Being a Black man > Being a tech CEO.

9 min readMar 17, 2021

Today, in light of violence against Asian Americans, it felt right to share part of a talk I gave to Amazon’s global customer support team last month. It shows that what happened yesterday has been happening for decades in America. And the anti-Asian hate and violence must end.

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My name is Joah Spearman, and I am an entrepreneur, a community builder, an extrovert, a lifelong learner, a writer, a cinephile, a live music lover, a distance runner, a fiancé, a brother, a son, and perhaps most obviously, a Black man.

I’ve spent the last month thinking about how best to present to you all because this isn’t how I normally do this. Normally, I’d be in a conference room or an auditorium or a college lecture hall or a conference ballroom giving this talk. The idea of talking about racial injustice without really being able to read your faces, see your expressions, and generally feel like I’m not talking to a brick wall is tough, but I have confidence that we’ll get through this together, just like we’ve been doing with this pandemic.

Dealing with customers requires accountability and empathy and a degree of relatability that all organizations should build into their cultures. In thinking of these attributes — the qualities you all are required to exhibit each and every day at work — I came back to the topic of racial injustice.

Why? Because dealing with racial injustice — not just dealing with it, but eradicating it — requires an even greater investment in these same attributes. More accountability, more empathy, and more relatability. That’s what I’m going to be talking about with you all today, because what purpose does history serve if not to educate and inform the ways we improve, show compassion, and connect with one another, accepting, respecting, and valuing differences — race among them — rather than “other”-ing one another to our collective detriment?

I’m sure you all saw the amazing Alexa ad with Michael B Jordan during the Super Bowl. It was hilarious and perfect; definitely one of the best Super Bowl ads in years. Seeing the ad made me think about MBJ in another recent role: playing Bryan Stephenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, in the film Just Mercy alongside Jamie Foxx. It was about EJI’s efforts to free wrongfully-convicted men and women — many of them Black and unable to afford a viable attorney, sentenced to the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.

I was invited to TED Conference a few years ago and had the opportunity to learn more about EJI’s work up close; I gathered some history lessons from them to inform some of my talk today. Since I’m a film buff and I know Michael B Jordan’s next big role will be streamed on Amazon, I figured I’d try something unique and share a brief history — both personal and global — on racial injustice through something filmmakers call a nine-act structure.

Here’s Act 1: How I Got Here

I was born in Temple, Texas, in April 1983, the youngest of three boys, to Kevin and Sabrena Spearman, but some of my earliest memories are of my father’s absence. My mom picked my brothers and me up and moved us to South Carolina when I was 6 and I had to teach myself, in part by watching movies and TV shows and reading books and magazines, how to become a Black man. And to do it in the rise of the Internet age became an entirely different thing.

One thing I’ve had to learn is that to be a Black man today in almost any setting is a political act. If you’re a Black man in the NFL, you’ll be asked about kneeling or standing more than your white teammates. If you’re a Black man in politics, you’ll be asked about civil rights more than your white counterparts. If you’re a Black filmmaker, your movies become political statements rather than entertainment or drama. In my case, being in the tech industry, my journey has brought about countless experiences that have forced me to consider whether or not I want to embrace my standing as a political act.

I can say without a doubt that I spent years of my early career dismissing it. I truly believed in the myth of meritocracy; the idea that a Black man had as good a chance as any to succeed in their chosen profession — especially tech — and in America as anyone else.

It honestly took me being a tech founder for several years before I fully started to look beyond my own positive anecdotes and my own optimism and my own agency to realize that the data tells a different story. Less than 2 percent of venture dollars go to Black founders, despite Black people graduating with computer science, business, MBA, and engineering degrees in record numbers.

Talking about racial injustice is the furthest thing possible from what I thought I’d be talking to Amazon, or almost anyone, about eight years ago when I took a simple idea — “Wouldn’t it be cool if when you travel, you could know where locals go instead of only where tourists go?” — and turned it into a business called Localeur. I pitched some investors, partnered with JetBlue and Nike and Lyft and, became one of the only Black founders in history of tech to raise $5 million without VCs, got invited to TED Conference and to Berkshire-Hathaway’s annual meeting to learn from Warren Buffett, and got to demo an app for the CEO of Apple.

But I’m here because, it turns out, being a Black man in tech is a political act. So embracing that fact has become a part of my journey in being a tech founder and CEO. So today I’m not talking about apps or travel or startups or industry, even, but racial injustice.

When I left Texas at 6 years old, I can honestly say I thought of myself as Young, Black, and Free.

“Free” is an important word to think of when discussing racial injustice because the very nature of racial injustice is an attempt to restrict or remove the freedom of certain people. Slavery was about removing the freedom of agency; they didn’t just make Black people work for free in America. They also restricted their ability to leave those horrendous conditions, they restricted the ability for people to remain with family members, they restricted access to education and information. Freedom didn’t happen for Black people when slavery ended because decades followed that did not free Black people from the threat of racial violence or provide fair and equal access to educational and employment opportunities or political participation or healthcare or land. Today, even, racial injustice restricts the freedom of certain persons all over the world, be it the Uighur Muslims in China whom are subjected to beatings and detention, or the Black and Latino men who are still serving prison sentences for marijuana possession that is legalized in cities and states nationwide today. As you’ll see in some of the examples I’ll share today, racial injustice is about limiting who gets to be fully Free.

