Black History Month is always a month that I find quite emotional due to my own heritage and the many documentaries on TV during the month. The images that impact me the most are those of the desegregation of schools. My father is African American and he only attended segregated schools. My father told me that everything in his school was a hand me down from the white’s only schools. The school was so poorly funded that he drove the school bus his senior year in high school.
Not that long ago
The reality of segregation is only one generation ago for me. Sometimes it is hard to imagine that my father never sat next to a white person in school because the law of the United States forbid it. When I see the documentaries about desegregation, I realize again, viscerally, how recently this all happened. What I find most disturbing is the footage of young African American children being escorted by armed National Guards or US Marshals into a school. In some cases, it is literally elementary age children. These small children suffered insults, people spitting on them, and a level of fear I will never know or understand. The children and their parents endured insults and threats so that everyone with brown skin could go to school.
They paid the price to be the first
These children and their families are the definition of integrity and commitment. They chose to be the first. They were there because of the color of their skin. The small children that integrated schools had no control over what people thought of them. They had nothing to apologize for and were not responsible for the racism directed toward them.
By walking past all the hate and threats, they forced the United States to honor its commitment to equality and the principles of our democracy. What they achieved changed America and the world.
Yet I often see the term “token” used to degrade those who subject themselves to being the first. Were these children mere tokens, so few that they didn’t really matter? No. Clearly, they mattered—both to the people who were so vehemently protesting and to those who took courage from their actions.
I am a token
I once had a former colleague tell me, “You are a token.” He said that my company only hired me because of the color of my skin. At first, I was offended and hurt by his statements.
But no longer: I am a token. By which I mean: I am among the first. Somebody has to be first whether you are integrating a school or a lunch counter, sitting at the front of the bus, or serving as the first woman on the Supreme Court. It has to be done.
So go ahead and call me “token.” I am not responsible for your racism. If you assume I am unqualified because of the color of my skin, my gender, my ability, or another status—I am not responsible for your bigotry and racism.
Stop doing the work of the bigot or racist—and be first
If we begin to say “no” to opportunities because we are afraid of what others might think or that we might be a token… we are taking racism and bigotry to its highest level. This means you are more concerned about the thoughts of the racist or bigot then you are about making change. That bigots and racists have you doing their work for them.
The bigot no longer has to threaten violence or stand in front of the schoolhouse, because you have made what they think of you the highest priority.
You may be afraid that some people will think your opportunity arrived just because of the color of your skin or your gender. The fact is, you cannot change your race, gender, or other status, so bigots will think you are unqualified regardless of what job you have or where you stand.
Stop valuing the opinions of the racists and bigots. Do not be deterred by the label “token.” Be the first—even if that means, for a time, being the only.
Honoring the legacy
Someone has to be first. There will be those who say you only got the job because you are Black, because you are a woman, or for some other reason connected to your identity. You have no control over what people think of you and you are not responsible for their bigotry.
Be the first, be the token.
I no longer worry if others think I am here because of the color of my skin. I no longer concern myself with if others think I am qualified. As I will make a change, I will speak truth to power, and I will be a token. Those small children escorted by armed National Guards opened the door, and I will walk through. You can doubt me because of the color of my skin, my gender, my ability—and assume I am less. Call me a token. Your negative assumptions of my qualifications or ability only reflect your racism, sexism, or other -ism.
I am not responsible for your bigotry. I will honor those small children that desegregated schools and I will be the first. I am a token.
Our journey to fill the role of VP of I&D at Techstars has taken a number of years, but some of the most enlightening moments came from interviewing the fantastic dozen or so finalists we lined up for the position.
One of those moments came in a discussion of the importance of inclusion in any D&I initiative. It was like a lightbulb went off for me. Inclusion was a word that felt true to what I wanted for Techstars and our portfolio.
I grew up in Montreal, Canada, a society where inclusion was celebrated. We learned in high school that Canada was a cultural mosaic – a country made up of many cultures – and the differences between the cultures were to be celebrated.
