July 16, 2015
Wayne Sutton spends his day to day as a General Partner at BUILDUP VC, but when it comes time to enjoy some time off he chooses to tackle different projects. After all, he’s a self-proclaimed geek, nerd, and entrepreneur, and if his hands aren’t getting dirty on a new project he gets restless.
Not long ago Sutton took a step back to objectively look at all the race-related events that have been happening in America regarding African Americans. Specifically he was focusing on how the media portrays African Americans, and it quickly became the wellspring of inspiration for his new project, Anonymously Ask a Black Person (AABP).
He also draws a lot of inspiration from BUILDUP, who has made it their goal to increase the pipeline for underrepresented groups in tech. Sutton doesn’t believe in traditional methods of advocacy, but rather opts to do something meaningful via technology. So, when he came across an app that lets people submit questions to Stanford students he immediately saw something of value.
Sutton knew he could build a similar platform but make it more applicable to African American culture. To that end AABP lets users anonymously submit any question they have about African American people and culture directly to African American people.
“I wanted to build this in an effort to portray African Americans in a leadership role. It’s fun, cool, and it breaks down barriers,” says Sutton. “Folks always talk about how bad diversity in tech is, but I wanted to actually do something about it.”
On that note, it’s so much more than just a platform to ask questions – consider the cultural ramifications. AABP clearly shows the emotional and intellectual divide between the perception of African Americans and the rest of the world.
That is, it expresses an overall cultural behavior that shows what other people think and feel about African American culture. As Sutton says, stereotypes like hip hop and sports might describe a small part of the community, but that’s far from everything that makes African American culture what it is.
Sutton has effectively woven a strong element of education into the platform too, and making the questions anonymous is a crucial part of that educational element. When people post thoughts or questions on their own, personal social media pages they can be easily misunderstood.
However, as Sutton poignantly mentions, nobody takes into account the fact that it might be an actual, legitimate question stemming from a lack of education on the subject.
“One of the things I believe is that humans have cultivated a psychological aspect with social media that revolves around herd mentality and group thinking,” says Sutton. “San Francisco is five percent black – in tech it’s even less. There are people here who just don’t interact with black people. They don’t know. And if they have an opinion we need to be careful about attacking them because they don’t have the experience we think they should have.”
Further, he doesn’t think anybody should be ashamed or embarrassed to have questions about the African American community and culture, regardless of what it is. As Sutton says, it’s a huge problem with social media and it blocks real questions and real dialogues from happening.
“People are becoming more and more afraid to ask questions or participate in conversations because they don’t want to deal with the bullying or the back and forth,” says Sutton. “AABP creates a safe environment to ask a question without being judged.”
When Sutton checked the stats a few weeks ago, AABP had sent 1,400 messages and received 1,500 questions. He’s absolutely accomplishing what he set out to do – all he had to do was help facilitate and open dialogue about culture, race, and African American people in a safe environment.
Does AABP want to be the definitive voice for all African Americans? Absolutely not, but that’s not what Sutton set out to do in the first place. Rather, he wants AABP to be authentic, communicate with compassion and empathy, provide value, be creative, innovate technologies, enhance communities, and help people have fun.
Quoting Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sutton finishes, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
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