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. 57: Affordable Housing | Soulection Radio

The Urbanist: Affordable housing

The struggle for regular folks to find a place to stay is global. This is an very interesting survey of housing situations in California, Finland, Egypt, and Portugal. The California situation is so interesting. For a state that prides itself on leading other parts of the country in pushing progressive policy, the not-in-my-backyard vibes are too strong. The situation in Egypt is frustrating. How do you tear down a whole neighborhood while building a new capital that will probably keep low income folks at arms reach?

Soulection Radio Show #400 (Live from Los Angeles, CA)

Joe Kay has built something at Soulection. The pure love for music comes through every episode of the show. My Saturday ritual for several years now has been listening to their latest episode. Listen to the episode to see why.

No. 56: 2 Thoughts – Future Africa | Acquisitions

Welcome to the Future

Whatever Flutterwave and Andela cofounder Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is building, its focus on building a shared vision for the future of Africa is something I can get behind. Excited to see where this goes.

Ghanaian startup mPharma is buying Kenya’s second-largest pharmacy chain

You don’t see too many deals where a startup acquires a legacy brand. To see that on the continent is incredible. More vim.

Thinking About Ads Differently. Indexing Diversity.

Thinking about Ads Differently

One of the latent questions I’ve had about the tech industry is the seemingly unchecked dominance of advertising in tech company business models. Google. Facebook. Snap. Advertising is practically the sole driver of their businesses. Aren’t there more creative revenue streams for their businesses?

Benedict Evans turned that question on his head when he posted the above tweet. In the ensuing debate on the topic, Cindy Gallop posted a link to a fantastic keynote she gave at the 3% Conference, first addressing sexual harassment, then providing principles for how the tech industry should the opportunity to do good with advertising rather than seeing it as a necessary evil.

Indexing Diversity

Much has been written about how diverse management teams improve the performance of companies. Imagine being able to trade a public company’s stock based in part on an index reflecting the impact of the company’s workforce diversity on various performance metrics. ESG-focused investors include diversity in their models, but I’m sure there is a way to be more granular in analyzing this.

Over the past few years, more companies are releasing high level data on their diversity numbers. Ideally, this index would be based on granular data giving weight to where in the company employees sit. Gathering that data would be tough. LinkedIn is stingy with its API, but perhaps Jeff Weiner could be convinced or that information could be triangulated through geolocation, Twitter/Instagram bios, etc.

We live in a world where people of color are claiming more and more of their impact on the global economy. Adding this layer to how we invest in companies would be powerful in checking companies not founded/run by people of color or women who are not serious about diversity within their companies.