If a person walked up to you on the street and asked you what you did for a living, you would say?
“Hi there. My name is Baratunde. Let’s not start there since we don’t know each other at all. What’s your name?” I hate the idea of starting conversation with the “what do you do!?” question. What if I’m unemployed at the moment? Does that mean I’m not worth talking to? Anyway, assuming we got past all that and ended up talking about how I pay for my food and housing, I’d say “I run a media and technology company that uses humor to connect with people and spread good ideas. I’m also an author, speaker, and comedian.”
Your Chief of Staff (Julia) told me that even she has trouble keeping up with all of your activities – for those who don’t know, give me a rundown of what projects you’re involved in now and what is taking up most of your time?
My main focus is Cultivated Wit. It’s the company I helped start after I left The Onion in the summer of 2012. We believe in the power of humor to communicate and engage people, and we are building a business doing that in a number of ways: as a creative agency making media and marketing campaigns built on humor; running a series of comedy hackathons focused on building funny apps and products; building tools for creative people. Outside of Cultivated Wit, I’m an explorer of the future through my column with Fast Company, my director’s fellowship at the MIT Media Lab, and my affiliation with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. I speak frequently at conferences, companies and colleges about there future of media, journalism, politics, race, and identity. And I’m still supporting my book, How To Be Black, through public appearances and secret plotting on what comes next. So basically, I don’t do that much.
You wrote and self-published 3 books before you worked with a major publisher (HarperCollins) on, How To Be Black, what was the biggest difference for you working on your last book?
People read the last book, and I actually got paid! Big, massive difference to have the support of a major publisher.
I’m always concerned that there are not enough African Americans working in the tech/start-up community, is my concern valid? Are there things that can be done to increase the number of African Americans working in the industry?
Your concern is very valid. Technology is redefining how we do everything as individuals and as a society. The effects will be universal. If we’re not including a broad range of voices and ideas in the creation of this new world, that new world won’t be as great as it could be for anyone, not just the folks left out of the making of it. There are plenty of things that can and are being done to increase the number of black folk working in tech. On the front end we need to create more of a culture of creativity and engagement with technology at an early age. Organizations like Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code are headed in the right direction. We need to radically increase the exposure of tech opportunities in our community so people know it’s even an option and see it as cool, see it as a way to make a living and make a difference. Those already in the industry, from business to academia, need to radically expand recruiting beyond the people already in the know. If we’re going to stay innovative and competitive, we need more folks at the table defining how technology is used. Finally, for now, we need to remove the barriers destroying the potential of so many in our community. Specifically, I’m referring to the prison pipeline which seems to be working so much more effectively and aggressively than the technology pipeline for our people. As a nation, we are making some terrible investments.
I’ve recently seen two interviews that reference limitations or as they put it “glass ceilings” from two individuals that I believe there is no limit (Kanye West and Donald Glover). They said because people look at them one way – be it a rapper or comedian – it limits them from breaking through in other industries. You are a writer, speaker, comedian, entrepreneur, etc., everyone experiences set-backs or failures but do you think there are any limitations placed on you because you are viewed one way?
There is always a gap between how people perceive us and how we see ourselves. This is true for individuals and organizations. It can take a while for folks to accept the fullness of a person. Bo Jackson was supposed to just be a football player. Justin Timberlake was just a boy band phenom. Apple was just a computer manufacturer. Over time we evolve and expand, and people eventually (not always but often) catch up to where we are. I’m sure there are limitations placed on me based on some people’s limited perceptions, but those limits a far smaller than the expanse of opportunity I’ve experienced. On net, my view of myself is winning out. From where I sit, that’s the case with Kanye and Donald Glover as well. It’s clear both of those brothers have a lot more to offer the world than the thing that initially resonated with the public. Kanye went from producer others to performing to now fashion and whatever other weird thing he’s into. Donald is a comedian, writer, rapper and probably a lot more. I respect them both for that range and hope I can get even one tenth of the distance they’ve traveled in terms of their own evolution.
In your cover story for Fast Company, you “unplugged” from all things digital. What did you learn from that experience and would you do again?
I would definitely do it again. I learned that all this digital connectivity comes with a lot of noise, anxiety and addictive/compulsive behavior that doesn’t necessarily add to my life. I was missing some part of life by spending too much time documenting and sharing my life. I also learned that the interests of those building connected tools doesn’t completely align with our interests as individuals. All these social digital services, so far, create an ever-growing burden and sense of communications debt that weighs on us over time, and very few of these platforms take that into account. They suck us in, but they don’t make it easy to let us leave or even pause in ways that make sense for us.
What does Cultivated Wit have in store for 2014?
We’re planning an expansion of our Comedy Hack Day series to a few more cities. We’ll be working with a wider range of clients, and we hope to add more people to the team so the three of us can stop staring awkwardly at each other on Google Hangouts. I can’t promise this, but it’s also likely we’ll be enriching uranium sometime after the second quarter. Don’t say we never warned you.
What motivates you and excites you about the future?
We have a chance to build the world better than we’ve done it so far. We can be more inclusive. We can take advantage of good ideas from anywhere. We can collaborate like never before. We can learn better. I get especially excited about new ways to tell stories. Consider how young television is and how dominant it is. Now consider the fact that the most popular forms of media and communications in 50 years probably haven’t been invented yet. It’s just an exciting time to be alive.
Where should people go to keep up with your constant motion?