Jamie Michael Hemmings had the pleasure of interviewing Altif Brown, Co-founder and Chief Community Officer (CCO) of Constellation, a technology startup within the blockchain space. Altif is responsible for oversight and curation of the robust Constellation community and ensuring its members have the tools necessary for a fluid experience across the Constellation ecosystem. He has worked to grow digital communities from hundreds to millions, while traveling around the world as a spokesperson for various Fortune 500 companies, becoming a self-made, multi-millionaire millennial — a millennionaire, if you will — in the process. Altif has dedicated his spare time to fulfilling his philanthropic values, taking after his mother who has committed herself to helping to reform the Bay Area criminal justice system. Most notably, he is interested in raising awareness about discrimination in the workplace.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity. I am actually a third generation Silicon Valley native — both my parents and myself were born and raised in San Francisco. After his tour in the Vietnam War, my grandfather was one of the first Black Aerospace Machinists in Silicon Valley. Prior to that, he grew up as a water boy for Southern sharecroppers, headed to California by way of the Marine Corps. He met my grandmother in Silicon Valley, who at the time was one of the few Black women employed at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), working as an operator with switchboards and circuitry. In all honesty, being one of the few Black people in a room full of White people and computers is not foreign to my family, which I believe has allowed me to circumvent the various aspects of culture shock that many of my kinfolk often feel entering into the tech space.
Growing up my father and I had increasingly implacable “disagreements” (to say the absolute least) around my identification within the LGBT community, leading to my grandfather becoming the dominating male influence in my life and instilling in me his ideals of broad critical thinking, resilience, and technical aptitude. My mother — with a Black Panther tattoo on her arm — worked hand in hand with Child Protective Services to both reunite and prevent families from being broken apart. She now performs restorative justice functions inside of Bay Area prisons.
As an only child, I had a magnified exposure to adults, and without an atmosphere diluted by other children, my verbal and social skills were sharpened early on. At around 9 years old, I started reading my parents philosophy books, which undeniably added to my breadth of logic-based skills. A combined backdrop of a family deeply rooted in Silicon Valley, activism, and progressive ideals, made me who I am today.
After dancing hip hop competitively for 15 years, I decided to attend University to further my education in a subject I was still passionate about but was a little more traditional. I graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a Bachelor of Science in Philosophy, taking as many courses in Logic as I could. Logic, a branch of Philosophy that I had dabbled with since I was a child, is the basis for mathematics and computer science. I credit this as to why my co-founder/CTO Wyatt Meldman-Floch and I are able to riff back and forth on theoretical physics, fractional calculus, or the origin of time itself.
Right after graduation, I entered the startup world and worked for a variety of CEO’s and founders, all of whom have made me a better person — especially the ones that fired me. Like a sponge, I absorbed as much knowledge as possible, as quickly as possible, and then moved on. In most places, job hopping is looked down upon, but in the Valley, staying anywhere for too long is considered a cardinal sin. Like the majority of my friends, I began to “overheat” like a machine — overcommitting, overleveraging, and eventually shutting down. I thought I was done with the startup life, and planned to go work at Twitter, or Google, or some gigantic company — maybe even leave The Bay altogether. Then Wyatt, who had been a friend and Squash partner for several years, approached me to help him build out community at a startup. Low-key, I scoffed because I was basically packing my bags to become a dancer in Atlanta, but shortly after, I met my Co-Founder/CEO Brendan Playford, who gave me the big picture of Constellation Labs. A year later, here we are.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we began building Constellation Labs last year, we left our jobs and got together to work on this project full-time. As we were not in place to even begin considering fundraising, we had to bootstrap the company ourselves. Building a company, with no income, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is no easy task, and funds were being depleted faster than they were coming in. Towards the end of December, when we got together for Brendan’s birthday and closed our first bit of capital for $50k USD, we decided to order Thai food in celebration. One by one, our cards were declined because our limits had been reached. We realized each of us had maxed out our credit cards and significantly slimmed our bank accounts. Hungry and anxious for this adventure, one of us bit the bullet, accepted the overdraft fee — we haven’t looked back since.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I entered into the blockchain world, via bitcoin, in 2011 — albeit I was only nominally involved at the time. When we began the mission of Constellation, and I took a deep dive into the fintech community, you could say I “took the red-pill,” to quote the Matrix. However, I probably took too many red-pills — once I pulled back the foundations of this technology and submerged myself into the benefits of providing a decentralized ecosystem to anyone with a mobile device, there was no way I could turn back.
Existing blockchain technology, which powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, is inherently flawed because it lacks scalability. Simply put, the only thing stopping the world from being one hundred percent decentralized — barring special interests — is the lack of scalability within the space. We decided to take this issue upon ourselves, opening the doors to a truly decentralized world.
