No. 64: Interview with Mellody Hobson


Mellody Hobson and Jason Hirschhorn had a really nice conversation here covering a range of topics. Below are notes on things that stood out.

On Board Participation

  • Have a clear picture of who you have a fiduciary responsibility to
  • Pay attention to the line between what is management’s responsibility to solve problems and your responsibility to hold them accountable.
  • “Boards matter in times of trouble.”
  • A key tell is whether the CEO on whose board you sit is comfortable with you having a relationship with folks below them.

Hobson’s recounting of Starbucks’ handling of the arrest of the two brothers in one of their stores was quite interesting from a crisis management standpoint. What lessons has Facebook or Twitter taken from that situation?

On Diversity

  • “You don’t even realize the world has changed so dramatically and if you keep living with this view, it’s going to be dangerous.”
  • “The business world is the only world where the one thing they’ll say ‘we’re working on’ on is diversity. Everything else – you fail, you get fired.”

I’m curious what the conversations between Hobson and Jamie Dimon have looked like as the bank has gone backwards in its ability to attract and retain black bankers. What feedback did she have on the recent move to position two women to be among the contenders to be the banks next CEO?

On Media

  • There is going to be a business around curating media (a la Netflix) particularly around news. You’re going to need someone to help you filter through the news and help you know what to trust.

This curation point was a bit confusing for me. We have had curation sites for quite some time. One of the most powerful in the media world, The Drudge Report, has shaped the political debate in the U.S. for a very long time. I’m having a hard time understanding what’s different about this future curation business.

No. 63: AI Bias + Data | Y-Combinates US + Nigeria | Russia + Africa Nuclear

Notes on AI Bias

Machine learning is much better at doing certain things than people, just as a dog is much better at finding drugs than people, but you wouldn’t convict someone on a dog’s evidence. And dogs are much more intelligent than any machine learning.

The problem with this statement is that we have convicted people on a dog’s evidence and later found that evidence to be faulty.

Outside of this issue, Benedict Evans provides a simple definition of artificial intelligence bias, scenarios of the potential bad effects of AI bias, and how we can mitigate those effects. Evans’ central point is a good one to keep in mind:

ML finds patterns in data – what patterns depends on the data, and the data is up to us, and what we do with it is up to us.

Paystack x Lambda School Partnership

This is an interesting partnership probably arising from both startups being Y-Combinator alums. Paystack has gotten quite a lot of traction in Nigeria providing a payment platform similar to Stripe. Lambda provides software development training free of charge until folks get a job making at least $50k. After this, they’ll have to pay 17% of their salary for tuition over two years.

I’ve seen a lot of VCs pointing to Lambda as the chosen one to lead us into a new model for education based on this model. First – their not the only education business doing this, African Leadership University uses a similar model. Second, I worry that folks could still find themselves stuck with collectors hands in their pockets. I’d be curious to see what the income threshold will be for this Paystack partnership.

Ethiopia and Russia sign three-year nuclear power plan

Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation has been aggressive about pushing nuclear development across Africa. Over the past five years, the company has been at various stages of talks with South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, and Ethiopia. It’ll be at least a decade before we see how all this plays out but it’s quite interesting.

No. 62: Nigerian Investment | Twittanic | AI Workforce

Nigeria to Negotiate Future International Investment Agreements…. To Use New Model

This is a strong quote from Yewande Sadiku, head of Nigeria’s Investment Promotion Commission, at a recent event honoring the late Professor Michael Ayo Ajomo:

“it is true that Nigeria has challenges, but when we are going into a negotiation that is not the toga that we wear, the toga that we wear is the toga of a country that is the 26th largest economy in the world and is estimated by 2050 to be the 14th largest; the toga of a country that is the 7th most populous country in the world and is estimated that by 2050 would become the 3rd most populous country.”

