Creating from the Edge: Tech and Culture Collide

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This post originally appeared on Huffington Post, 3/8/17. Written by yours truly. 

It’s a rainy morning in Harlem. The smell in the air is that fresh rain smell mixed with a touch of grunge. The door opens and closes as people arrive to the office — a co-working space just north of the famous 125th St in uptown Manhattan, just west of the National Black Theatre.

Harlem like many black neighborhoods is going through an era of gentrification. It’s one of the neighborhoods that has fought back for some time and the seemingly evident effect of urban relocation — increased rent prices, fancy coffee shops, and new neighbors walking their dogs at 2am is all part of the experience.

Just as with any change there’s good along with the bad. And definitely an existing community that wants to stay engaged with what’s happening in their neighborhood. Plans of improving the broadband infrastructure for higher speed connectivity is in talks by Silicon Harlem, venture funds and incubators to support the tech community are developing, and young entrepreneurs are choosing Harlem as a place to launch their businesses.

In a place like Harlem, one of the cornerstones of American culture — the wave of tech energy supplanted with the ever-present culture that can never be erased that is Harlem, fused with the rawness of tough living that is still a reality for many Harlem residents — a perfect mixture for something new is emerging. Something new that is spanning across the country and arguably the world.

The rise of importance of culture in tech.

Steve Case, co-Founder of AOL, the company that brought the Internet into the home in the 80s and 90s speaks of the third wave of the Internet in a Forbes Interview: “The First Wave of the Internet, which took place from roughly 1985 to 2000, was defined by companies like AOL, Cisco, and Microsoft creating the underlying infrastructure and bringing America (and the rest of the world) online. The Second Wave has been about building apps and services on top of the Internet. Now the Third Wave has begun, as the Internet integrates seamlessly and pervasively through every aspect of our lives, changing how we work, how we learn, how we stay healthy, how we get around, even how we eat.”

As we more fully enter the third wave of tech, a growing segment of technology companies will create internet products that directly solve the daily problems of consumers. Consumers on a global scale — thanks to the first two waves of tech and the penetration of mobile.

Case is alluding to the Internet of Things (IoT), in which users will have an intimate experience with sensors and technology as part of their cities, homes, clothes, and potentially anything one can imagine.

The opportunity this creates for founders that have been traditionally excluded is unprecedented. Culture, “that which is driving human behavior.” as defined by Marlon Nichols, founding partner of Cross Culture Ventures (CCV) a venture fund with culture at the cornerstone of its investment thesis, is absolutely necessary to understand in building technology companies in the third wave.

Any company that does not understand their consumers’ needs at an intrinsic and cultural level is starting with a significant disadvantage as competition accelerates.

Understanding of culture is necessary on multiple fronts. On a most obvious level, culture helps drives sales. A quintessential example is Apple’s acquisition of Beats by Dre.

It’s not mistake or even by chance that a rapper who was heavily protested for his lyrics and simultaneously widely popular amongst urban and suburban kids alike, decades later sells a company donning his name, Beats by Dre, to one of the largest and most successful tech companies in the world. Dr. Dre, as controversial as he is, gets culture, because he lives and breathes it. It’s something that can’t be faked and Apple got that.

It would be amiss to write an article about culture and tech and not mention hip-hop. Coming to rise in the 80s and 90s when millennials were being birthed, it is the soundtrack to their childhood. It is also potentially the only musical genre and lifestyle that has been able to transcend race, class, and even global boundaries.

There are a lot of parallels between tech and hip-hop as a way of life, a business, and a pervasive culture started by young people creating something from nothing. As America continues to brown and the world becomes increasingly global — the tech industry may have something to learn from the hip-hop industry’s ability to permeate an entire generation on a global level.

On another level, understanding of culture helps entrepreneurs identify and provide solutions that “integrates seamlessly and pervasively through every aspect of their lives.”

Recent Forbes 30 Under 30 Featured Honoree in Venture Capital, Lu Zhang, explains “the founder today is very different from 10 years ago, today’s founder will think about globalization from day one.”

Zhang, the first Chinese-born woman to be listed on the US Forbes 30 Under 30 list, is the founding partner of NewGen Capital a fund that invests in domestic companies with a specialty of helping their investments enter foreign markets, specifically in Asia.

Nichols, of CCV, notes that in addition to culture his firm looks at trends, “a kid in the Bronx may have a lot in common with a kid in Japan. If we look at it there are probably Bronx’s all over the world in terms of experience”, Nichols explains.

Technology has already made the world a smaller place through connections and relationships, in this next wave there is an opportunity to uncover just how similar we all are.

Tech hubs like the growing one in Harlem have popped up all over the world — Tel Aviv, Compton, Istanbul, Lagos, Cape Town. Entrepreneurs with unique experiences and stories to tell — that have their finger on the pulse fill these hubs. The better equipped these young entrepreneurs are in the tools and language of tech the easier it will be for them to connect the dots in solving problems in ways that others not so close to the problem would be able to.

As tech and culture collide for the greater good in society it is more and more imperative for the tech world to be increasingly relatable, accessible, and inclusive to these entrepreneurs.

Lu Zhang and Marlon Nichols will explore this discussion at a deeper level in a panel discussion with audience involvement during SXSW in Austin.