[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ank Williams passed away on November 15, 2015. I was currently in Jamaica for Global Entrepreneurship week speaking to entrepreneurs, community leaders, government officials, and investors about how Jamaica can grow their startup ecosystem. A Facebook friend message me and said “Did I hear about Hank?” I knew Platform Summit had passed and my heart immediately sunk. I texted Hajj Flemings to see what he knew. Then I checked Hank’s Facebook profile and his family confirmed Hank had passed away.
I couldn’t believe it. Hank was a friend and mentor. After the news started making it rounds via social media a couple of other friends and I started texting each other. One was Robert Murray. Both of us was surprised by Hank’s passing. Robert had summed up how I was feeling and why Hank’s passing had hit so hard for many of us in tech, especially if you were Black in Tech. Robert’s text said “Hank was one of us!”. Meaning for some of us old school tech heads, we were there before tech was a mainstream and before diversity in tech was even a public conversation. Most of us could all relate with Hank and had be proud of his success over the years. We all knew Hank’s story from Hank being a tech founder where he raised $40 million in venture capital funding for ClickRadio, to blogger/writer, to husband, father and advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech. We wanted to be like Hank. Hank I didn’t talk everyday or every month. He was on my mentor’s list and we shared some great experiences together over the years.
I first learn of Hank Williams after seeing his post on Business Insider about startups, entrepreneurship and venture capital in 2008. Which was syndicated from his blog Why does everything suck?. Hank was the first black “tech blogger” I ever saw. I was in North Carolina at the time and tech blogs were still vaguely knew but gaining traction. I believe I looked Hank up and reached out via Twitter and started following him. Back in those days there were very view blacks on Twitter and good luck finding more in tech but we all knew each other. People like Hank, Corvida Raven, Lynn D Johnson and Baratunde Thurston.
2008 was also a year of video blogging started to take off. It was also the year where Loren Feldman created a series of controversial videos but still received a partnership with Verizon. Many black people in the tech community wasn’t happy about it and protested via social media and their blogs. Keep in mind this was pre hashtags and before #blacktwitter was a thing. Corvida and I hosted a live video show and talked about Loren’s partnership and we received tons of racist and abusive comments in the chat room. A couple of tech bloggers wrote about it such as Louis Gray and Hank wrote a great post called “The 2008 Definition of Racism“.
To suggest that the right thing to do is to be silent in the face of racist words, or worse, to suggest that not being silent, or that protesting or boycotting or threatening boycotts is wrong, is to wipe away and invalidate what, for me, is the part of American history that has made my life possible, that is, peaceful protest
Hank was not only a great writer but he stood for what’s right and he let the world know what was wrong through his writing. I was inspired and grateful for his post. I was inspired by his strong voice and tone and from that point on I always looked up to Hank and kept following his post on Business Insider.
Hank and I first met in person at SXSW in Austin, TX. I can’t remember what year but my first SXSW was 2009. It was either 2009 or 2010 or 2011. Little did I know that SXSW would play a major role in my life and building a relationship with Hank.
In March 2011 at SXSW, a group of us were hanging out in the Hilton Hotel lobby late one night. It was our thing to do. You saw everybody pass through the lobby. Among the group was Justin Dawkins, Andre Barnes, Terrance Gaines, Hajj Flemings, Hank Williams and I. We would see Kyle Wild work on his startup he was doing for Startup Bus while he was in Hilton lobby. I asked Kyle about what he was working on and that led to a conversation among Justin, Andre, Terrance, Hajj, Hank and myself. I said why are we not working on a startup or building something? Justin and Andre were developers and designers, Terrance was a blogger and good at business development, Hajj was new to startups but great at branding, I was a tech guy and had done a couple of startups already and Hank was what we called “Big money man” as he had raised $40 million before. That night we came up with an idea called GoKit. It was like about.me on steroids. Gokit’s tagline was “Capturing and sharing life experiences through personas.“. We left the Hilton lobby that night and went to a restaurant and fleshed out the details. By the night was over we stayed up to about 2:00am or 4:00am and had a landing page for Gokit up the next day. The six of us was featured in a Black Enterprise article,”Diverse Startups Connect at SXSW Technology Conference.
That SXSW was a special one. Angela Benton and I had the idea for a startup house which lead to the NewME Accelerator in Silicon Valley. I’m honestly not sure if we didn’t work on Gokit at that 2011 SXSW, NewMe accelerator may have never happen and I wouldn’t have gotten to chance to learn more from Hank.
