Innovator Insights: Konda Mason, Co-Founder and CEO of Impact Hub Oakland
Part one in a two part series
In part one of our interview, Konda talks about who and what influence her work, the dangers of colorblindness, the need for partnership in deconstructing racism, and what’s in Impact Hub Oakland’s DNA.
Konda honed her business leadership skills as a Grammy winning artist manager in London, an Academy Award nominated film producer in Hollywood, and an Off Broadway hit theater producer in New York…just to name a few.
Turning her attention to sustainable personal and global living solutions, Konda partnered with actor Woody Harrelson and founded Yoganics, an organic food business in Los Angeles, where she successfully brought to market the first organic produce section in a major grocery store in the LA area.
Konda’s leadership style leverages her innate wisdom with tools of permaculture, sustainable business practices, yoga, storytelling, Buddhist theory, and Integral theory.
II: Who are your heroes? Who has had the greatest impact on your work?
KM: My biggest hero is my mother. From the very beginning she taught us (I’m the youngest of four) the importance of standing up and supporting the voiceless in society. She did that in many ways in our community and our neighborhood. She showed me so many examples of it being important and that especially as a black kid growing up to be a black woman in America, we are structurally voiceless, but don’t have to be. I grew up with that deep value and have carried it throughout my life. My mother was fiercely passionate about us playing a role on the side of what’s right and that’s in my DNA.
Additionally, I am a dharma student of Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I have deep values around my spiritual practice and I would say that I often catch myself thinking, “What would Jack do? What would Jack have to say about this? How would Jack respond to this situation?” He is a bar for me and informs how I make many decisions. He is my mentor, my friend, and my colleague and I find him to be one of the most deeply ethical people I know.
II: How did you arrive where you are today personally, professionally, spiritually? How does the breadth of your experience inform your day to day work?
KM: Again, it starts with my mother. I had a great family. I grew up in a Baptist church. My parents introduced us to religion and then they stopped going, but I kept going; I was the only one in my family who kept going. It was because I loved the music and I loved the message. I also loved the community. As I got older, the message got weird to me and I started questioning things, but the values really stayed with me. I found myself as a kid, always having a deep connection to something bigger than myself. I had an incredible feeling of spaciousness and it has stayed with me, this feeling of being connected to something larger.
When I was 12, my family moved. We lived in a black and brown neighborhood and I didn’t know any white folks. You know, you start doing well and you move to the suburbs. And we moved into an entirely white neighborhood. There were maybe three black families in the whole town. It was horrible. I was 12 years old. I got so much racism, it was really terrible. And I just shrank. That spaciousness, the connection I had always felt; it went away. And the real world of racism and oppression came into my world at the age of 12. And my mother held me through it.
Besides my mom, I had my brother, who was my best friend and guru growing up. Seven years older than me, I was his little project, I think. He fed me books. He educated me on the historical state of blackness in America, he taught me the spiritual side of beingness. When I talk about connectedness and one-ness, I’m not skipping over the deep work that needs to be done on race, on the structures we have. What I’ve been able to do because of my brother, who was a great genius who went from black nationalist to communist to socialist to spiritualist, is understand that there is not only one-ness, but specificity as well. Specificity as it relates to race and the constructs of race. I have to say that I don’t know what I’d be without him in my life; Larry Mason is the most amazing being I’ve ever known.
Fast forward, when I got to Berkeley for college, I got introduced to yoga. My first class was Kundalini Yoga and it was intense and wonderful. As I lay down in savasana at the end of that first class, suddenly I was back to that spaciousness, that connection again. I had almost forgotten that feeling. Yoga filled me back up. And then I got into meditation from there. I am a meditator and a certified yoga instructor. This spiritual practice is a deep part of everything that I am. Nothing that I do is separate from that and it informs how I think, how I make decisions, how I live in the world. All of this is my path, my North Star, which is to create the world I know we can and the world I really want to live in that generations and generations to come can live in too.
The feeling of connectedness is how I approach business; it’s how I worked to set up Impact Hub Oakland. I can’t separate the core of my life from my work or my work from my life. It meshes and I am fortunate enough in this life that this work and my values are deeply aligned.
II: What are the dangers of colorblindness?
