Not even flash-flood weather conditions could dampen the mood this afternoon in the African American Hall of Fame at Morehouse College as three rainmakers sat together to talk about the intersection of technology and culture. TechSquare Labs founder and Morehouse grad Dr. Paul Judge interviewed two New York Times bestselling authors, writer Shaka Senghor and influential tech investor Ben Horowitz, in a “fireside chat” under the title of Horowitz’s new book, “What You Do Is Who You Are.”
Between valuable bits of information, or “jewels,” as hip-hop enthusiasts might call them, students and other attendees enjoyed a free lunch and a few laughs, as all three gentlemen shared their backgrounds, their motivations — and a couple of jokes wherever applicable.
“He has the worst tattoo ever of Nas,” Horowitz jabbed at Senghor, who nodded to co-sign the Andreesen Horowitz co-founder’s judgement of his body art, which he received in prison.
Jokes aside, the broader point was that both of these men—whose paths would probably have never crossed and are perhaps one of the unlikeliest buddy couplets you’d think existed—found common ground in their mutual admiration and respect for hip-hop, and specifically Nas, the influential New York rapper they both now call a friend.
Along with praising Nas’ creativity and investment prowess, Horowitz expressed reverence for the Wu-Tang Clan, particularly the organizational management skills of producer/rapper RZA, widely considered the leader of the influential rap collective. He said a similar focus on team-building is partially responsible for Andreessen Horowitz’s VC dominance. “It kept us on top, because they can’t replicate the culture,” he said of would-be competitors.
Hip-hop culture wasn’t the only place where Horowitz, Senghor and Judge say they were able to draw inspiration that has served them well in their lives and careers. Horowitz spoke in depth about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian general who defeated Napoleon and led history’s only successful slave revolt during the Haitian Revolution.
Horowitz talked about L’Ouverture’s strategies and tied them to corporate culture. He spoke about how the general built a broad coalition around his goals, through good judgment, setting rules to establish good relationships and trust, and being a model of leadership to those following your guidance.
“It’s not just the slogans on the wall, but the behavior they observe that sets patterns,” Horowitz said.
Senghor agreed, speaking of the challenges he faced as a convicted murderer—both while imprisoned for 19 years and even today, now that he’s served his sentence—and the lessons learned about leadership and management. He shared that Horowitz’s wife, Felicia, reached out to him on Facebook and invited him to dinner at their home after Senghor appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Sunday” interview series. Horowitz confessed that he originally thought it was a bad idea, but once he met Senghor, they both realized how much they could learn from each other.
“Part of growth in life is being open to new conversations,” Senghor said about becoming close to Horowitz, and how it made him realize some people he’d been around his whole life were negative influences inhibiting his growth. He also talked about the importance of self-transformation, and how culture can sometimes reinforce ideas about “stuff we can’t do,” which he says is particularly relevant to anyone doubting a potential career path in technology.
“People are more willing to open doors when you’re open to trying,” he said to the crowd. “Trust people who are allies over someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart,” he summarized. “And trust the right information.”
Senghor, says he was told at a young age that by 21 he’d either be dead or in prison. While he did serve time behind bars, he’s now a management consultant for several companies, including TripActions, a California-based travel management app in which he holds stock options. “Shift the narrative and you can produce any outcome you want,” he says.
Throughout the wide-ranging conversation, Senghor and Horowitz continuously dug into the cultural contributions of African-Americans. At one point, Horowitz brought up Silicon Valley’s lack of understanding consumer behavior, which he said is a problem embedded into “tech’s DNA.”
He connected this to the need to diversify, particularly by welcoming African-Americans, who he correctly credited for inventing rock and roll, jazz, blues and hip-hop. At one point, he offered that tech entrepreneurs recognize Mark Zuckerberg’s genius, but they may not apply the same praise to Quincy Jones. “Clearly somebody knows how to change consumer behavior,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz went on to share a range of business advice during a Q&A, from questions entrepreneurs should ask themselves before launching a company (“Why do I need to build this? Will the world notice?”), to how you know when your idea is ready for the world. He said if what you offer is a difficult thing for someone else to learn, and you can use your specific skill set to develop it, do it.
Before closing, Judge gave the students of his alma mater a motivational shout-out, while acknowledging frustrations with the lack of diversity and inclusion in tech. “If you’re gonna fix that problem, Atlanta has to be part of the solution, and Morehouse has to be at its core.”
Horowitz agreed, saying managers in every industry generally hire talent that look like them, so he offered a challenge as a solution to those in attendance: start companies.
“I want to bet on black exceptionalism and make me a billion dollars,” he said, unapologetically. “It’s working for us. It helps us make money. And in business, that’s a thing.”