“In 1946 Einstein traveled to the historically Black Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from President Horace Mann Bond (the late father of civil rights pioneer, Julian Bond). While Einstein received hundreds of offers for the honorary doctorate, the Lincoln invitation was one of few he ever accepted. Historians note that while visiting Lincoln, Einstein gave a speech in which he told a campus-wide audience, ‘My trip to this institution was on behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is separation of [people of color] from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of [people of color]. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.’ Einstein later gave a rare lecture on relativity to the Lincoln students.” (source: Albert Einstein: Fighting Racism Beyond the Lab by Samantha Elliott Briggs, Ph.D)
I’ve watched the statements, blacked out websites, and hashtags from all manner of companies roll out over the last couple weeks. My team too has urged me to shout out from the rooftops our support of the protests, and to yell at the top of our lungs that BLACK LIVES MATTER, a statement that in any just world would be entirely self-evident.
What a fucked reality we live in that there is any debate about this statement, because of course black lives innately, entirely, irrevocably matter. That it took a global pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers looked on, to create this long-overdue reckoning is madness. That the murder of Breonna Taylor by police while she slept, or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three white men while he was taking a jog, or the killing of Tamir Rice in 2014 by a white police officer when he was just 12, and thousands upon thousands of others over centuries were not enough of a sign of evil to bring everyone to the streets in their time brings physical pain to my heart.
But I hesitated to say what we all believe in our team and what I personally believe, because I knew we were complicit.
Before getting into the hologram game at Looking Glass, for almost a decade I worked on clean water and clean energy inventions in partnership with teams in Guatemala, the Philippines, and Haiti. During that time I saw that it was the makeup of the teams I was a part of that was the key to our breakthroughs, and I became convinced that the monoculture of Silicon Valley just wouldn’t work in the business of generating the genuinely new ideas the world needed. So when I co-founded Looking Glass, it was built on the belief that a diverse team in terms of gender, race, and nationality would lead to the greatest inventions the world had ever known.
For this reason, I always took some solace in the diversity of our team. But the reality is, despite perhaps appearing at first glance to be a company of the future at least relative to the incredibly low bar that exists in startupland, and despite having incredibly talented black members of our team, we have no black team leads in our company. We have a board of directors made up of four white men. And there isn’t a single black inventor or co-inventor on any of the patents we’ve churned out.
This isn’t a result of what some would dismiss as a “pipeline problem”. So many of the leaders in the teams outside of the US I’d worked with in my prior life in the cleantech space were from all backgrounds, a mix that represented the diversity of the world. While we didn’t patent most of our inventions in those days, many of my co-inventors from that time were equally diverse. Flashing forward to the present, in my opinion the greatest living inventor in the advanced interfaces field I now work in is a black inventor, Lanny Smoot at Disney. So I don’t know how it is that as a company in the center of the universe, New York City, we’ve found that we are actually a monoculture, not in the team as a whole but indisputably in leadership and inventorship.
We used to have the phrase “No Dystopian Futures Allowed” painted on our office door. We would not be like the other tech companies that have created so much more harm than good, I would tell myself. But we aren’t really any different. We, like all of tech, are in a business built on white supremacy. And because of how much technology impacts so much of our lives, this has a long term, incredibly deep impact that contributes as much to persistent and pervasive racial inequality in the US and around the world as a system of police brutality that is designed to kill black and brown citizens.
So, we are committed to change starting with our own company. By posting this note, I am expecting to be personally held accountable to increase black representation and of other underrepresented groups both in leadership in our company, in the board, and in the inventions we create. We are also committed to supporting the communities we’re a part of. Everyone in our team is making donations to the organizations they believe in, on the company dime, some of which I’ve listed below. We will also be taking further actions in the coming weeks.
Beyond this, all tech companies need to be held accountable to the black squares and hashtags they’ve posted. All of the police departments of the world can be overturned and transformed, but if the leaders in tech continue to be white men as they are in our company and in nearly every tech company I know, the innate bias created by such an imbalance combined with the wide reach of tech will mean, ultimately, the transformation we seek towards a more just world will be incomplete.
I hope the protests for racial justice march on for months and months to come building on the incredible results of just these last two weeks. I hope our policing systems are torn down and something cut from wholly new cloth takes their place. And I hope the white supremacy in tech ends, starting with us.
To the future.
-Shawn & the Looking Glass Factory team
A few of the groups we’re supporting right now: