The Root: Ben Jealous Continues His Civil Rights Fight ‘by Any Means That Works’

Kapor Center

By The Root staff

Benjamin Jealous left the NAACP in January, but, he says, he plans to “stay on track with my life’s mission of leveling the playing field in this country.” And in the next phase of his career—as a venture partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact—he’ll be focused on “trying new ways” to expand opportunities for young black and Latino students and entrepreneurs.

Jealous—who became the youngest-ever president and CEO of the nation’s best-known civil rights organization when he took over at the end of 2008—is moving on, but he’s clear about what his legacy is at the NAACP.

Brought in to bring the association into the digital age and get “engaged online in a serious way,” Jealous says that under his leadership, the NAACP “went from less than 200,000 to more than 2 million digital activists.” He believes that “in any type of battle,” including ongoing civil rights struggles, “the ability to get the resources to the front line is really what makes or breaks your success.” And to that end, he says, in five years the association was able to “massively expand” its donor base.

Going forward, Jealous says, “restoring Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act” will be the NAACP’s top priority, but it’s one they’ll have to take on without him, because he’s already beginning a new chapter at Kapor.

The center invests in tech companies that aim to narrow the divide in educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for African Americans and Latinos, particularly in the information technology sector.

When asked if part of the motivation for his next move was a sense that civil rights was migrating away from a government focus—particularly in light of President Barack Obama’s new emphasis on public-private partnerships like his My Brother’s Keeper initiative—Jealous suggested that his is a “‘both-and’ generation” of civil rights leaders who have “stayed in the groove of ‘We shall overcome’” and “resisted the temptation of ‘I shall overcome,’” and have “understood implicitly that we have to be willing” to address civil rights challenges “by any means that work.”

That includes My Brother’s Keeper, of which the Kapor Center is a sponsor.

He’ll be working now to “diversify the start-up culture of the Silicon Valley by any means,” including efforts like Kapor’s sponsorship of “hack-athons” that provide experience for elementary and middle schools students who want to enhance their computer-programming skills and its funding of University Now, a program designed to ease the cost burden of tuition for minority students seeking advanced degrees.

The Kapor Center also works with start-ups like, a service that provides lower-cost digital communication between prison inmates and their families, and Regalii, another service that allows immigrant families to digitally pay bills for their families in their home countries.

The goal, says Jealous, is to provide seed investments for “disruptive technologies that promise to have a positive social impact” and “close gaps in access, opportunity and participation” for African Americans and Latinos in the start-up economy.

Jealous says he’s looking forward to being part of “a diverse team of geniuses who are all focused on large-scale social problems.”

When he was growing up in Northern California, Jealous says, he was “the only black kid on a desegregation bus on the way from Monterey to Seaside,” riding several hours every day to a magnet school for up-and-coming computer scientists.

But as he got older, his career took him into civil rights, politics and journalism—including a stint as the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a syndication service for traditional African-American print media, where he helped bring black newspapers online.

And now he’s come full circle to the tech field.

His opportunity with Kapor, says Jealous, “speaks to that boy in me” who rode the bus to the magnet school, and “feeds the curious geek in me” who embraces technology and wants to help widen the embrace of technology in his community.