Adrian Le’Roy Devezin of Empowr: “Figure out what you are good at and build on that”

Figure out what you are good at and build on that. Let’s pretend your companies’ goal is to fix food deserts that plague inner cities. Your company is good at making vertical gardens for schools, but you also do food delivery and community gardens. Focus on building vertical gardens for schools. By specializing in a […]

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Figure out what you are good at and build on that. Let’s pretend your companies’ goal is to fix food deserts that plague inner cities. Your company is good at making vertical gardens for schools, but you also do food delivery and community gardens. Focus on building vertical gardens for schools. By specializing in a particular area, you will perfect your craft and become more efficient over time. Suppose you find it critical to offer food delivery, partner with another organization in a mutually beneficial way. Remember, Google was once just a search engine.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Le’Roy Devezin.

Adrian Le’Roy Devezin is the Executive Director of Empowr, a nonprofit creating the school-to-career pipeline for black students. He believes that education is the foundation for uplifting communities and economic development. He works to develop STEM-focused education programs that are culturally relevant, community-oriented, mentally empowering and translate into high-paying careers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There is a reason my heart is in Empowr. It embodies the stories of so many black children out there, and that includes me. As a child, I was labeled in the education system. I won’t lie; I was a talker. However, so were lots of kids in my class. I was the only one singled out, though. I didn’t know much about race then, but I knew my teachers treated me differently. It was until I was older and realized what being the only black child in my grade (and practically the whole school) meant. I stuck out. As I grew older, I gave up on school and simply saw it as a place to hang out. My teachers treated me as stupid and hopeless, so that is how I acted. One teacher even admitted she saw me as a “thug.” When I went to college, I had no idea what I was doing. I dropped out and began working retail jobs.

I was going into debt every month because working at a call center wasn’t paying my rent, let alone any other bills. That’s when I had enough. In between calls, I began using an app called AIDE to teach myself Android development. Within months I created my first app. It was a Bitcoin faucet and became the top new finance app of the month. It quickly was taken down by hackers, but my confidence indeed wasn’t. I realized I had a talent and a skill. Every day after work, I was doing my real job, programming. I would learn more and more and continue trying to create apps. Three years later, after losing my apartment and job, I moved from Florida and found my way to Atlanta. I started the year working at McDonald’s; at the end of the year, I was a software developer at a health tech company. Within months I was being flown out for interviews by Facebook, Google, and other big companies. I knew then that the knowledge I gained should be shared with every student who felt like me. I began doing the research into education that later formed the basis for Empowr.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting thing that happened was a case study I did with the Empowr students on the Reddit GME saga. The students got the opportunity to learn more about the stock market and how compound interest works. They understood that even earning a small percentage of money every day adds up big in the long term. Now my students trade stocks in their free time. A group of high schoolers learned about compound interest in stocks for one hour and are now trading. The funniest part, they are way better at it than me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made was not delaying class a week or two when I realized the class start date would be close to my newborn’s birthday. I figured we would be out of the hospital already, and all the books stated newborns frequently sleep for the first couple of weeks. While that is true, we were not out of the hospital. I pulled out my laptop and had the class in the hospital waiting area. Doctors and nurses are rushing around me, my newborn is sleeping in the hospital room with mom, I haven’t slept in days, and I am sitting in this hospital waiting room to teach my students what software development is.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

It was only hard times when I first started, haha. I was meeting all the right people, but I couldn’t obtain any real help from them. It may have been because I was too early in the process, or I wasn’t telling my story the right way. Either way, I realized I was going to have to make this happen without external help. I have never been one who was good at networking; I can be a pretty awkward person. Somehow, I would have to raise the money to fund the first year of courses, develop the curriculum, and find students to participate. After receiving a million no’s from grant applications, I decided to raise the money myself. I began doing contract development work and used my payments from there to fund Empowr. My task was to create an in-depth curriculum that didn’t just teach software development but also taught students how to be a leader, give back to their community, and all the lessons that black children are never taught. At first, I had a very dull Keynote presentation that was full of facts. Over time, by working with the students, I made the class more hands-on and ensured the students’ homework problems contained the additional information I wanted them to learn. I also began adding more case studies to show them how programming could be applied to the world around them. I realized that a curriculum cannot be set in stone and taught from old material as is done in school today. You have to adapt the curriculum as the class goes on to be sure you are teaching students in a relevant way. Finding the students sounds like it would have been the easy part, right? What kid doesn’t want to earn six figures when they graduate high school. The stereotype among black students is that STEM is a “white” thing. It’s a stereotype predominately black schools have working hard to break. It has been ingrained into our cultures since slavery, when black people were restricted from learning. So, while fighting these barriers to entry, I also had to find a school that had time to listen when their budgets had just been cut. It felt as if every step I took would be met with lots of resistance. I wanted to give up the whole time. What kept me going was a phone call with Dr. Saturu Ned. He said we do what must be done because it must be done. My heart is in Empowr, it’s my life dream. It also simply must be done. Empowr must end educational disparity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s hard to choose one. There have been two people who have helped me in different ways. A friend and mentor of mine, Junior Gaspard, has been coaching me on what it means to be an effective leader. His wisdom and realness have been invaluable throughout this journey. While I was still in the research phases of Empowr, it was Dr. Saturu Ned who showed me the power of community. At AfroTech 2019, there was a panel led by the Black Panthers. AfroTech had thousands of people, and we were all trying to cram into this popup tent to hear them speak. I have never seen so many people full of pride and gathering to celebrate and learn more about their culture. After the panel, it was announced the Panthers would be giving a tour of Oakland the next day. I showed up early and got to speak to Dr. Saturu Ned. During the tour, I asked him questions about the research I was doing on the education system. He educated me on the Black Panther’s survival programs’ history, teaching students about finances and helping them in school. To this day, he continues to mentor me and teaches me about the many civil rights groups that worked to bring equity to people of every color and gender.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I know, my favorite life lesson quote is overused and pretty corny. It’s also true. It applies in so many ways to societal problems. Why don’t our welfare programs produce the results they should? Read the quote. Why does our great country have such a high wealth gap? Read the quote. We have adopted a culture of quick fixes but haven’t put in the long-term solutions to attack the problem’s root. By giving people the opportunities, knowledge, and resources to succeed in the long term, we could end these problems within one generation.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

