California born businessman Clayton Banks was an excited teen going to visit his brother at his UCLA dorm, he says, when he first encountered racism. “I was walking along and a car came by and someone yelled the N-word. I was just so appalled. I freaked out. I mean,” he paused at the memory, “I was really flabbergasted.” After he processed the incident Banks says he realized, “It had nothing to do with me. It was their ignorance.”
Clayton Banks is not only imposing in stature- standing at 6′ 2″- but impressive in accomplishments. A graduate of Cal State Fullerton and Harvard Business School’s Executive Management Program, Banks was an executive at Comedy Central and Showtime Networks in the nineties. He then founded Ember Media Corporation, where he produced multimedia and broadband content for Discovery Networks, HBO, Pepsi Corp., Bloomberg TV, and Showtime. Banks also brought the “More Than A Mapp” application and website, featuring over three-hundred African American landmarks, to market in 2013.
Not one to sit on his laurels, since then Banks has been focused on “for-profit social venture” Silicon Harlem, which he co-founded along with Princeton graduate and senior fellow at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information at the Columbia Business School, Brian Lincoln. The company works to bridge the digital divide in Harlem where a significant number of residents don’t have adequate internet access.
Carefully folding himself into one of the white leather sofas in the backstage lounge at a recent New York City tech conference, Banks spoke to the LA Sentinel. The second youngest of five, Banks is a self-described childhood beach bum and army brat. “I grew up on the beach,” he said. “Me and my family only identified as military.” The unique culture of military families caused Banks to believe that American society was egalitarian. “I grew up thinking,” he says, ‘I’m just like everybody else.” As he neared adulthood, reality clouded his sunny southern California outlook.
He recalled, “When my father retired I went out into the ‘civilian world’ and I realized, some people are really rich and some people are poor.” Banks humbly admits he was floored to find out about single-parent homes. “Everyone I knew lived with a mother and father.”
Deeply dismayed Banks, who has a penchant for sporting colorful eye-catching blazers, set out to ultimately “Fix things.” He wanted the world at large to be one where, he stated, “Everybody is given the same access and opportunities, and you use your talent to really succeed. This shouldn’t be based on how you look or where you’re from, or the zip code where you are born.” Banks realized all Americans knew this truth deep down. “All the papers where slave owners used to write about their slaves, they would say ‘they’re ten times smarter than my kids. They built me an irrigation system.’ [Enslavers] couldn’t understand how that happened!”
Banks takes a practical view of the evolution of America’s digital divide. Massive infrastructure deployment, Banks explained, required massive infusions of investment. To make their money back as quickly as possible, he says, “It was better to deploy your network first in affluent neighborhoods.” This unequal distribution of technological resources ended up being strongly correlated with race.
With Silicon Harlem, Banks is looking to help others bridge that divide. “Everyone,” he emphasized, “should have an internet connection. Broadband should be in every single home. You cannot navigate the internet with just a cell phone, so everyone needs to have a computer as well.”
Through a number of strategies, Silicon Harlem aims to make this a reality for all households. As its website states, “The goal of Silicon Harlem is to develop accessible broadband infrastructure, reproducible in urban markets that is affordable, fast, resilient, and smart.” Partnerships with educational institutions, government entities, and private institutions are how they achieve this. Silicon Harlem has also provided a digital literacy curriculum, tech skills courses, code and programming classes, and ongoing events to the public, and hosts an annual Next Gen Tech Conference.
There are things that even the most ordinary among us can do to improve our value in the digital economy Banks suggests. “Look around in your community for programs in coding or AI learning. Take advantage of free courses in middle and high school.”
Adults can also benefit from programs like these, particularly if they are open to a career change. Banks explained, “There are continuing education programs where you’ll find coding classes, and opportunities in learning more about technology. Sometimes you have to put up a little money but it’s not nearly as much as you have to pay for full-on national trading programs. It’s a great way to get more digitally literate.”
The additional learning can translate into much higher income and Banks suggests looking for areas that are emerging such as drone flying. It’s a career where, he says “the starting wage is $75 an hour. There’s more jobs available in drone flying than people that are certified, the only criteria is to be sixteen or older.”
Banks sees growing equality in digital literacy as inevitable to the continuing success of America itself. “Slavery and Jim Crow weren’t sustainable. The digital divide isn’t sustainable either. This country needs everybody to really be successful.”