If The Tech World Really Wanted To Be Diverse, It Would Be
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin L. Nichols, aka The Social Engineer ™, the Founder and Executive Director of The Social Engineering Project, Inc. (“TSEP”). TSEP is an Oakland based, Google and Microsoft funded social impact venture with Stanford University designed to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Nichols has been featured on LinkedIn’s Hall of Fame, Yahoo’s Blog, in the Examiner, CNN Money, Reuters, MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal. Millions saw Kevin when they logged into LinkedIn’s Homepage from 2011–2014.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Since junior high school, I dreamt of being a mechanical engineer. Thus, I availed myself of every available Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (“STEM”) related program that I could get my hands on, such as the Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (“MESA”) Program at U.C. Berkeley, Summer Search, Inc., the National Society of Black Engineers (“NSBE”), and INROADS, Inc. Through my mechanical engineering internship in college, I decided that I no longer wanted to be an engineer but did not know what else I could become.
I enjoyed celebrating diversity, community organizing, and civil rights activism, so I thought that I would be a civil rights lawyer like my fraternity brothers, Johnny L. Cochran, Jr. and John L. Burris. After working at an international law firm for 2 years as a litigation paralegal, I decided that I did not want to practice law either. The greatest asset that I discovered was my ability to network and leverage the relationships that I had garnered working in various law firms for 12 years and use that to sell products and services to my colleagues. I started my own consulting firm for 5 years, consulting on legal technology, diversity, and social media marketing for lawyers, law firms, and corporate counsel.
One day, a buddy of mine from high school, Dr. Bryan Brown, asked me to assist him with a science camp that he wanted to create for underserved black and brown students. It just so happened that he was a professor at Stanford that teaches teachers how to teach STEM education to underserved students. He had the curriculum, I knew how to get the students and Science in the City (our first program) was born. Now, I organize programs similar to the ones that I benefitted from, that no longer exist to give black and brown students the opportunity to fall in love with STEM and increase their career pathways.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Earlier this year, I completed an Executive Program for Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford’s Graduate School of business. One of my classmates, Lindiwe Matlali, is the founder of an organization called Africa Teen Geeks in South Africa and she was organizing a Global Hackathon with the United Nations featuring teams from Bolivia, South Africa, and Indonesia. The Hackathon was set to take place in 3 weeks in Silicon Valley, but there was one little problem, they did not have a U.S. Team. Needless to say, I assembled a U.S. Team within a week and we are representing the United States in our own backyard. Networking is all that I can say.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Recently, most of the tech industry’s focus is centered around coding and software related tech, however, the skills necessary to get passed prerequisite courses such as Mathematics 1A, Chemistry 1A, and Physics 1A are being neglected. We believe that this sets underserved minority students’ sights to the moon instead of shooting towards the stars and will cause them to ultimately avoid going to college because they cannot get passed these subject matters.
One tech company offered my company a grant and said that they could offer us a lot more money if we focused on coding as our primary curriculum. We considered the proposition only if it would not detract us from our main goal/mission. At the time, it would have diluted our mission, so we passed on the opportunity. Our company thrives on authenticity and legitimacy; thus, we are remaining true to our purpose and as we expand, we may consider offering some computer science to our curriculum once we master our hardcore physical science curriculum first.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes. Presently, we have 3 programs:
1. Science in the City — A weeklong day camp at Stanford University that teaches 50 minority 5th and 6th graders, math, chemistry, physics, and engineering;
2. TSEP Overnight Camping Conference — a weekend long camp at Camp Loma Mar (owned and operated by the YMCA of the East Bay) that teaches 120 minority high school students from all over Northern California about the engineering behind various tech companies’ products and services; and
3. Family Science Nights — Evening programs hosted by tech companies that introduce minority students and their siblings to the tech they create and their parents to supportive tools to further their children’s STEM education.
We are planning on replicating these 3 programs in Los Angeles and the Maryland/DC/Virginia areas starting next year.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Stay true to your mission and purpose. Define and embody your organization’s values and principles. Make sure that every employee understands and believes in your company and how their contributions affect its success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are a number of people who’ve paved the way for me. Obviously, my mother (family)’s love and support, but there were two people have been instrumental in shaping me to be the man and entrepreneur that I am. My mentor and high school counselor, Maurice Harper, Jr., who paved the way for so many men in the Bay Area. Through example, he showed me what it truly means to give back to the community, to be a practicing Roman Catholic, a faithful husband, and loving father.
The other individual is my cousin, Dr. Michael A. LeNoir. From giving me my first HP200LX, my first Compaq Laptop, to letting me work in his doctor’s office through college getting his Ethnic Health America program on national syndication, to allowing me to run his nonprofit, the African American Wellness Project, Inc. while he was serving as the President of the National Medical Association, etc. The most profound thing that he taught me was, “you can’t help others if you are broke.” That was his way of encouraging me to be successful in business so that I can invest in my community.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My company’s name, The Social Engineering Project, comes from a quote from a lawyer named Charles Hamilton Houston, who laid down the framework from the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which says, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Although we all do not have to be lawyers for this to reign true, we are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. I like to consider myself merely a community organizer whose only goal is to make the world better than I found it. In addition to TSEP, I am the co-founder of Family Wellness Group in the Bay Area with over 2,000 members where we hike, feed and clothe the homeless, and take on various social justice causes, and I am the founder of the Bay Area Black Professionals Group on LinkedIn with over 3,500 members. Lastly, I do a lot of behind the scenes work in politics as a former delegate to the California Democratic Party, campaign manager, and fundraiser. I volunteer with the Congressional Black Caucus’s Diversity in Tech Taskforce and speak around the country regarding personal branding and networking.
Can you share the top five lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”?
1. Understand The Tech Conundrum — Before I started my own company, I wanted to work at a startup first to learn the ins/outs and what to do and what not to do. Although I had countless interviews at various companies, I was always told in some shape or form, “We’d prefer someone who had previous experience working at a startup”. How can you get experience in tech, if no one will hire you without previous experience?
2. Learn Tech Culture — Tech culture is laid back, with a uniform of jeans and button-down shirts for most days, or if you have to get “fancy”, you may throw on a blazer. People feel like they can “hack” anything, so many people act and feel invincible. It’s a unique place to live.
3. It’s Not What, But Who You Know — There are so many startup founders looking to raise money in the valley that venture capitalists and angels try desperately to remain anonymous. Many of them will not acknowledge you or speak to you unless a mutual contact introduces you to each other. Thus, your network and your relationships are invaluable.
4. If Tech Really Wanted To Be Diverse, It Would — Tech must like its diversity scorecard because 1–2% African American remains the standard. And for the 1–2%, most of them attended, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Howard, Morehouse, or Spelman. That’s it. That’s not diversity. Tech can “hack” anything to solve the world’s problems, but it cannot figure out how to change its culture, make people feel included/belong, etc., I don’t buy it.
5. It’s All About The “Brand” — In theory, my organization is a Google and Microsoft funded social impact venture with Stanford University designed to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry. In actuality, a buddy of mine from high school, who happens to be a professor of education at Stanford, got together to bring STEM programs to underserved students and got other buddies together to ask their companies to invest in them as well. That’s the valley. It’s all about how you package things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
A wise person said, “service is the rent that you pay here on Earth.” Or Marcus Garvey said, “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Growing up in and living in the Bay Area makes me a little spoiled because I have met a lot of the legends and giants in tech that I have wanted to. However, there are two who I’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with. First would be Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and Ben Horowitz, of Andreesen Horowitz. Both, have transformed the industry in so many ways that I believe that I could learn a lot from them and benefit greatly.