Growing up in the Bronx, James lived on a block “where diversity was just the heart of what the block was. You had folks of different races, different relations, different cultures,” he said. “So I thought in my mind that was normal. That’s the way it was supposed to be. I think all throughout my life, that has been at the center of who I am.”
As a student at Howard University, the conversations he had with classmates, friends on the yard, and members of his fraternity and other student organizations opened his eyes even more to the broad range of experiences people had; even in what looks like a mostly homogenous environment. It gave him the space to be himself, while also really fully understanding for the first time the differences between people.
But Austin is very different from D.C. — where he went to college, met his wife, and started his career — and Atlanta, where he moved a few years after graduation to continue his career with Dell.
“Austin opened my eyes even greater and presented the opportunity — it sort of laid the problem bare and allowed me to basically step into the realm and say you’ve got to do something about this, recognizing that (a lack of true diversity where people of all backgrounds have equal opportunity to thrive) is not just a problem in Austin or Texas, this is a problem across the entire country.”
“Would I have started DivInc if I were still living in Atlanta? I don’t know if I would have,” he said. In a city like Atlanta or D.C., “it just seemed like brothers and sisters were just rolling, everybody had it going on, but a good number of Black folks seemed to be doing well,” which made the urgency for James himself to be the one to do something to improve their condition fairly low.
The first time James felt the conflict between Austin’s positioning itself as a diverse city and actually being inclusive of all the people who choose to live here was when he accepted an internal move in Dell to relocate to the company’s Austin headquarters from Atlanta in 1997. He and his wife struggled with things that he’d felt like he took for granted before — things as simple as where his wife could get her hair done, where they could go to worship and establish a church home, and finding a good jazz club for date nights.
Just the simple pleasures that we were used to, they weren’t so easily accessible here
It wasn’t that those didn’t exist in Austin at all. It’s that they were often concentrated in one area — “If (my wife) has to go to Houston, or if she lives in Round Rock and has to go to the Eastside (to get her hair done), that doesn’t speak to a good quality of life,” he said.
“Just the simple pleasures that we were used to, they weren’t so easily accessible here, especially if you were a Black person in Austin in 1997. If you didn’t grow up here, it was a lot different than what you’re used to,” and not an easy adjustment to make as a transplant.
At Dell, James said he was watching Black people, other people of color, women be continually passed over for major opportunities to be in spaces that could lead to wealth generation, high-income generation, and philanthropic efforts. Combined with his personal experiences trying to adjust to Austin — he knew it would be hard to recruit other Black people to want to live here if they had to go across town to find things they were used to. This led him to rethink his role in the city’s landscape.
“We have to break down what the issues are so that all the problem solvers that we have in this city can really address things at the core, not at the symptomatic level,” he said. “There’s a factor of bias, there’s a factor of racism, whether intentional or unintentional, it’s real. There are some people who are purely ignorant about it, and there are some people who don’t understand it, don’t see it. But it’s there.”
We need as many of our citizens to participate in an equitable fashion and make a contribution as they can.
For him, the core issue he could solve was increasing access to capital for Black and brown business owners.
“The whole issue of the racial wealth gap, income gaps all kind of tied in together into entrepreneurship as a way to build wealth, to generate more income for our communities,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is an economic imperative. This is what we have to do in order for this country to remain a global leader. We need as many of our citizens to participate in an equitable fashion and make a contribution as they can.”
“I know what’s possible. I know that it can be done. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it,” he said.