What Do the Innovation Economy and Black Boys Have to Offer Each Other? [Podcast]

Most Black boys speak one language – and it’s not the language of innovation.

In fact, the few who stumble upon opportunities in tech, do so accidentally. Despite the fact that an African-American man heads Microsoft – the icon of technology – and yet another sits as Commander-in-Chief, still Black boys as a whole have missed the bus and are conspicuously absent at the starting line of a high-wage, tech-based workforce in America.

Award winning journalist and co-founder of the America21 Project, Mike Green, shares why Black boys must be exposed to STEM education, if they are to learn the language of innovation and thus gain access to high-growth, high-income entrepreneurial opportunities in this country.

Q:  Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a nationally known STEM proponent?


Mike Green

A: My mother found out I had a propensity for math and science and, in 8th grade, she sent me to a science and math institute during the summers. That experience helped undergird my college years and perspective of society.

After college I joined the navy as a propulsion engineer, which helped me with my critical thinking skills. Then I became a recruiter, journalist, newsroom editor, political pundit, award-winning columnist, and a digital media innovation strategist.

I helped lead digital media experiments at Dow Jones, then went into technology entrepreneurship in 3-D technology. Next I was involved in raising money—access to capital, private financing, VCs, etc., and wrote the series, “The Innovation Crisis in Black America.”

Since 2010 my life’s work is the America 21 Project, and I have become a national authority on inclusive competitiveness in technology entrepreneurship and STEM education.

Q: How can STEM be tied to health IT, and how does this connection impact health outcomes in the U.S.?

A: A STEM education is the entry point to a tech-based, high-wage work force in America and a tech-driven, high-growth entrepreneurial landscape. That’s where wealth is created. That’s the basic foundation, the entry point. Without it you’ve eliminated a vast opportunity to be part of the growth in this country.

STEM education, especially when it comes to health, helps undergird the knowledge and foundation that is driving technology in the health sector, one of the fastest growing industries in the country. The health sector represents about 25% of all investment in any kind of company; it’s where the job opportunities are; it’s where the infrastructure is that helps our hospitals and R & D landscape. If you don’t have a STEM education, you eliminate the opportunities to be part of one of the fastest growing industries.

Q: What is the relationship between STEM and many of the health IT incubators emerging?

A:  Whether it’s the technology that doctors are using, the streamlining of paper records, the sharing of information between practitioners, or the various devices that we use, it’s all built upon the framework of knowledge from engineering, software, etc. These technology advances are coming from the groundwork of a STEM education.

Q: How can we get more students of color to connect with these opportunities in STEM and to be connected with these incubators?

A: Start ups are the number one arena where job growth is happening in the country. Incubators and accelerators are helping to drive the success of these start ups. So getting our black boys into these channels is difficult if they don’t have a solid background steeped in STEM education.

A STEM education can equip youth with the ability to use their creativity and critical thinking skills to come up with new innovations that help to solve big problems in our nation. We have to tap into that knowledge network. For generations, high-poverty schools have created low achievement outcomes, and have been very slow to adopt STEM education. These schools have also been slow to understand their role as the pipeline for the innovators.

Ultimately it’s up to the parents to make sure their children are enrolled in the right courses, are enrolled in a trajectory course curriculum, and are in advanced placement (AP) courses.

I believe our young boys are capable of playing any game, and they will dominate in that game. We have not taught young boys to leverage their competitive intelligence in the games of economics, research and development, policy making, and finance. Our kids are not being taught how to play the game of economics.

Consequently, while we have the capability to compete, we are not competing in the area of economic competitiveness. One hundred years after the Civil War, we only produce less than one percent of the GDP and that’s a travesty.

Q:  Is that travesty related to the lack of education in STEM?

A:  We’re in a technology-driven era, and start ups are the essential part of job growth and wealth creation. We have to be connected to the networks of knowledge that tell us where the high-growth sectors are. We are completely outside of the knowledge networks. I want to fix that.

Q: So, let’s talk about the America 21 Project. What is your mission and what are you doing to address this problem?

A: Our mission is threefold:

  1. Change the economic narrative across Blacks and Hispanics in urban America,
  2. Promote inclusive competitiveness as the economic imperative and a 21st century vision for a multicultural America, and
  3. Connect economically-disconnected communities to their local innovation ecosystems.