I don’t know anything about Professor Ajomo and look forward to learning about him. As for the quote, direct investment in the country during the Buhari administration peaked at nearly $4.5B in 2017. It will be interesting to see how investment in the country shifts once the refinery Dangote Industries is developing comes online in 2020. Dangote expects the refinery to meet all local demand and position the country to export finished oil products. This could change things for how oil investors think about the competitive landscape in the country moving forward.

Jack Dorsey is Captain of the Twittanic at TED 2019

I have been a Twitter user since February 2009. The platform has played a key role in expanding my world view and connecting me to now friends and mentors. It’s played a key role globally shaping the relationship between citizens and their governments.

The platform has also been quite harmful. The levels to which folks face harassment on the platform is quite alarming. For those who have been on the receiving end of that harassment – terrifying, I have to believe.

I’ve watched and listened to numerous interviews Jack Dorsey has given over the past couple years and there seems to be this disconnect in how quickly he plans to address the issue. Apparently, this was the case during his TED interview yesterday. I look forward to watching the video once it comes out.

Andrew Ng on Building an AI Workforce

This is a good interview with Andrew Ng, one of the foremost experts on the development of artificial intelligence from an operator and academic perspective. He makes the case here for folks to layer their expertise in various disciplines with an understanding of AI considering the impacts the technology is having across industries.

Ng also makes the case for conditional basic income rather than universal basic income for fear that folks will get trapped in certain jobs, namely gig economy jobs. I share this concern.

The one thing that frustrates me in conversations with AI experts is their positioning of certain AI developments being so far down the road that we shouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them. I worry how that gives space for the development of bad habits in AI technology that lead us to points of regret along this path we’re on.

No. 61: Frank Capitalism | India’s Elections | Amazon AI

Growing the Pie

I’ve spent the past week crafting words about this memo. After a fantastic meeting earlier today, I’ll just speak plainly. For us to have the responsible capitalism Howard Marks calls for in this piece, we have got to get to the point where we have a frank conversation about how the U.S. economic pie got so massive and how we’re in a place where it divvies up so unequally.

Our modern capitalistic society didn’t emerge from a vacuum. The foundations that set the stage for this thing trace back the beginning of this country. Over the course of history, slavery, the rollback of Reconstruction, redlining, and more messed with what the invisible hand of the market should have handled as the smartest, most talented, and hardest working folks competed for their share of the pie. We are where are today, but you can’t point to the faults of the populist left’s resentment towards capitalism without doing a thorough examination of why that could be. We won’t get responsible capitalism that way. 

INDIA ELECTIONS 2019: India elections: All you need to know

Nearly 900 million people are eligible to vote in India’s elections which began last week and outpace several of the largest democracies in the world combined. In order to manage the scale of the elections and ensure their success, today is the first of seven election days that will that will wrap up next month.

While tedious, the approach might have been helpful to Nigeria’s elections during which voters had to endure a last minute call to delay the vote. With the mix of the country’s size and security challenges in some areas, perhaps breaking the election up into easier digestible pieces may have helped.

I’m curious to see what turnout looks like for India’s elections in comparison to Nigeria’s shockingly low one.

2018 Letter to Shareholders

The most important part of Amazon’s shareholders letter in my opinion is the following section:

We’re also plunging into helping companies harness Machine Learning. We’ve been working on this for a long time, and, as with other important advances, our initial attempts to externalize some of our early internal Machine Learning tools were failures. It took years of wandering – experimentation, iteration, and refinement, as well as valuable insights from our customers – to enable us to find SageMaker, which launched just 18 months ago. SageMaker removes the heavy lifting, complexity, and guesswork from each step of the machine learning process – democratizing AI. Today, thousands of customers are building machine learning models on top of AWS with SageMaker. We continue to enhance the service, including by adding new reinforcement learning capabilities. Reinforcement learning has a steep learning curve and many moving parts, which has largely put it out of reach of all but the most well-funded and technical organizations, until now. None of this would be possible without a culture of curiosity and a willingness to try totally new things on behalf of customers. And customers are responding to our customer-centric wandering and listening – AWS is now a $30 billion annual run rate business and growing fast.