KM: It’s so dangerous. Our beautiful, particularly white, liberal friends, are good-intentioned people, good-hearted people, doing good work and their response to racism is “I don’t see race.” Their response is colorblindness. And I always say, “please don’t do that. That is not the answer. Being colorblind is not the antidote to racism.” If you are colorblind, then along with that, you don’t see the oppressions that come with race. If you’re skipping over race, then you are skipping over the reality of all that race impacts in this country. And you cannot be a partner with me. You cannot deconstruct racism in America if you are colorblind. Colorblindness, along with that, is blindness to the oppression of race.
I don’t believe in allies, I believe in partners. We talk about being a white ally; but ally-ship is a form of separation. I want you to be a partner. And as a partner, I deeply need you to see my race; I need you to see all of my culture, and I need you to see all the oppression that comes with it.
Colorblindness is a way of skipping over, it’s a spiritual bypass. It’s not just “we’re all one.” It’s yes and. In tandem with that oneness, is the absolute specificity of who we are culturally and racially on this planet. And so I say that because I find that the mindset of colorblindness to be really scary. People are saying, “I don’t want to deal with race.” As a black American, I don’t have that option; I don’t have that option not to deal with race. As a white American, you do. And because of that, I need you to partner with me so we can deconstruct all the problems around race and racism that we have.
II: In your role, how do you ensure that social justice, racial equity, and inclusion remain fundamental elements of social innovation and entrepreneurship?
KM: A very wise person once said, “The end is in the beginning.” How you begin is how you’re going to end. One of the things I find that people do when they’re creating a business or creating an enterprise or venture of any kind, is that they run towards what they feel is the lowest-hanging fruit, thinking, “I need to start this enterprise, I am going to engage with the people who are going to get me there the quickest.” And typically, that may not be black and brown people- or women. And then they say, “I’m going to get to that later.” This is wrong. If you think you’re going to get to that thing that you say you want later, it’s not going to happen. Don’t get me wrong, you can do the token thing, but changing course is very difficult, because now you’re on this path. It starts at the very, very beginning, with the founders.
When I think about Impact Hub Oakland, our team, we’ve got everybody on it. We’ve got black women, we’ve got white women, we’ve got (not very many) white men, we’ve got people across the socioeconomic strata, we’ve got single women who didn’t have much money and wealthy women; everybody is at the table. It’s not easy. But one thing that we have in common is a spiritual bent towards equity. All of us have it. We find ourselves like the United Nations at times, and we’re willing to do that work. All I can say is that with the DNA of the team, you have to start with what you really want to have at the end. Right now, today, it’s not about the smartest person in the room. It’s about the multi-cultural nature of the conversation and who is in the conversation. Because the richness that comes out of the multiculturalism in the room is so much more than that one smart white guy who thinks, “I’ve got all the answers.”
My role as Co-Founder and CEO is to ensure that the DNA of our team is seen, felt, smelled, touched- that it permeates every sense- throughout our business. And there’s another thing: we bring our whole selves to the table. We don’t leave anything behind. And as you are authentic, not just trying to be a business woman or business man, and separating yourself and leaving your real self at home, it begins to come together. Separation is not the answer. We bring our whole selves and it’s messy. You have to know that it’s ok to navigate this mess because we all are messy. As individuals, humanity is messy. But the beauty that comes out- that is what makes Impact Hub Oakland. When you come to the space you see it, you feel it, you taste it, you smell it, and you want to be there. Because the truth of the matter is that love is at the center of it. And we’re not afraid to say it. It’s really scary as a woman to say that in business. But let me tell you something, I don’t know a single human being that doesn’t want to feel that in some way.
Physically, we put this love it into the building, into every little touch, the literal construction of the space. The architect was an African American young woman who was not even 30 years old. She’s a genius, and our collaboration with her was everything. It could not have been more perfect. And we all as women were at the core of building this building. When people walk in, they think, I want to be here. And they feel it. Our leadership is always available, our programming, led by Ashara, is superb, and she makes deep connections. We are in touch with our community because we are our community.
My best advice is truly to start at the end. You can’t course-correct later; you won’t. You can’t sprinkle in women and color later. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about partnership with people who are different and doing that at the beginning: having all voices at the table. It makes you so much richer. If you miss out on those conversations, and you stay in your white male or even white female role, you’ve missed out on incredible beauty and will never know how much farther you can go.