February 12, 2015
Damola Ogundipe, founder and CEO of St. Paul-based startup Civic Eagle, wants to increase civic participation in the United States. He developed the app to encourage a younger generation to become locally active through information and debates on-the-go. Ogundipe – a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management – is passionate about civic engagement. He is originally from Nigeria, and one of the few black CEOs in a predominantly white industry.
In 2014, tech’s largest firms released figures on the racial and ethnic makeup of their companies; the lack of minority representation in this industry is regrettable. Only 2 percent of Google’s workforce is black, and only 1 percent of Facebook’s. Perhaps these numbers can create an opportunity to encourage diversity in tech. For this this reason, Tech.Co is launching an editorial series highlighting black entrepreneurs. And what better time to do this than during Black History Month?
Tech.Co reached out to Ogundipe to talk about civic engagement, Silicon Valley, and startup life:
Tech.Co: Why did you decide to build Civic Eagle?
The concept for Civic Eagle came from a feeling of frustration with the current civic environment. There’s actually one specific moment that kind of pushed me to build Civic Eagle: I was flipping back and forth between news channels, trying to understand the Affordable Care Act, but instead I would get different – and purposefully biased – interpretations of a specific section of the bill.
I started to think about ways I would want to receive civic information. Essentially, what would encourage me to be more engaged so that I wouldn’t have to rely on biased or inaccurate information? At a certain point you realize that complaining about something you care about doesn’t improve it; you have to back up your words with action.
So, I decided to take action and create something that could help society as well as be a solid business venture.
Tech.Co: How can technology help in the discussion of racial inequality?
What we can see is that technology improves connectivity on all levels. It allows us to connect across geographical locations and cultures, and it gives us even more opportunities to have honest and open conversations. Mobile technology can literally put the world at our fingertips; social media can make political movements grow like wildfire around the globe. Big data helps us understand ourselves in ways we haven’t thought of before.
In addition to the unbelievable speed of social movements through the use of technology, the tech platforms that we create can help facilitate dialogue and encourage uncomfortable conversations that are so often neglected in our daily lives. Civic technology can provide us with opportunities to make improvements in the civic space and allow people to connect to movers and shakers of social causes, community organizations, legislation, policy-makers, and political candidates – faster and more efficient than it ever has been.
Tech.Co: What has been the response to Civic Eagle with the younger generation? It seems like there’s a lot of apathy when it comes to social issues. Is that true?
Civic Eagle is non-partisan; we stay away from being a “political” business or having a political mobile application. Our focus is on shifting the narrative away from politics and towards the issues and the underlying policies that impact those issues. The response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. Those that use our EAGLE mobile application have stated that they don’t feel like they are talking politics, they are talking issues. Our hunch is that by adding the social components to increase connectivity and inspire action around issues and causes, we can then reduce the pervasive political apathy that’s been harming our democracy for the last few decades.
The problem is that younger generations don’t believe change can come through the traditional channels of voting and politics. The current system doesn’t seem to be working and they don’t believe in it. We’ve seen the important role that social media has had on civic engagement – it can be great. But because of the proliferation of so much information coming at folks at such a rapid pace, you start to see superficial levels of engagement. But even “hashtag activists” are learning and sharing information about their communities and world events and we think that’s awesome!
We just want to provide more tools for people to be able to inform their opinions and then to be able to express and act on those opinions in a fun and social way.
Tech.Co: Silicon Valley likes to brag that the tech business is a color-blind meritocracy – do you agree?
I disagree. There is no industry or field that is color-blind and 100 percent based on meritocracy. The tech industry is like every other industry in which there are cliques, subcultures, and networks within it. When we look around, there are very few companies and investors that look like our team. There is excitement around what we are doing and who we are, however, it has not been easy to break the “tech ceiling.” There is always room for improvement in increasing diversity and I think we need to acknowledge that and actively work towards being more inclusionary in tech.
Tech.Co: In your opinion, do black founders in tech face more scrutiny than their white counterparts?
I believe that they do, for two reasons:
Oftentimes the products and services that black leaders create are pigeonholed to be “for” the urban/black culture. While that is an important market and community, for those aspiring to be more mainstream and create solutions for the masses, it can get frustrating to demonstrate that your solution can impact more than one specific demographic.
Investors tend to invest based on patterns; it helps mitigate risk and is completely logical and pragmatic. However, this presents difficulties for black leaders because the pattern of success has typically been a white male from a certain background with certain skills and experiences. That doesn’t mean that other groups can’t lead a successful company, or get adequate investment, but they do face a greater challenge because they essentially break the “mold” of what has traditionally been successful.
Tech.Co: What digital tools are available today that have proven to empower African American youth?
All of the coding websites are great such as Code.org and Codecademy. I really like Udemy, Coursera, and other online education websites. A lot of youth in general don’t know about these resources, which is unfortunate. It would be great to market those resources to those demographics more because they are incredible. Greater marketing of these resources to the African-American community could drastically increase diversity in tech.
I’m also a big fan of anything that the bigger companies like Google puts out that’s free and collaborative; Google Hangouts are great, and YouTube has been awesome for a long time now. These types of mainstream products have been empowering content creators for a while now, and African-American youth are learning how to not only be consumers but also be creators through using them. Now we have to figure out how to show them the connection between creating content through digital tools and the actual creation of those digital tools.
Tech.Co: What is one advice you received that has helped you get you where you are?
I’m definitely not on top, but the best advice I’ve received is that you have to surround yourself with brilliant people that are smarter than you are and who push you to think outside of the box. And with the small and dedicated team we have at Civic Eagle, I think we’ve been able to do that.
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