What Juneteenth Means for Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Official U.S. Patent, held by Alonzo Webb, my great-great grandfather

Official U.S. Patent, held by Alonzo Webb, my great-great grandfather

It was there in unmistakable black and white: Inventor, Alonzo Webb, 1902. I nearly wept.

For decades, this patent had only existed in my family's oral history. It was an incredible story. My great-great grandfather, son of a slave in Kentucky, had earned a patent from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office -- just 39 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in the Confederacy and right in the middle of the brutality and disenfranchisement that followed slavery's demise.

One version of the story held that a white lawyer took credit for the invention. Others wondered if our family was owed royalties from the patent's use in the railroad industry.

I mostly wondered what Alonzo Webb's accomplishment suggested for me and other African-Americans today. What kind of creativity and resilience had been soldered into our DNA?

So, when a simple search of the U.S.P.T.O.'s website uncovered Patent Number 697,904, it felt like a call to action from over a century ago.

On June 19th, many Americans will celebrate Juneteenth, a celebration of slavery's collapse in the South after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Though the Proclamation itself happened in January 1863, it was not enforced in Texas until June 19, 1865 -- a date that came to represent the end of slavery everywhere.

Fast forward to June 19, 2018. Like my great-great grandfather, I am an innovator. I am also frequently alone.

During my twelve year career in brand management, I was routinely the only African-American in management in the room, no matter how big the room was. And when there were a few others, they were almost never African-American men like me and my great-great grandfather.

Similarly, it was reported that African-American founders received just 1% of venture capital funding in 2015. Little doubt the number is similar today.

Meanwhile, the African-American incarceration rate is 5x higher than whites.

So, as I celebrate Juneteenth, I'm wrestling with three questions:

  • What has racism and African-American under-representation cost America's economy in lost innovation?
  • What possibilities would my great-great grandfather be able to imagine that I cannot?
  • How blessed am I that I'm in a position to help correct what is so deeply broken?

While I wonder and worry, I also act.