Weigh Big Tech’s Promise to Black America
Mitchell came from a black family with an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was a teenager growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, his mother and grandmother opened a bakery called the Smith Family Bake Shop. Mitchell himself specialized in making a red velvet cake that he still enjoys baking every now and then. But the store closed after a few years, in part because of his family’s inexperience in running a business. He decided he would go to school to gain some of the knowledge his predecessors lacked, eventually earning a degree in human resources from Temple University and, later, Harvard Business School.
Mitchell’s job in HR took him to Singapore, where he worked as a recruiter for Citigroup. It was there that he spent the nascent years of the Black Lives Matter movement, observing from afar how the conversation about race in America was changing. He also realized how his experiences as a black man in Asia differed from those he saw at home. “Most people in Singapore treated me like an American,” he says. “There was none of the guesswork or subconscious biases that were part of everyday experience. It was almost like walking around with a 200-pound weight vest lifted. When he returned to the United States, he knew that the fight against racism would be a priority for him. “It was kind of like, I can’t not doing this work as part of my job, ”he says.
Shortly after returning, Mitchell landed a job in HR at Netflix. The streaming giant has a somewhat infamous work culture that emphasizes autonomy and transparency at all costs. Some former employees described it as dysfunctional, riddled with public layoffs and performance reviews (any employee can criticize any other). But Mitchell, a longtime musician, compares Netflix’s corporate structure to a jazz band, where creativity and adaptation are fundamental. The lack of hierarchy within the company allowed him to pursue what he calls his “jazz solo” as he began to research black banks.
The first person Michell contacted after his April dinner was Bill Bynum, who was able to provide a broad perspective on the importance of black banks and CDFIs. Mitchell also bought Mehrsa Baradaran’s book The color of silver. Examining its 384 pages, he was surprised to learn how many laws and regulations had been put in place over the centuries to prevent attempts at black wealth creation. These obstacles, he realized, dated back to the first Freedman’s Bank, where black people eventually saw their deposits looted by white managers for risky investments. “Until I read this book, I thought it was a much easier problem to solve,” Mitchell said. “You can’t really help until you understand the complexity of the problem. “
Baradaran’s book, as well as other recent works such as Richard Rothstein’s The color of the law, stresses that discrimination was not simply an expression of sectarianism held by individuals or organizations; it is closely linked to laws and incentive structures created by government agencies. The problem was systemic; the solutions should be too. “What my book shows, hopefully, is that you don’t have to introduce racism to bring it out,” Baradaran said. “The structure as we have it will produce racism unless you are very, very deliberate on how to fix these things.”
Mitchell decided to contact the author. Baradaran has responded to numerous requests for advice from companies seeking to whitewash their brands in the face of changing American moods about the breed. Nonetheless, she was ready to heed Mitchell’s call as she felt Netflix was already making a good faith effort to operate for the sake of diversity. The company had a higher percentage of black workers, at 8%, than Facebook, Google or Microsoft. The streamer had also invested a significant amount of money in developing a wide range of productions starring black actors and directors like Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee, who have praised the company. “Netflix creates stories,” says Baradaran. “This is the Netflix market, and in that market they do well in terms of representation and diversity. That’s what I would say for other companies: take a look at your market and see how you can make changes in it. “
Baradaran also sensed in Mitchell a sincere desire to help small black businesses like his family’s bakery. So she volunteered to help shape his proposal. “She kind of inspired us to think bigger,” says Mitchell. With Baradaran’s input, Mitchell began writing a two-and-a-half-page memo outlining his vision for how Netflix could sustainably support black banks. From the start, he was committed to the idea that a committed portion of Netflix’s money should be spent on the effort. “Connecting with the 2% meant that as we grow as a company, our commitment to these communities continues to grow,” said Mitchell.