We cannot change the past, and everyone is aware of that. What’s being ignored is how we can ensure the future is better. There are still so many systemic issues built into America’s systems that contribute to women and people of color’s oppression. It’s only now that these issues are even being talked about at a national level. The pain that people have to live with just because of their gender or skin color has gone largely unaddressed. Not to mention, every success for people of color is then met with a fallback. We gained the right to vote, and now they are passing laws to take our right to vote away. We succeeded in integrating schools, so school zones were created as a means of segregation. As a successful software developer and with a great credit score, I had trouble buying a house due to redlining in the industry. At every step, women and people of color have to fight harder to obtain the same comfort level as everyone else. While we are fighting, we endure and witness sexual assault and police brutality daily. This takes a huge mental toll, and eventually, people just had enough. This point didn’t have to come, but now it’s here. We have to work together to fix it.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

There are so many reasons to bring diversity to your executive team. Let’s get the big one out of the way. Diverse executive teams help eliminate the wealth gap and stereotypes that exist today. It is hard for women and people of color to climb the ladder when we continuously have to break ceilings. From a company standpoint, it only makes sense to create a diverse leadership team. Studies have proven that companies with diverse leadership make 35% more profit. I really cannot understand how any company is not creating better diversity goals for that reason alone. Also, companies with more diversity create more innovative solutions, have a better work culture, and have better employee retention. It’s counterintuitive to be a company that does not have women and people of color on your executive team.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I believe to change the status quo; companies need to make an effort to tackle the issues affecting women and black people specifically intentionally.

Tech companies discuss the difficulty of finding black engineers, but very few are working with the local organizations to help raise them. The disparity in education for black children begins in primary school, so tech companies need to start here. Our schools need more than a one-off PR event; we need education programs that teach them real skills.

Once students graduate primary school and have gained tech skills, companies need to make an effort to work with HBCU’s to improve the computer science programs. HBCUs often lack the funding and resources to create quality programs like many other schools.

Suppose companies work with local organizations that teach STEM skills to black students and help the HBCU’s create a proper computer science curriculum. In that case, they will have a direct pipeline to quality diverse talent. Doing this alone will help break the stereotypes about black people in STEM fields, reduce education disparity, decrease the wealth gap, and create a more equitable future.

We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Empowr helps to address education disparity in America. Over 40% of black students currently don’t even have access to the classes needed to be college-ready. This means that regardless of how intelligent, brilliant, or hard-working these children are, they have little hope of getting into college. Empowr’s programs teach STEM subjects in culturally relevant ways to our students. Our first course is iOS development. Students will graduate from our program with the ability to create iOS applications. The average iOS developer makes six figures, so imagine the possibilities these kids will have by learning this skill while still in high school.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out because we ensure our students will graduate high school with everything needed for success. Two of my students, Chase and Chaz, began the course with no knowledge of programming. Chaz has applied his love of graphic design with his programming skill to intern as a UX Designer. Chase is putting his newfound programming skills to as an intern at an early age startup. Another student of mine, Cameron, is studying ahead to learn the latest iOS techniques and on a personalized path of self-growth and leadership to achieve his goal of being a CTO.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Empowr has so many exciting projects coming out within the next couple of years. We are getting ready to push out our news app, Empowr News, officially. It is the first and only new platform featuring all-black news publishers and journalists.

We will also be releasing a machine learning course to ensure students learn cutting-edge technologies. Machine learning is also essential for our students to know, as the code they write will help remove the algorithmic bias in the tech industry.