After March 2011, that’s when everything changed for me. Angela and I raised sponsorship for NewME, CNN contacted us to be filmed in the CNN documentary Black In America 4 with Soledad O’brien. I moved to Mountain View for four months. As for Gokit we had bi-weekly weekend calls to launch the platform. It took Gokit a year to finally launch and Hank stepped back to be an advisor as he started working on a new startup KloudCo. I had asked Hank if he would be one of the startups in NewMe with KloudCo and he said yes. From March to June Hank advised us on Gokit and had many questions about how NewMe was going to work being it was going to be eight of us living under one roof.
Hank’s had more experience than any of us while we worked on Gokit and I remember how he pushed us to execute and questioned if we were serious in launching the platform.
When day one of NewMe started for the founders Angela and I had arrived a couple of day early to set prepare for the accelerator. Hank was the first one there. Hank wanted to get the best room available. He did. He picked the outside room all to himself. Throughout the three months in Mountain View for NewMe Hank kept it very real. He questioned us all, there was a lot of questionable moments about everything but one thing was for sure was that Hank was a leader and he kept us all reminded why what we were doing was important and what was at risk with the success, failure and perception of being black and in tech, how NewME should work and the impact it would have not just for tech culture but for everyone looking at black people on TV working on startups. During the time we lived together Hajj and I learned a lot about Hank. How he liked “high quality experiences” and we would joke with Hank about how raised $40 million dollars but didn’t launch. Still Hank was like… I raised $40 what did you raise. It was all in good fun.
When the CNN document aired, never before did you see you black people working on tech startups on national TV and talking about race diversity in tech. Hank had one of the best sound bites leading up to the documentary. “Silicon Valley, is very very white”. We all would laugh because that was Hank being Hank. Just as he would do in his writing, he was in person; vocal, honest and to the point.
Hank and I was on a panel together in Baltimore, MD when the Black In America 4 documentary aired.
In February 2012 I was asked to attend TED in long beach and Hank was in attendance too. Hank was already working his next project… Platform. We talked about his vision and again, I was impressed. Hank was always a step ahead of everyone else. While at TED, I joined Hank in a couple of meetings with potential partners and I was just soaking up his wisdom and watched as he pitched his vision for Platform.
In March of 2012, Hank had organized the SXSW panel “CNN’s Black in America / Silicon Valley: Aftermath” Panel with Soledad O’brien producer/host, Jason Samuels, producer, Hajj Flemmings and myself. That year Hank, Hajj and I shared at hotel room for SXSW. The three of us talked about how life’s changed so much and what’re going to do now the the documentary had aired.
After SXSW 2012, Hank shared with me a google doc of his first outline of Platform with names like David Drummond, Quincy Jones and Malcolm Gladwell. I was like wow! Hank is going big time. He also asked if I could make a couple of intros and vouch for him to some key sponsors like Google For Entrepreneurs. I did both… anything for Hank.
The rest of 2012 was emotionally challenging for me as I had moved from North Carolina to San Francisco and was making other life and relationships adjustments. I had a couple of calls with Hank throughout the year asking for advice which he provided. Then it was time for the first Platform in 2013. Hank and I hadn’t talked in a while and he asked if I could run social media for Platform. I really wasn’t in a mental state and position where I could fly to Platform’s inaugural event at M.I.T. Something I truly regret to this date… I’m sorry Hank. Still Platform was a success and Hank was still leading.
I can’t remember if I saw Hank at SXSW 2014, but Hank and I talked again at SXSW 2015. We both attended a dinner and walked outside the new Austin Marriott and caught up. We talked about our projects and his plans to grow Platform to make it more impactful for the attendees after they leave Platform. The last time I saw Hank in person was at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push PushTech 2020 summit in San Francisco. Hank was being Hank, having meetings in the corner and networking. Hank and I talked briefly about his goals for Platform in 2015. He said he was finally going to get Google’s David Drummond to speak at Platform. In October 2015, Hank was interviewing David Drummond.
As I look back I regret not communicating more with Hank over the years but Hank was always commuting to us, by leading and being a role model. Often when we talk about startups or the next mark Zuckerberg I would say we don’t need more Mark Zuckerberg but more Omar Wasow who founded Black Planet. We also need more Hank Williams too. In tech we don’t give Hank enough credit for the work and impact he made in so many lives, especially my own. I didn’t give Hank enough credit, I didn’t say thank you enough.
Hank, you are missed and thank you!
This information was being shared how to support Hank’s Legacy and his family.
Hank Williams Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 43385, Montclair, NJ 07043.
Contributions for the education of his daughter: Imani Williams, c/o Garden State Community Bank, 597 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043.”