Celebrating Black History Month by Celebrating the Power (and Privilege) of Storytelling

He (and I use that pronoun intentionally) who tells the story owns the narrative. And the fact is, history has largely been written by men, for men. White men. It’s a truth we, at the Case Foundation, confronted directly and are trying to change through our #FacesofFounders campaign, as it pertains to entrepreneurs. The power of storytelling to document history, make lasting impressions and, in fact, set our default images is profound. And therefore, we need to disrupt the status quo of who tells the stories, about whom the stories are told, the images we assign to entire categories of people and, in doing so, directly confront our biases and work hard—with intention—to change them.

As we researched and designed our inclusive entrepreneurship movement, seeking to democratize entrepreneurship to people and places being left behind or out of business startup opportunities in America, we landed on three important roadblocks: access to social capital (mentorships, networks, accelerators); access to financial capital; and access to something we called “inspirational capital”—their inclusion in media stories, popular images of entrepreneurs or stories of entrepreneurship. Our #FacesofFounders campaign was a direct response to aggressively bust the myth that there weren’t already successful entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs, as well as to inspire the next generation of talent required to drive America forward.

Key to driving that campaign forward was to confront the biases that exist in America, to understand that storytelling and images have played a huge role in reinforcing those biases and to use the power of storytelling, and a set of modernized images, to change that dynamic. We put that power to work in our CEO Jean Case’s TED talk last fall.

As we close out February and our celebration of Black History Month, and in celebration of what I hope is a revolution to level the playing field for all individuals—regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or birthplace—to participate equally in our society and economy, I’d like to share three other TED Talks that continue to inspire me to #GetinTheArena and both deploy the power of storytelling and extend the privilege of the storyteller.

The Danger of a Single Story

This stunning talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie walks us through a long history of literature, news stories and images that have built a singular story around events and people, particularly people of color. She reminds us that the problem is that, beginning as children, these are the stories and images that set our default positions. Worse, they rob people of dignity, reduce opportunities for equality and accentuate our differences more than our similarities. Her parting words? Stories matter; let’s use them to empower, humanize and repair broken dignity.

How to Overcome Our Biases

Vernā  Myers delivers a hard-hitting punch: get out of denial, “color blindness” is a false ideal…a distraction from doing the real work required to reboot our biases. She walks us through the world of brain auto-association with research showing that people—all people—associated white images more often with positive and black images more often with negative. Seventy percent of white people preferred images of white people; 50 percent of black people did too. Whoa! Beyond just the sheer power of her talk, she deploys a tactic that is intentionally intended to change that auto-association—throughout her entire talk, images of beautiful, bold, everyday black men are displayed behind her. Myers challenges us to do three things: (1) accept that bias exists—it’s not that it exists, it’s what we do with it; (2) move toward young black men, not away from them; move toward your discomfort and expand your bubble—just try!; and (3) when you see something, say something—good people can say wrong things, and if not confronted, biases will continue and be passed onto future generations. A must-watch!

Color Blind or Color Brave

Mellody Hobson tells us in this captivating talk that embracing and deploying diversity—of race, gender, intellect, experience—is the smart thing to do, not just the right thing to do. Like Myers, Hobson encourages us to deal with color head on…to deal with its discomfort and relax into it…to be “color brave” if we believe in equal opportunity. Her three calls to action are things most of us can do today: (1) be intentional in hiring decisions—every opportunity you get; (2) observe your environment with intention, and invite people into your life that don’t look like you, live like you, think like you—they will challenge your assumptions and beliefs; and (3) be brave.

Let’s not forget that Black History Month itself was created to rewrite a history that seemed to exclude black people’s role in advancing American innovation, entrepreneurship, society and economy. Each of us, in our own way—big or small—can be part of a movement to drive a more inclusive nation. Be fearless. It’s worth it.

Jean Case at TEDxMidAtlantic: Unlocking the American Dream

Case Foundation CEO Jean Case took the stage at TEDxMidAtlantic: New Rules—a gathering of 45 prestigious leaders who came together to discuss and think about what kind of society and future we want to build, and how we get there. Jean’s talk noted the importance innovators have played in the history of the United States, examined the state of entrepreneurship today and promoted a series of changes we could make to open the doors of entrepreneurship to everyone.

Jean shared the true but often surprising statistics that show that women and entrepreneurs of color are too-often being left on the sidelines, but contrasted them with her vision of a world where all innovators and change makers were on a level playing field. While she recognized that there are still many challenges facing women and entrepreneurs of color involving unconscious bias, she called on investors to take a hard look at their portfolios and the opportunities they were missing by not tapping into the rich talent of diverse entrepreneurs. Standing on the iconic red TED carpet, Jean set forward a clarion call for all to join in on building an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem that would give everyone an equal chance at unlocking the American Dream.

