During President Obama eight years of being President of the United States of America I had the opportunity to visit the White House three times. Each time was related to work I’ve been doing to create a diverse and inclusive tech culture. But the journey began eight years ago.
Like many African-Americans before my generation if you would have told me I would see a black president in my lifetime I would not have believed you. Growing up as a black man from a small town, Teachey, NC with a population of 200, if you would have told me I would visit the White House not once but three times in two years for work, I would not have believed you. For many African-Americans before the 1990s policies and government was not on our radar as a career path. I never felt politics was for me or my race growing up. I never felt government truly worked to serve the best interest for African-Americans. I remember my family saying many times, “that’s not my president” during the Reagan, Bush era.
Fast forward to 2008 with a message of Hope. A message of “Yes We Can,” and “Change We Can Belive in” the world saw the impossible. A black man becomes the most powerful man in the world as President of the United States of America. I have a son who’s five, young nieces and nephews and that’s all they know, President Barack Obama. If we are honest, many people hated having President Obama as president. Not because he’s a bad man, not because he’s overqualified, not because he saved America from the worst financial crisis since the great depression. Not because he help end multiple wars. Not because he provide healthcare for millions of Americans. No, people hated President Obama because he was a black man, like me.
From 2007 – 2008, I was working at the NBC17 TV station in Raleigh, NC. During that time, then Senator Obama and soon to be First Lady Michelle Obama was campaigning for the office of the White House. I had the opportunity to attend three campaign events. Two for President Obama and one by First Lady Michelle Obama. I briefly met First Lady Michelle Obama with my press pass. I was live tweeting and streaming their town hall campaign speeches. I remember shaking President Obama hand during one of his campaign stops in NC. His message in 2008 was “Yes We Can.” I believed him. I felt we could make a difference in not only America but the world. I believed if we wanted to change as Americans, as humans and work together to create political change for the betterment for all, we could.
In 2009, for President Obama’s inauguration, I knew there was one place I needed to be; Washington DC. My younger sister Janet Sutton who’s a photojournalist for the Kinston Free Press and I decided to make the trip from North Carolina to Washington, DC for the historic occasion. I held a tweetup in DC too. It was cold but worth it. There were thousands of people celebrating. Even though it was cold, hope was in the air. We didn’t arrive early enough to see the inauguration in person, but it didn’t matter. My sister and I gathered around radios and TVs to see the inauguration with strangers. We cried, we celebrated, we walked the streets with other proud Americans. My sister won an NC Press award for her coverage of the inauguration.
During President Obama first term, my career in tech continued to evolve from News/Tech media to startup founder in NC, to co-founder the NewME Startup accelerator in Silicon Valley in 2011. During President Obama first term I had several conversations with the Startup America team. President Obama new startups and entrepreneurship was part of the solutions to keep America as a leader in innovation and technology. Therefore President Obama launched the Startup America program. Startup America was a “White House initiative that was launched to celebrate, inspire, and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the nation.” I reached out the Startup America team to host a couple of events and provide early feedback on how the government could assist to create more diverse startup founders. I also tried to get hired by Startup America team in 2012 to work on increasing outreach to diverse entrepreneurs in cities across America. I was disappointed to hear Startup America funding was cut for President Obama’s second term. Still, I kept my relationships with several members of the Startup America team. I’m proud to call them friends today and see their growth over the years in new ventures.
During President Obama’s second term I noticed a new trend from tech careers to the White House. I noticed more tech colleagues do fellowships in government. President Obama made it cool to work in government. Not just cool for black people but everyone, especially “techies.” New or outdated government departments started evolving such as the office of Chief Technology Officer role (first term) and The United States Digital Service (USDS).
In 2015, during a USDS recruiting event at SalesForce in San Francisco, I met Jennifer Anastasoff of USDS and Dr. Marvin D. Carr, Policy Advisor, White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Meeting both Jennifer and Dr. Carr became invaluable for future opportunities to collaborate with various members of the Obama Administration USDS team.
After tech companies started to release their diversity in tech reports in 2014, Melinda Epler and I participated in multiple workshops and roundtable conversations with Megan Smith, the White House CTO on increasing diversity in Tech. During the first (2015) Tech Inclusion Conference held at Galvanize, we organized a policy panel which featured Dr. Marvin D. Carr, Policy Advisor, White House OSTP, Terah Lyons, Confidential Assistant, White House, OSTP, and Velvet D Johnson, Presidential Appointee, U.S. Department of Defense.