We would go to the various neighborhoods in Montreal, the Greek neighborhood, the Chinese neighborhood, the Jewish neighborhood, and more. Not just to eat at the restaurants (although we did that too), but to experience the life and culture of as many different people as possible.
That was life in Canada, we accepted everyone. We had a gay prime minister and it wasn’t even a news story. I can’t imagine that in the United States. One of my favorite stories involves of one of my oldest friends, Louis (hi, Louis!). He was the first of my friends to meet a girl and settle down. It has been one of the great love affairs of all time, and 30 year later, when their kids moved out of the house, was when they decided that maybe they should celebrate by getting married. It never mattered there, but it sure would here.
So that inspired me to change the title of the role we were looking to fill here at Techstars from Diversity & Inclusion to Inclusion & Diversity. It’s not my original idea – it’s been done before. But I thought it might cause us to pause a bit and ask why. It would give me the chance to tell my story on why the word “inclusion” resonated with me.
Diversity is important, but will be a wasted effort if you don’t allow people to bring their whole self to work, whatever that might be. Creating an inclusive work environment will bring more diversity to your organization.
Welcome Jason Thompson to Techstars
To continue with our initiative, we are excited to announce that Techstars has hired Jason Thompson as our new VP of I&D. Jason has had a long career in Diversity and Inclusion, most recently with the US Olympic Committee.
Jason has developed award winning D&I programs for sports organizations, healthcare and higher education. In 2016, the D&I Scorecard Jason developed to measure diversity for the National Governing Bodies within the US Olympic Movement was recognized as the number one innovation at the 13th Annual International Innovation in Diversity Award by the Profiles in Diversity Journal.
We made public our commitment to diversity as part of our attendance at the White House demo day event three years ago, but we started on our initiatives well before that.
Techstars has both implemented and learned a lot over this time period. We have tried many things, some have worked and some haven’t, at least not yet. But what has remained unchanged is our commitment to creating an inclusive and diverse environment, and to serve as a role model to others.
Jason, we’re happy to have you on this journey with us.
Following a tour across Europe that covered 21 countries and after meeting with hundreds of amazing entrepreneurs, we have narrowed the field to 11 companies that are joining us for the Techstars London Accelerator class of 2017.
The sixth Techstars London program kicks off this week, and we are proud to have seven of the 11 companies led by female CEOs.
We are looking forward to three months of intense and productive times (mixed in with a little fun!), capped off by Demo Day on October 11th.
The sectors our companies work in are broad – from project management, natural vitamin rich shots and fashion, to clinical trials, mobile app marketing and banking.
Techstars is the Worldwide Network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, and strong partners and mentors help make this happen. We’re grateful for their support, their time and their guidance. We couldn’t do it without them.
Here are the Techstars London Accelerator 2017 companies:
Coconut: Coconut is the bank account for freelancers and self-employed people that tells you how much tax to save, sorts out your expenses and helps you get paid on time.
FindMeCure: FindMeCure is the platform that helps people all around the world to find, understand and join treatments that are still not publicly available.
Hurree: Hurree is designed for marketers & developers trying to make their app a success.
Lifebit: Lifebit is enabling breakthroughs in Science, R&D & Medicine, by connecting & delivering the operating systems of genomics that power computers, clusters & clouds to effectively analyze big biodata.
Live2Leave: Live2Leave is a travel app where you can record your favorite spots and get recommendations from people you know.
Nell: Nell are 100 percent natural vitamin rich shots designed to fill the nutritional gap for busy people.
ObjectBox: ObjectBox is the fastest mobile database on the market.
Planable: Planable is the fastest way for marketing teams to work together on social media content.
Polydone: Polydone brings Agile project management & resources management to the Enterprise.
Stylindex: Stylindex is a visual database of talent and production resources creating commercial content for the fashion industry.
Toneboard: Toneboard is a voice audio analytics company that is helping companies understand the needs of their customers and predict their behaviour.