Act 2. Idaho, of All Places

I love Boise, Idaho. I’ve been a handful of times. There’s a nice little boutique hotel there called The Modern, great hikes, and every restaurant serves the most gigantic portions you’ll ever see. It’s a smart town because of the university, Boise State, and a growing one because of its proximity to larger metro areas like Seattle and Salt Lake City and its connections to the grocery and trucking industries, among others. But Boise also has some unfortunate history.

Idaho was the 43rd of the United States. Nearly 100 years after Washington, D.C., became the U.S. capital, Idaho became a state. As a state, one could argue that Idaho offers its residents more political influence than more populous states like California, Florida, and Texas, which are more dense and have the same number of U.S. Senators.

D.C., has more than 700,000 residents. The city is 46 percent Black and 11 percent Hispanic/Latino and 4.5 percent Asian. It’s a very diverse place, of which African-Americans make up the largest group; more than 300,000 Black Americans are there.

D.C., is more populated than Wyoming and Vermont and just shy of states like Alaska and North Dakota. More Black people live in the District of Columbia than Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Vermont. Combined.

Those aforementioned states each have two U.S. Senators — a total of 14 U.S. Senators representing seven states that, collectively, have fewer Black residents than D.C. Often times, though, when people think of racial injustice, they start with slavery or the Deep South during the Jim Crow Era. Racial injustice is not limited to the Deep South or Black people in America. And here is where Idaho comes back in.

Decades before Idaho was accepted into the union, racial injustice was accepted into the culture of the territory. Idaho was part of the Washington and Oregon Territories and just a few years after the Civil War, Idaho’s mining and railroad construction had brought more than 4,000 Chinese people to the area, similar to what you may have learned happened in San Francisco during the gold rush. Chinese immigrants in America made up roughly 30 percent of all residents in the territory that is now known as Idaho.

Over the years, Chinese people faced the kind of legalized discrimination, hatred, and violent hostility we typically associate with the KKK against Black Southerners in the early 20th century. In 1866, the Idaho Legislature placed a $5 per month tax on Chinese residents attacking both their financial security and their dignity. If you were Chinese in Idaho, you couldn’t testify against white people in court and you likely couldn’t get the police to protect you or your property even if you were clearly the victim of an act of crime. You were free, but you were less free.

By early February, anti-Asian sentiment had risen in the Pacific Northwest including a riot in early February of 1866 in Seattle. A mob affiliate with the union, the Knights of Labor, forcibly expelled 200 Chinese people from the city. That preceded this very day — February 25 of 1886 when a convention was held in Idaho that culminated in white Idahoans voting to expel Chinese residents from the territory.

Violent mobs — not too dissimilar from the KKK mobs you’ve seen on film or read about — terrorized their homes and families, including 31 miners being murdered in something called Hell’s Canyon Massacre. Towns like Bonners Ferry, Clark Fork, Hoodoo, Moscow, and Twin Falls forced Chinese citizens out in the coming years.

By 1890, Idaho was well on its way toward decreasing its Chinese population from 30% to close to 1% and was granted statehood later that year in something that can’t be considered a historical coincidence.

Today, Idaho — a state where 93% of 1.8 million residents are white and fewer than 30,000 are Asian — has two U.S. Senators. Washington, D.C. — where more than 300,000 Black people reside and, unsurprisingly, more than 30,000 Asians reside — is neither state nor represented in the U.S. Senate.

Washington, D.C.’s political voice is muted because of its Black population. In a nation where democracy enables citizens to vote for their representatives and the Senate is the most powerful legislative, lawmaking body in the country, D.C’’s people — like those Chinese people in Boise some 130 years ago — are less free.

We’ve recently gotten a reminder that racial injustice has many targets, many practitioners and many hometowns. The violence just this month against Asian Americans in the Bay Area and other parts of the country, along with the huge influx of racially motivated voter suppression laws being championed in state legislatures all over America since the Stacey Abrams-led Senate wins in Georgia, is no coincidence. The intent remains the same; to use fear and violence to restrict how free certain people are able to be.

Solidarity must not only be putting our Black Lives Matter statements, but being mindful of the anti-Asian sentiment and violence that has happened in America for the last 150-plus years and just happened again in the Atlanta area this week.

The violence against Asian Americans is rooted in the same racism and injustice that leads to violence against Black people and hatred toward Latino Americans and hatred against Muslim Americans. While our histories in this country are not identical, our desire to live without fear and to be fully free and to be protected against racial injustice is the same.

We must put an end to domestic terrorism, prevent and punish the radicalized white terrorists who’ve brought violence to Asian, Black and other lives for decades in America.




I believe. I have ideas and turn some into businesses. Sometimes I run long distances. Chris Nolan, ATCQ, Lake Como & Murakami are my favorites. @joahspearman