In 2011, While being filmed for the CNN Black In America documentary, I had told my friend Hajj Flemings that I was going to “make it to the White House.” I didn’t know how or have a plan at that moment, but I knew I was going to get there. In August 2015 the dream became a reality. I was asked to attend the White House first ever demo day.
The White House Demo day focused on showcasing and showing the need to support diverse entrepreneurs. It was a dream come true. Not only to visit the White House but to see President Obama speak in person at the White House. President Obama also spoke the words I’ve been saying for years. He talked about the lack of venture capital for women and underrepresented tech founders, how the tech industry is not a meritocracy and how America must support all entrepreneurs. Again, President Obama was giving me hope. Hope to keep working towards an inclusive tech culture.
As we entered the last year of President Obama’s term, a sad reality set in my soul. My President who has inspired me over the last nine years was leaving. The reality didn’t hit me until November 8th, 2016 but throughout 2016 Melinda and I continued to communicate with members of the USDS and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Megan Smith, the White House CTO, spoke at our Austin Tech Inclusion event. While planning our 2016 New York Tech Inclusion conference, Melinda contacted various members of the USDS about speaking again. The USDS gladly accepted. Members of the Obama Administration speaking were: Jennifer Anastasoff, U.S. Digital Service, Lisa Gelobter, Chief Digital Service Officer, U.S. Dept of Education, USDS and Ruthe Farmer, Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion, USDS.
When the SXSW and the White House announced South By South Lawn (SXSL), I knew I had to be there. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long to know if I would be on the list, as the same day it was announced, I received an invite to attend SXSL. SXSL was beyond special. It’s one of those events that’s hard to put into words how it felt to be there. I came, I saw, I took photos, I saw the President speak from the front row. I didn’t leave the White House that night on the south lawn until secret service kicked me out.
Additionally, I was asked to participate in a congressional roundtable to discuss the lack of diversity in tech on behalf of Congressman Bobby Scott. The panel was five days before SXSL. I scheduled a ten day trip to Washington, DC where I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Before SXSL Leslie Miley and I attended a USDS open house where we met with Jennifer Anastasoff, U.S. Digital Service. There we discussed end of the year opportunities to have one more roundtable about diversity in tech before the Obama administration comes to a close. That conversation evolved to a gathering at the 2016 San Francisco Tech Inclusion conference with several heads of diversity and inclusion officers and advocates from leading tech companies participated. Additionally Melinda & I tried really hard to have First Lady Michelle Obama speak at Tech Inclusion 2016. She couldn’t make it be we did receive an official letter from the First Lady
Two weeks after the November 8th, 2016 election Melinda and I traveled to DC to participated in two events. One was the White House diversity government summit, and the other was a diversity in tech roundtable. Afterward, Melinda and I had the opportunity for an evening tour of the White House West Wing. It was truly a special moment for both of us, especially since Melinda used to work on the West Wing TV show. This trip felt like we were saying one final goodbye. One last trip to the White House before President Obama leaves. We visited the oval office room, the press room and stood outside the situation room.
During the November trip, we met with several government departments about their plans during the next administration. The standard response was, “I don’t’ know, take a break, and then figure it out.” Everyone was still in shock with the outcome of the election.
Personally, I was devastated, and I am still emotionally devastated. For the last nine years. I knew the President of the United States was President Obama. A man of dignity and integrity. A man who cared about what’s best for the future of all Americans. A man who also is connected to the tech industry and wants to see a diverse and inclusive tech industry.
Over the last two years, I went from the impossible to the possible. Attending multiple events at the White House, speaking on a congressional panel and working with various government departments all connected to my life’s work. None of that would have happened if it wasn’t’ for President Obama.
Before my list trip to the White House, I was able to tell my five-year-old son I was going to the White House. It wasn’t just about going to the White House; it was about going to the White House while President Obama was still in office. A message that my generation of African-Americans or my parent’s generation or their parents would have never thought was possible. Today my son knows it’s possible for him to become President one day or work in government if he chooses.
Today is President’s Obama last day in office. January 19, 2017. President Obama has changed my life, mindset and motivated me to dream higher. President Obama made me for the first time in my life proud to be an American. He inspired me to hope. I’m a better person because I was able to live to see a black man like me become President of the United States of America. America is better because President Obama gave us hope.