Watch Jean’s TEDx talk below to learn more about the realities for women and entrepreneurs of color today, and how we can help change the face of who is and can be an entrepreneur.


Building Momentum at TEDWomen

What do two former presidents, an expert on insect mating behavior, an 18-year old activist fighting to end child marriage, a “bad feminist” and two legendary actresses have in common? Well, they were just a few of the dozens of speakers and performers who graced the stage of the Steinbeck Forum in the Monterey Convention Center during last week’s TEDWomen conference, an event focused on the power of women and girls as creators and changemakers.

The (foggy and cool) Monterey setting was one that is close to the heart of long-time TED-sters. It is where the original TED conference got its start in 1984 (before moving to Long Beach, then ultimately Vancouver), and the locale only added to the energy and emotion that is a hallmark of TED events.

The diverse slate of speakers showcased both the incredible potential of women and girls to change the world, and challenged the audience to think about the critical issues of our time. From climate change to education and religious extremism, there were a few key themes that resonated throughout the conference for me:

If we’re ever going to have true gender equality, we can’t accomplish it alone. We need men to be a part of this movement too. It might seem as obvious to you as you read this as it did when I typed the words, but as it came up over and over again I thought about how the movement to make the world better for women and girls is dominated by campaigns that largely involve women and girls. I was struck by the words of sociologist Michael Kimmel who said, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” We need more campaigns that make gender visible and demonstrate that (in Kimmel’s words) “gender equality is not a zero sum game.” Like the United Nation’s @HeForShe campaign highlighted by the formidable Elizabeth Nyamayaro. And of course we were lucky to see one of the world’s most influential men, President Jimmy Carter, on stage talking about his fight for gender equality, noting that “The number one abuse of human rights on Earth is the mistreatment of women and girls.”

And this lesson of making privilege visible doesn’t just apply to gender equality. The fearless and funny Rich Benjamin walked us through his adventures as an African American living in “Whitopia,” the communities in America attracting the highest concentration of white populations in an era where we are, according to Benjamin, as racially segregated by neighborhood as we were in 1970. I can only imagine (and hope) that he helped some of his neighbors learn a little bit about privilege in the process.

What drives performance? It’s not what you think. In one of the most moving talks of the event, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a high school principal who has turned around some of Philadelphia’s most dangerous schools, shared the three core tenants of her leadership philosophy. The first two, “If you’re going to lead, LEAD” and “Now what? So what?” were powerful on their own, but the third was the most powerful. Every day, Cliatt-Wayman makes sure to tell her students, “If nobody told you they love you today, remember I do.” Sure, that might seem corny or hokey to some – but in an environment like North Philadelphia’s public schools, many of the school’s students experience difficult home settings that often lack the compassion.

So as we think about the power of women and girls, we can’t forget one of the key skills we bring to the table to solve big problems – compassion. Margaret Heffernan, a management expert and a TED talk veteran, underscored this idea in her talk, which was centered around an MIT study that showcased that the most productive teams were those in which team members all had a sense of social connectedness. Essentially, these groups performed well because they cared about each other. Or, as she put it, “a culture of helpfulness routinely outperforms intelligence.” Food for thought as we build and manage teams.

Authenticity trumps all. Over and over again, TEDWomen speakers embodied the idea that we are our best selves when we truly embrace who we are. Roxanne Gay pushed us to stop demanding perfection from feminists – noting that we are all full of contradictions and flaws. In her case, her love of hardcore rap and the color pink might make her a “bad feminist” – but, like Roxanne, we can still be good women. Another woman who was truly herself was the hilarious Alix Generous, a young woman with Asperger’s. Between perfectly delivered self-deprecating jokes, Alix inspired us with her work to develop “autism assistive technology,” enabling individuals with autism spectrum disorder develop communications skills.

But of course being one’s true self takes a lot of courage. It certainly took South African slam poet, Lee Mokobe, courage to share with the world that she self-identified as male, coming from a culture that doesn’t exactly embrace gender identity issues. Or the formidable (and just 18 years old) Malawian Memory Banda who said no to being married off at age 14 in a culture that routinely marries off young women as early as age 11.

Amongst all of the high notes, there was also a live reminder of the world of contradictions we face as women. A young mother with her five-month infant in tow was asked to leave the conference, citing TED’s strict “no children” policy. Sharing her story on Twitter, she posed the question about how a conference on the power of women and girls could simultaneously not be for working moms. A big kudos to the TEDWomen team for “failing forward” and responding honestly and transparently to the issue.

The theme of this year’s TEDWomen conference was “Momentum” – and whether it was having the opportunity to interact with the incredible women in attendance, marvel at the incredible talent of the musicians, singers and poets who performed, or laugh, cry and cheer with the speakers on stage, it is clear that when it comes to the power of women and girls to change the world, we really do have momentum.