SF Chronicle: Former NAACP President Ben Jealous coming to Silicon Valley

Kapor Center

Written by Joe Garofoli in the San Francisco Chronicle

Silicon Valley’s newest venture capitalist has social media experience – and a social justice background.

Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP president responsible for turning around the flagging civil rights institution, will join an Oakland venture capital firm dedicated to socially conscious investing.

His assignment as a venture partner with Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact: create a freeway to the tech world from poor communities of color where now there is little more than a trail. Only 6 percent of U.S. tech workers are African American and 7 percent are Latino; 15 percent are Asian American and 71 percent are non-Hispanic white, according to 2011 census data. Jealous, a former Alameda resident who revived the 105-year-old NAACP during his tenure that ended in December, is a lifelong activist with no tech or venture capital experience.

But his bosses, Silicon Valley pioneer Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada Kapor Klein, wanted someone with experience outside the tech world. They know that after six years at the front lines of politics and activism, the 41-year-old Rhodes Scholar has tight contacts with Fortune 500 companies, union leaders and community activists and is young enough to relate to the startup community.

Great organizer

“There’s nobody else in the world who can organize coalitions like Ben,” said Kapor Klein, who has been friends with Jealous for more than a decade. Case in point: In 2011, Jealous pulled her left-leaning husband into a national prison reform effort with conservative antitax activist Grover Norquist.

While Jealous doesn’t have a business background, “the turnaround he did at the NAACP,” Kapor Klein said, “rivals anything that’s been done in the corporate world.”

At 35, Jealous was the youngest leader in the NAACP’s history. When he took over the storied organization it was politically peripheral and financially shaky, with a dwindling donor base, poor leadership and virtually no social media presence to connect with the post-civil rights era generation.

When Jealous left in December, annual revenue had almost doubled to $46 million and the donor base had grown nearly tenfold to more than 132,000. He bolstered the organization’s social media and digital contact list to rival the best in the nonprofit world – enough for Fortune magazine to name Jealous to its annual “40 Under 40” list in 2012.

“It’s really a ‘wow’ announcement,” said Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, which last year pledged to invest $50 million over the next seven years to help young men of color in California academically.

“To have a renowned, noted civil rights warrior advocating for the future of young people in a visible Silicon Valley role is really extraordinary. You could have asked me 100 possible job possibilities for Ben Jealous when he left the NAACP and that wouldn’t have been on the list,” Ross said.

Tackling ‘social problems’

Kapor Capital’s hiring of Jealous – who will be based in Washington, D.C. – is another sign of frustration with the federal government’s ability to address social problems. Last week President Obama, backed by $200 million in philanthropic pledges and business support (including backing from the Kapors), launched a new program, My Brother’s Keeper, to help young men of color succeed in school and the job market.

“In the era of gridlock,” Kapor Klein said, “some of the old methodologies of how you get social change accomplished are at best stalled – at worst dead. So we are using the best of startup culture and applying it to intractable social problems.”

Quietly, Jealous’ interest in the business world has grown. For years, often after NAACP fundraisers at the Kapors’ summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, the couple and Jealous would talk about “how there should be more connection between the business world of innovation and the civil rights world,” Kapor Klein said.

Silicon Valley’s newest venture capitalist has social media experience – and a social justice background.

Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP president responsible for turning around the flagging civil rights institution, will join an Oakland venture capital firm dedicated to socially conscious investing.

His assignment as a venture partner with Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact: create a freeway to the tech world from poor communities of color where now there is little more than a trail. Only 6 percent of U.S. tech workers are African American and 7 percent are Latino; 15 percent are Asian American and 71 percent are non-Hispanic white, according to 2011 census data. Jealous, a former Alameda resident who revived the 105-year-old NAACP during his tenure that ended in December, is a lifelong activist with no tech or venture capital experience.

But his bosses, Silicon Valley pioneer Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada Kapor Klein, wanted someone with experience outside the tech world. They know that after six years at the front lines of politics and activism, the 41-year-old Rhodes Scholar has tight contacts with Fortune 500 companies, union leaders and community activists and is young enough to relate to the startup community.

Great organizer

“There’s nobody else in the world who can organize coalitions like Ben,” said Kapor Klein, who has been friends with Jealous for more than a decade. Case in point: In 2011, Jealous pulled her left-leaning husband into a national prison reform effort with conservative antitax activist Grover Norquist.

While Jealous doesn’t have a business background, “the turnaround he did at the NAACP,” Kapor Klein said, “rivals anything that’s been done in the corporate world.”

At 35, Jealous was the youngest leader in the NAACP’s history. When he took over the storied organization it was politically peripheral and financially shaky, with a dwindling donor base, poor leadership and virtually no social media presence to connect with the post-civil rights era generation.

When Jealous left in December, annual revenue had almost doubled to $46 million and the donor base had grown nearly tenfold to more than 132,000. He bolstered the organization’s social media and digital contact list to rival the best in the nonprofit world – enough for Fortune magazine to name Jealous to its annual “40 Under 40” list in 2012.

“It’s really a ‘wow’ announcement,” said Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, which last year pledged to invest $50 million over the next seven years to help young men of color in California academically.

“To have a renowned, noted civil rights warrior advocating for the future of young people in a visible Silicon Valley role is really extraordinary. You could have asked me 100 possible job possibilities for Ben Jealous when he left the NAACP and that wouldn’t have been on the list,” Ross said.

Tackling ‘social problems’

Kapor Capital’s hiring of Jealous – who will be based in Washington, D.C. – is another sign of frustration with the federal government’s ability to address social problems. Last week President Obama, backed by $200 million in philanthropic pledges and business support (including backing from the Kapors), launched a new program, My Brother’s Keeper, to help young men of color succeed in school and the job market.

“In the era of gridlock,” Kapor Klein said, “some of the old methodologies of how you get social change accomplished are at best stalled – at worst dead. So we are using the best of startup culture and applying it to intractable social problems.”

Quietly, Jealous’ interest in the business world has grown. For years, often after NAACP fundraisers at the Kapors’ summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, the couple and Jealous would talk about “how there should be more connection between the business world of innovation and the civil rights world,” Kapor Klein said.