Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Next week, President Obama will deliver remarks from where King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Offstage from the main event, some odd bedfellows are also marking the occasion by reviving the "Poor People’s Campaign," the often-forgotten shift in King’s priorities from racial to economic justice in the months before his assassination. A casting call for the reality show Shark Tank and the launch of a Poverty Institute run by King’s former organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will all be part of a three-day event focusing on relieving gaping economic disparities with a very modern twist: teaching crowdfunding, investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation skills to underrepresented communities.
There may be no more important time than now for a revival of MLK’s activism around economic empowerment—and some expect President Obama to focus on this in his speech as well. Last year, poverty was at the highest level since 1965, and the economic gap between blacks and whites is also as wide as ever. A Pew Research Center analysis using 2009 data shows that the median white household has 20 times more wealth than black households, and 18 times more than Hispanic households (wealth is defined as assets minus debts). That translates to a typical black household having $5,677 in wealth, compared to $113,149 for whites. As noted by The Washington Post, the unemployment disparity between blacks and white remains as bad as it was in 1963.
But can teaching minorities about crowdfunding, launching startups, and other kinds of investing and fundraising really be the answer to such intransigent problems—or even part of the answer?
Rodney Sampson, the organizer of the events in D.C. this week—the "Kingonomics Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Investment Conference" and the "Emancipation of Capital Gala"—believes education needs to play a big role. "Through our economic downturn over the last four-plus years, there’s not been enough job creation," says Sampson. "I say, if you can’t find a job, create one. The way to do that is to start a company."
Statistics do show that minorities are largely missing out on the wealth that has been created in Silicon Valley and other startup ecosystems in the last decade. In 2010, less than 1% of all venture capital funds went to African American company founders, according to CB Insights, a research firm. Only 2% of all venture capitalists are either black or Latino, and the Cleveland-based group PolicyBridge estimates that blacks and Latinos own only 4% of businesses in "technology-based growth industries" nationwide. To the extent that studies show that CEOs and managers, regardless of any outward bias, tend to hire, promote and invest in people most like themselves or who are a good "cultural fit," these imbalances are also more broadly worrisome.
A fundraising gala on Thursday, with sponsors including Google and Indiegogo, will honor prominent people in business and entrepreneurship, including Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and former NASDAQ vice chairman David Weild. On Friday, several thousand people are expected at "bootcamps" on investing and crowdfunding in person and through a live-stream (Sampson says his "Kingonomics" organization is also developing an entrepreneurship curriculum with University of California, Berkeley, and the historically black college Lincoln University). The day will culminate in a casting call for the startup-focused reality show Shark Tank, where Sampson works as a diversity and inclusion advisor for producer Mark Burnett's production studio.
Sampson believes the pairing of Shark Tank and MLK's philosophies about economic justice isn't as strange as it first seems: "We have to start exposing young people to careers in innovation," he says. "What if instead of tweeting about their $500 sneakers, Jay-Z and T.I. were tweeting about their stock portfolios?"
During King’s time, Sampson says, African Americans used their spending power to facilitate change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott provides no better example. He imagines that one day, as the SEC further legalizes crowdfunding for all kinds of investors, minority communities could also use the technique to take charge of expanded economic revitalization in their own neighborhoods. "If you can leverage your spending power, you can leverage your investment power," he says. "When people own something they take care of it."