Amazon has turned different parts of its business inside out in order to remove bottlenecks and get assists from customers in accelerating the development of its technology. Jeff Bezos points out the results of that in the first section of the letter – third-party sales have gone from $0.1 billion to $160 billion between 1999 and 2018. None of us can fully appreciate that. Now, layer the exponential power of AI on top of Amazon’s ability to build a country from nothing, and go sit in a corner with a Tastykake and RC Cola as Coach Merritt used to say. Twenty years from now, we’ll be using Amazon One-Thought to order items and six years away from knowing whether Ray Kurzweil was right about artificial intelligence hitting go-mode. What a time to be alive. Are we ready?

No. 60: W.E.B. Du Bois |5G Rollout |Oil’s Future

W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Soul

This is a compilation of three beautiful set of conversations on W.E.B Du Bois’ life and impact on society during and after his life. I first understood that a black American living in Africa was an option when I learned that he finished his life in Ghana.

I had a fantastic conversation with friends that covered a range of topics, including the stories black people tell ourselves about where we come from and the impact of those stories on how we live our day-to-day. I’ve long been of the mind that black folks need to connect with our African story. A friend pointed out the importance of learning the complexity of our story here in the U.S. and wherever else in the Diaspora our people have been.

I look forward to spending more time on that, particularly in thinking about my mother’s family history. I learned details about my grandmother and how she grew up just a few months ago and look forward to gaining a deeper understanding of my heritage on that side of the family.

The 5G revolution is coming to Africa

There has been much conversation about the impact 5G technology will have on the ability for applications of self-driving technology, augmented reality and more due to increased speeds. We’ll have to wait a few years for proof of this and I’m curious to see what 5G deployment looks like across Africa. Will carriers like MTN and Vodacom choose to install a bunch of cell sites across a city or put a bunch more antennas on their existing towers? Helios Towers announced it was building 1,000 towers in South Africa to prepare for 5G, so I imagine they anticipate carriers are going for the latter.

I’d be interested in how carriers who plan to deploy dense networks across cities engage with local governments to plan that type of work out. My understanding of these ultra-dense heterogeneous networks is that you essentially have a bunch of pizza box-sized cells that bring the cellular base stations signal closer to users. A constraint of 5G is that the signal doesn’t travel that far and struggles to get through buildings. This kind of network is supposed to improve that. That requires a lot of planning for right-of-way, where in the city is demand greatest, how do you protect the cells, and more. Apparently, more carriers will be rolling out the technology over the next couple years. We’ll see how they deploy the technology and whether African markets serve as a laboratory for innovations in 5G deployment.

Norway Is Walking Away From Billions of Barrels of Oil

When Ghana learned that it had lots of oil off of its coast, officials pointed to Norway as the model for how they would manage the resource. They would avoid the challenges the resource has brought to other African countries that had grown dependent on the cash cow. Nigerian governments have talked for years about how the country needs to diversify its economy to depend on more than oil to drive the economy.

I wonder how African oil officials are responding to this news that the government is choosing not to explore an area that could have significant oil reserves. In addition to this, the Norway’s sovereign wealth fund announced not too long ago that it was selling off its stakes in oil exploration stocks. I don’t know that this is the path for African oil countries right now, but I’m sure it could be a proxy for laying out hard questions about an economy’s relationship to oil:

  1. When is enough enough?
  2. How do we sequence pulling resources away from oil to invest other sectors?
  3. Whose voice will be most important in making the decision on how long we rely on oil?

These sort of questions are probably a generation away. Let’s see how the conversation plays out if it happens.