We have many more things coming down the pipeline focused on creating an equitable future.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

If you have reached a standstill, then it merely means you aren’t innovating. You cannot innovate with old ideas and mentalities. Focus on finding whatever it is that has become the blocker. As an executive, the answer most likely lies with you. You have to create a company culture that is open to taking risks and trying out new ideas. For tech companies, this can be as simple as making a hackathon. Give all your employees a week off from their routine tasks to create products they believe will help the company succeed. You will be surprised at the fantastic ideas your employees have. It will also be fun for them to see ideas come to fruition. The important part is to ensure all your employees can participate without any stressors from their usual work functions.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high-performing sales teams?

If you want a high-performing sales team, diversify it. By having a diverse set of cultures on your sales team, you will increase your relatability to your target market. Diverse groups create more innovative solutions so your sales team will find new ways to tackle any barriers to the market. Since diversity has been shown to increase profitability, it’s a simple solution to your problem.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

The most effective way to find and attract the right customers is simply to listen. Many companies love to decide what customers need and want based on who has the best PowerPoint presentation in the executive meeting. The truth is customers will tell you what they want if you listen. Make meetings with your customers and ask them what needs they have that aren’t being met. Then create a tool that not only solves this need but makes it easy to use. Even after financial brokers removed trading fees, Robinhood continues to thrive as the new kid on the block. Why? Their product is easy to use, and they made something that used to be complicated into an app that anyone can feel comfortable using. Once you have an innovative solution, it pays off tremendously to invest the research into your user experience.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Meet your customers where they are at. This could mean creating products that remove technical knowledge or moving all your complex logic to a server so your customers can use your product on any device. Customers want easy-to-use, convenient experiences.

Build a useful portal. It shouldn’t be challenging to find an answer on how to use your product. If you build a help portal with high visibility, is up to date, and has all the knowledge your customers need, you can save on customer service person-hours. Empower your customers.

Customer service should be available. How many times do you need to reach out to a company, and you are on hold for over 20 minutes? In this modern age, that’s unacceptable. While having a human on the phone may cost more money, invest in chat support experiences. They are cheaper and can operate 24/7.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

I don’t have any fancy acronym or phrase for customer attrition. I find that it is as simple as building relationships of trust with your customers. If you and your customer trust each other, then you can have honest conversations. These conversations allow your customer to let you know if you are not meeting their needs before they begin to look elsewhere. Your customer service team should not just have an inbound section for customer complaints. You need to have an outbound section to facilitate a two-way conversation with your customers and ensure you are meeting their needs.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Hire people that love what you do. If an employee or co-founder is truly motivated towards the company’s mission, they will be happier with their career. More satisfied employees work harder and smarter.

2. Create an inclusive and flexible culture. I used to work for a company that wanted black faces, but not black identities. It was a demeaning experience that led to me eventually quitting. The company has a high turnover among people of color and continually has to find new employees. We learned above that the cost of a new employee and the damage to profitability from lack of diversity is even worse.

3. Figure out what you are good at and build on that. Let’s pretend your companies’ goal is to fix food deserts that plague inner cities. Your company is good at making vertical gardens for schools, but you also do food delivery and community gardens. Focus on building vertical gardens for schools. By specializing in a particular area, you will perfect your craft and become more efficient over time. Suppose you find it critical to offer food delivery, partner with another organization in a mutually beneficial way. Remember, Google was once just a search engine.

4. Focus on the customers, and the profits will come. If you cut every corner to ensure profitability, your customers will feel it. How often do you use a product and think to yourself, “they don’t make them like they used to”? Don’t be that company. Ensure your product meets your customers’ needs and find ways to monetize that infringe on them.

5. Give back. The communities that use your product keep your business afloat. Give back to those communities to help keep them afloat. Not only does this help gain respect and influence for your business, but you are creating a cash cycle. Your customers buy your products; your company supports your customers. The better off your customers are, the more they will help your business.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement would be called walk in my shoes. People would sign up for the service to Livestream moments of their life. The moments would go up to the app server and be edited to show the essential parts. Two people of different cultures will be paired to watch the edited videos of each other’s lives. By exposing people to the struggles, joys, and cultures of each other, we could become closer as a people. Too often, we forget that we are all people on this earth. Social media, which is supposed to bring us together, ends up splitting us up. If we remove the popularity, the stigma, and just experience, then I believe it would bring a deeper understanding of our connection in society.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would like to have a private lunch with Lebron James. Hands down. I have never been into basketball (mostly because I am not very good at it, although I did see him play back when he was with Miami), but his work with the I Promise school amazed me. He wanted to create an equitable future for children just like him, and he took it beyond a simple donation. He launched a school! Not only did he establish a school, but it is built around a STEM curriculum and creates an atmosphere of love and family for its students. It’s an example of what the school system should be.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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