So that in our barber shops, our beauty salons, and in our restaurants, we are talking about economics and our local innovation eco-systems. We’re not part of the conversation.

Q: What do you mean by inclusive competitiveness?

A:  It’s the term used by the world economic forum, the national policy agenda, EDA, and every regional development organization to define what their region is focusing on. While it is exclusive of black and brown communities, it should be inclusive. But it is our responsibility to demonstrate that we have the ability to compete and that our children have the ability to be innovators and provide value in the innovation economy.

So, inclusive competitiveness defines our strategy our vision. But there is no collective vision or common strategy, so it’s up to us [people of color] to adopt and promote one.

It is being applied in Ohio. Johnathan Holifield is the Vice President of Inclusive Competitiveness at Nortech, a regional technology-based economic development organization in Cleveland, Ohio. Holifield is considered the “father of inclusive competitiveness” as well as being a co-founder of the America 21 Project. He is the only man in America with that title, and is leading Ohio to adopt inclusive competitiveness strategies. A report called “Fusion of Inclusion” studied the region to see where the gaps in inclusion are and to scale up the value.

Inclusive competitiveness is an urban blind spot for most of the nation. Along with connecting, it’s also the vision of scaling, and includes all those communities that heretofore were disconnected. With it, it’s possible to know where to place investments.

Q: Why don’t Black communities know about Holifield?

A: Black journalists in mainstream media are out of the knowledge loop about the innovation economy. Neither are our Congressional Black Caucus elected leaders actively engaged in supporting the President’s innovation agenda. So we are not getting it via the press, the elected leaders, from our preachers and teachers, or from community leaders. We are completely disconnected from the very high level activity that is occurring around economic competiveness.

My group is connected deeply with the leadership from the White House to Silicon Valley. We are trying to broker the relationship with black America in order to change the economic narrative so that we have an understanding of how the economy works and how we can participate in it. We are leading the efforts to produce “My Brother’s Keepers” town halls across the nation. However, the support and resources are coming from the majority community.

Q: If community leaders don’t understand what’s going on in the innovation economy, then how are communities supposed to know and what needs to happen in order to change this trajectory?

A: Our efforts initially were to educate the leaders, but we were met with some rejection. We have to get this information to the masses, so we are doing workarounds to get directly to the masses.

In his launch of the “My Brothers’ Keepers” initiative, the President challenged black leaders to convene and come up with ways to empower our black boys and connect them with economic opportunity. The goal is to start the conversation about how to empower and connectBlack boys to the resources of this country and to leverage their creative skills to increase the economic competitiveness of the country.

Q:  What happens when young Black boys attend events, such as Lockheed Martin’s 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival?

A:  Exposing our children to information technology and to things that excite and stimulate their creativity should be intentional, deliberate, and in the DNA of our education system. Hackathons and competitions around robotics are part of that exposure.

My role is to bring the leaders to the festival and have one of the town halls to talk about what it takes to empower our youth, to expose them to what they need and give them the education they need through STEM.

Q:  Tell us about what Van Jones did at the start up weekend in Oakland, Rebuild the Dream?

A: Van Jones is teaming up with “Yes We Code” and a number of other minority groups with the same goal of teaching young minority youth how to code.

The goal: To teach 100,000 young people how to code in the next 12 months. Together, these organizations will be joining with the Essence Festival in July and will be involved with the “Yes We Code” Tech Village to draw national attention to this resource. Tech Village is being built to educate and expose youth to the coding atmosphere and learn how much fun they can have, and to leverage and use their creativity.

We will also be doing a “My Brother’s Keeper” mini-town hall there.

Finally, the HCBU ICE (Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship) is aligning themselves with others in Silicon Valley to create a common strategy for ICE— to create a movement.

Q: Can you share one thing that either bothers you or that you can brag on regarding the direction that STEM education is going in this country?

A: I am very excited about the opportunity for exponential growth and impact. It’s an opportunity for our people to go from a deficit situation to a positive situation in a single generation.

What bothers me is that we have legacy infrastructure, i.e. civil rights organizations, churches, schools, etc., that are completely disconnected from this innovation activity.  That is a travesty because all it takes is a decision.

Q:  What is the best way to connect with you?

A: My website is blackinnovation.org. The America 21 and the Scale Up websites will be up soon or email me at mike@blackinnovation.org


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