No. 59: 3 Thoughts – Heartland Visa | GDP-B |Top VCs

From Managing Decline to Building the Future

What would it look like for there to be a visa program that matched skilled immigrants with communities that are especially hard-hit by population decline in the U.S.? The Economic Innovation Group, a think tank founded by Sean Parker of Facebook fame, just published a report outlining this idea. I think the idea is compelling, but there are a few questions that come to mind:

  1. What steps will these communities need to take to make themselves as appealing as possible for immigrants to stay? I wonder how welcoming these communities will be to a new wave of folks coming in. Will they perceive the pie as fixed and these new entrants as eating their share of it?
  2. What role do folks who left these struggling communities have in trying to revive it? Marc Andreessen is from Iowa. Jack Dorsey is from Missouri. Can struggling communities partner with these sorts of folks to help cast vision for a new future and attract talent?

How to redesign GDP for the 21st century

Lots of countries, particularly developing ones, hang their hat on the size of their GDP (gross domestic product) which measures the value of the things we pay for in a year. A lot has changed since the measure was developed in the 1930s and the measure doesn’t quite capture all the value being created in an economy.

There are plenty things we don’t pay for up front – Facebook, the music you streamed on Spotify, etc. GDP measures what you paid for your phone, your laptop, your internet connection. MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson claims to have developed an alternative GDP measure that captures the benefits we receive from the things we don’t pay for – GDP-B.

If this catches on, I’m really interested to see the impact it could have on policymaking. For example, Ghana rebased its GDP last year using a new set of more recent data that included more factors in its economy like oil and technology. On paper, the country’s GDP was $52 billion, about 25% bigger than originally believed. A number of governments in Africa turn off the internet around election time to stave off protests and organizing while they conduct funny business. Imagine getting a better measure of that impact. These past couple years in the U.S., I’ve often wondered what has been the impact on productivity of this president tweeting so much. Perhaps GDP-B could provide an answer.

The Midas List

Forbes puts this list out on the top 100 venture capitalists based on the the following methodology:

To make the list, investors are ranked by their portfolio companies that have gone public or been acquired for at least $200 million over the past five years, or that have raised additional funding at a valuation of $400 million or more. Forbes and TrueBridge put a premium on newer exits, as well as early-stage returns. 


This list needs to look a lot different 10 years from now. More melanin would be nice. Lo Toney closed his Plexo Capital I fund at $35.1M last month. Charles Hudson closed his second Precursor Ventures fund at $31m last month as well. Education seems to be getting hot in the startup world, hopefully Shantel Garvey notches a win. Perhaps Ken Chenault will notch a big win at General Catalyst. The list needs more black folks.

No. 58: 3 Thoughts – Time | A16Z, a VC No More | Opportunity Zones

In his acceptance speech at the NAACP Image Awards this weekend, Jay-Z recited a quote that struck me: “It’s not the number of years in your life that count. It’s the amount of life in your years.” The quote echoed a question I had been pondering a couple days before I saw his acceptance speech on Sunday: “If today was your last, how would you assess the extent to which you’ve lived a full life?” Later Sunday evening, I learned Nipsey Hussle was murdered. I’ve had several conversations with friends about his death. This man was having a real impact in his neighborhood, and had a big vision. He wasn’t finished yet. His death is a reminder to remain focused on the reason we’re on this earth and handle our business there.

Andreessen Horowitz Is Blowing Up The Venture Capital Model (Again)

So, Andreessen Horowitz isn’t a venture capital firm anymore. Wow. The firm recently registered all of its employees as financial advisors and gave up its venture capital exemptions in order to be able to invest deeper in the cryptocurrency space. I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but I am curious to see how it impacts recruiting. I don’t get the sense that folks interested in VC are particularly interested in taking financial advisor reviews and being audited.

The Real Roots of ‘Black Capitalism’

I’ve been skeptical of opportunity zones for some time now, and this piece reinforces my feelings. It’s been quite distressing watching firm’s like Anthony Scaramucci’s Skybridge Capital lay the groundwork for massive funds to take advantage of the incentives in program. The opportunity zone program is supposed to foster investment in distressed communities, but I worry that firms like Skybridge will muscle out investors like Nipsey Hussle who was also laying the groundwork to take advantage of the program. This article does a nice job laying out the roots of the opportunity zone program about which I knew little. I look forward to learning more here.