving leaders has been that they want to use the development mechanisms that worked decades ago and apply it in today’s world. Knowledge and technology have advanced; populations have grown and therefore needs have increased and changed. Africa needs leaders who will collaborate to develop it.

The ideal African leader is one that will upscale the interests of Africa first and work with others to maximise the African potential in trade, resources and prosperity. What is worrying about Africa is the fact that it trades more with countries outside the continent than among member countries. The share of exports from Africa with the rest of the world ranged from 80 – 90% for the period 2000 to 2017 (Economic Development in Africa Report, 2019) while intra Africa exports averaged only 16.6%. To boost economic fortunes, leaders must support the Africa Continental Free Trade Area with a view of working together in solving local problems.

Africa also needs leaders who accommodate the views of the youths who are creative, energetic, and innovative and not view them as a threat. Youths are usually updated with latest changes that should be incorporated in the development matrix of today’s world and therefore, they should not be side-lined with an out-dated proverb “youths are the leaders of tomorrow” when the future and tomorrow is now.

Indeed, despite the abundant availability of needed resources for development, Africa’s current situation can largely be blamed on leaders it has had. Leadership mindset change is therefore needed now than ever before.

Written by: Nchimunya Muvwende, an Economist

 

 

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