Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, a long-time labor activist with organizations like the South Bay Labor Council and Working Partnerships USA, remembers bitterly what it felt like when her mother--a single parent scraping by on waitress wages--failed to make it home for dinner.

"When you grow up poor, it's so clear that you're poor," Ellis-Lamkins says, recalling her childhood. "I just knew that the world treated you differently, and it felt bad." 

Today, Ellis-Lamkins is head of care at Honor, a San Francisco technology startup that helps in-home aides by paying them a higher-than-average wage of $15 an hour. 

Ellis-Lamkins is one of a number of activists who have recently moved over to the private sector, seeing more promise in a new wave of socially conscious Silicon Valley startups. The business world, these activists figure, can be more effective at reaching large groups of people, especially with its emphasis on selling. Plus, there is widespread frustration with the U.S. Congress, which has enacted fewer than 200 laws since 2015. (By contrast, the "do-nothing" Congress of 1947-49, so dubbed by President Harry Truman, passed more than 900 bills.)

Ben Jealous joined Kapor Capital as an investor, after stepping down as head of the NAACP.
CREDIT: Courtesy Ben Jealous
 

"All of us have confronted the reality in Washington, D.C., that is a Congress that is virtually closed for business," says Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, who now advises and invests in tech startups. "All of us had been national, progressive advocates, leading organizations that needed urgently to solve big problems, and we found ourselves banging our heads against a brick wall. Here [in Silicon Valley] was an opportunity to do things that had proved impossible in Congress." 

After stepping down from the NAACP in 2013, Jealous took a job as a partner with Kapor Capital, the seed investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. What attracted him to Kapor, in particular, is its emphasis on empowering minority communities: Between 2015 and 2017, the firm says it will have invested $40 million in startups that give women and people of color better access to technology and business opportunities. 

So far, Jealous has invested his money and resources into Jopwell, a recruiting firm that connects job candidates of color (African American, Native American, and Hispanic) to high-paying jobs in the tech sector. This year, Jopwell landed on Inc.'s 30 Under 30 list, having connected more than 6,000 candidates to employers such as Goldman Sachs and Facebook. Jealous has also invested in Pigeonly, a Las Vegas startup that lets prison inmates make phone calls and receive photos for roughly 80 percent less than the average cost. The company, which was started by former prison inmate Frederick Hutson in 2012, now has 23 percent of the market share of federal prisons, according to Jealous. 

"I spent over a decade of my life working at the issue [of prison reform], including half a decade at the NAACP, and yet here you have a former inmate turned entrepreneur who's been able to bring relief to almost a quarter of federal inmates in just a couple of years," Jealous says.

"We're not in this to fight the good fight," he adds. "We're in this because we come from beleaguered, embattled communities that need relief to real problems now. In these startups, what we have found is the possibility for large-scale, real solutions that transform people's lives." 

Pinning hopes on tech

Jotaka Eaddy, the head of government affairs at LendUp, a financial technology startup, once thought that Jealous--with whom she'd previously worked at the NAACP--was crazy for becoming a venture capitalist. But then she started paying more attention to the role that technology was playing in bringing major social issues to the fore. In particular, she was impressed with how social media advanced the conversation around Black Lives Matter, a movement to end violence against African Americans that started as a hashtag on Twitter.  

"Everyone has a role to play," Eaddy says. "The private sector is not the total answer. But having market-based solutions that are trying to solve these problems will help the work that advocacy groups are leading." 

Eaddy learned valuable lessons while campaigning to abolish the death penalty for juvenile delinquents. (Her work is widely viewed as having spurred the historic Supreme Court Roper v. Simmons ruling in 2005, which outlawed capital punishment for those under the age of 18.) She started by successfully passing a South Dakota bill that outlawed capital punishment for minors at the state level. 

"What I leaned on was the ability to build coalitions, and determine where there was agreement," she says. "We worked with the kids from Amnesty International, and we realized that we all value human dignity and life. There may not have been an agreement on everything, but there was an agreement there."

At LendUp, Eaddy has similarly put together a social impact team, which analyzes how well the company is serving its poorest clients, including how much it's able to save them by underwriting loans at cheaper-than-usual rates. Today, staffers of all races at LendUp communicate through a "Black Lives Matter" Slack channel, which has also inspired a book club focused on race relations, and how it affects companies. (Eaddy recently persuaded the co-founder and CTO of the company, Jacob Rosenberg, to decline offers to speak at tech conferences unless the panel consists of at least one woman or person of color.)  

Also drawn to fintech is Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who later helped Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren draft a plan for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Cherny is now the co-founder and chief executive at Aspiration, an investment firm focused on the middle class. The startup has served more than 25,000 customers, who pay only what they think is "fair" for advisory fees. "Looking back at some of the first drafts of (now) Senator Warren's paper," Cherny says, he sees "a big part" of what he and his co-founder are trying to accomplish with Aspiration.

"I spent a lot of time arguing that financial firms can be profitable and strong without raking their customers over the coals," Cherny says. "Now I have a chance to put those ideas into practice, to show you can build a strong, profitable financial firm that does start by treating customers well."

Dealing with Silicon Valley's uniformity

Of course, there's some irony in the fact that activists are now turning to Silicon Valley--which historically has failed to include minorities and women--in their efforts to make the world more equal. When tech companies first began to spill their diversity numbers in 2014, it was confirmed that African Americans and Hispanics made up just 5 percent of the overall work force. Two years later, most companies are not faring much better: Consider that Facebook, which has been making an aggressive push to hire more women engineers and people of color, revealed last month that just 2 percent of its U.S. work force is black and only 4 percent is Hispanic. (Those are the same statistics it first reported in 2014.) 

Ellis-Lamkins, Honor's head of care, admits that it's taking her some time to get used to the Valley's whiteness and maleness. "The thing that's been interesting to me about tech is that when I talk to other companies, people talk about where other people went to college," she says. The emphasis, she says, is on the elite institution a person attended, rather than his or her "diversity of experience."

Ellis-Lamkins herself has a diverse work background: She spent decades campaigning for labor reform, but also helped the musician Prince secure the rights to his musical masters in 2014. When she hires people, she says she tends to look beyond a person's educational experience. "I like hustlers, those who are hungry and ambitious and skilled," she says. "That person could work at Trader Joe's, that person could come to be a Stanford MBA." 

She's hoping Silicon Valley will learn this lesson too. As a former activist, she believes that it's hard to reach lower-income communities if you have a staff that's upper middle class. 

"It's a very different world, because it has the opportunity to be a meritocracy--but it's not set up to be that," she says. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the executive who declines speaking engagements that do not consist of at least one woman or minority. It is Jacob Rosenberg, co-founder and CTO of LendUp.