Community leader James Posey at his Eliot E-Mat Café. “I often feel the African-American community is on the verge of extinction given the total desolation of opportunities,” he says.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
In 2010 Green wrote a series of articles for The Huffington Post called “Innovation Crisis in Black America.” That series was a “catalytic, seminal event,” says America21 cofounder and chief strategist Johnathan Holifield, an Ohio-based founder of the Trim Tab System, a personal development and organizational leadership methodology. “Mike took the crisis in black education and connected that crisis to our inability to form capital and create growth enterprises to create jobs,” Holifield says. “Nobody has done that the way Mike has.”
It was while Green was writing the Huffington Post series that he met both Holifield and Womack, the latter a biochemist and STEM education advocate. Together, the trio came up with the concept and tagline that distinguishes America21: a comprehensive “pipeline through productivity” framework, with STEM education as the pipeline that fuels the productivity of high-growth entrepreneurship and access to capital.
At stake is more than African-American prosperity, Green and his colleagues are careful to say. “We are not talking about a problem that just rests with black America,” says Womack. “It’s an American problem. The larger issue is how metropolitan centers and urban communities connect to the job and wealth engine that is the innovation economy.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, their world-historical approach, the group has accomplished a remarkable amount since launching America21 in January 2011. The trio have become an authoritative voice on the subject of black innovation and have produced or participated in dozens of events aimed at building the innovation ecosystem, including holding the nation’s first Minority Gathering of Angels, a partnership with the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers Business School, leading a panel on inclusive competitiveness at a White House Summit on Entrepreneurship, and producing the nation’s first Minority Biomedical Entrepreneurship Conference, held in Cleveland this past spring.
Last fall the group also sponsored screenings and panel discussions of a CNN series called Black in America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley. That event, which was held in several cities, including Portland, explains one of the mysteries behind Green and America21: why the group chose a white city like Portland to seed a black economic development initiative. For his part, Green says he never intended to target Portland but changed his mind after Posey contacted him, saying, “You are a black man in Oregon doing these things around the country, and you’re ignoring your own back yard. Your own people are right here.”
Green responded by saying, “Really, how many are you?’”
In the end, about 70 people showed up to the screening, most of them African-American. That’s when the idea of the urban innovation roundtable was born, a local organization that would bring together policymakers, educators, investors, tech entrepreneurs and representatives from disadvantaged communities to begin implementing the different pieces of the America21 framework. A couple of months later, Green delivered the MLK keynote at the convention center, where the PDC’s Quinton, in front of an audience of 1,000 people, pledged the agency’s support. “That’s when the excitement took off,” says Green.
When Green was in the ninth grade, his mother had him take a test that would allow him to enroll in a summer math and science institute at a private school located an hour’s bus ride away. During those summers — he attended the following year as well — Green conducted chemistry experiments, surveyed and went on field trips to Exxon. “I understood from that experience that my little paradigm, my world, wasn’t even competitive with what the real world was like,” he says. “It scared me and it made me angry.”
Thirty-five years later, Green is making the personal political, seeking to transform what he describes, in typically lofty language, as “20th-century economic narratives” into awareness of and engagement with the 21st-century knowledge-based economy. That transformation, he says, will require a shift in the sociopolitical as well as economic attitudes and behaviors manifest in disadvantaged communities.