So to drill down a bit further, the more people that begin to use Bitcoin or Ethereum, the slower the network gets over time, thus creating higher fees and throttling of transaction speeds. Constellation is fundamentally different; the more people that use Constellation, the faster it will get over time. This allows for unbounded scalability, without any transaction fees and a throughput that can rival and ultimately surpass that of Visa. This unlocks the ability for everyday entrepreneurs and existing enterprises to remove their processing costs and exponentially increase their security by decentralizing themselves. Granted this is just the starting point, but beyond that, our Foundation is tasked with leaving an impact on the environment, social issues, and the future of the industry, while helping to deliver stability to the space by allowing multiple blockchains to interact with each other.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Constellation Labs, our Foundation, and the entities within the Constellation ecosystem get my full attention. When I can fit it in, I advise a few startups. Ultimately, the amount of bandwidth I dedicate to new projects takes away from what I can provide Constellation. Probably in a few years, after I’m 30, I’ll begin to experiment with side verticals.
The team at Constellation itself has been working on exciting developments, including a new developer portal and our first decentralized application. Orion, a membership portal to the Constellation ecosystem, will serve as a platform where the Constellation team, developers, and community members can communicate, share resources, and contribute to the network within a token compensation model.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I personally believe that company leaders help their employees thrive by creating a culture of empowerment, education, and equality. Some founders and CEOs view employees as people that work for them. This mentality is fundamentally flawed. They work with you. Every individual, at every company, has their own hopes, dreams, and ideas of their future; your company should be a conduit to achieve them. We need to allow people to develop as they are, as well as provide leeway to employees allowing them to develop themselves. This means it is essential for leaders to delegate and educate. Delegation serves the purpose of freeing up our own time to focus on more macro issues, while also giving people the opportunity to develop different skills. Encouraging collaboration better establishes trust between peers and synthesizes competing ideas into an optimal solution. Realizing that nothing is perfect and, more specific to the tech space, acknowledging that everything is always “on fire” to some degree, allows you to better prioritize and continue to develop your prototypes through constant iteration and refactoring.
Ultimately, people need to feel empowered to make decisions and ask for help when they require it. When approached, take the time to teach, because when people stop learning, they will stop caring, become toxic, and will leave — or even worse, they stay and spread negativity throughout the company.
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?
No, I would not attribute my success to one specific person and let me tell you why: my very first gamertag/PSN was @Chaos_Theory_89. Why is this important?
1) It’s hella cool.
2) I’ve always believed in the mathematical principle of Chaos Theory — that within the apparent randomness of this chaotic complex system called life, there are underlying patterns.
Obviously, I can sensitively depend and focus on my initial conditions, whereby I thank my family, the environment I was raised in, my friends, my fears, the grand architect of the universe, and anything else that laid the foundations. However, as I navigate this deterministic, apparently nonlinear system of “success”, one small change can result in large differences later on. As they say, a butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest can cause a hurricane in China. Well, if I had never met Wyatt, would I be here? Probably not. If my parents decided to move to Peru instead of remaining in California? Nope.
So no, there is not one singular person I am grateful towards, but everyone who has ever pushed me to try and all those who told me not to. Every minute change to my persona, appearance, and skill set, has culminated in my position here today. I’m not just the product of my own actions but of everyone that I’ve ever met — and even those that I haven’t.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe my success alone does not bring goodness into the world but contributes to a bigger picture of “goodness”. The world is good in itself, even though there may be aspects that have been co-opted by those who wish to further their own wealth and reach, at the expense of others. Avariciousness is never satiated, and ultimately, even the purest at heart can become corrupted as their interpretations of purity change. Constellation is a mere facet of the entire blockchain ecosystem which, in many ways, is largely focused on decentralizing power and profit in a way that fairly folds people whom have been left out back into the conversation. Success is the journey, not the destination. That’s why I get up early every morning and have trouble falling asleep — there is so much work that we do that needs to get done. To be quite frank, I’m very blessed be a part of Constellation and to have my amazing co-founders, along with the broader team, driving forth the vision where borders and identity do not define your access to abundance and prosperity.
Can you share the top five lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) There are very few Black men in the technology field. This, regardless of if you like it or not, makes you a part of the “Talented Tenth.”
Civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois discusses the “Talented Tenth” as: “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races…”
So, as we navigate these various tech spaces, you will regularly carry the burden of representing all of Black people. Granted, none of us are foreign to that feeling; however, it is amplified when your daily actions directly help or hinder the next Black person trying to enter into the field. You are no longer the exception to the rule, but the rule itself. When I go to events, people of all races are surprised that I’m a founder and sit on the C-Suite. When I question their surprise, they admit it’s because I’m Black, and then follow up with words of encouragement and hope. This pattern magnifies the sense of responsibility to succeed, not just to further your own ambitions, but to soften the entry point for people of color breaking into startups.
2) It is imperative to develop a thicker skin to cultural ignorance. Historically, tech has been one of the least diverse fields of profession. With that, you have to be prepare yourself to face daily culture shock. I’m pretty nimble conversationally, and even I’m taken aback by some of the discussions that I’ve been brought into. I’ve worked with people who didn’t know that “Black Lives Matter”, multiple people who actually were surprised that Jay Z and Kanye West were not the same person, and people who actively campaign to remove diversity scholarships. I, as the “resident Black person” am obligated to either weigh in or let the absurdity continue. Yes, it’s tiring, and no, it’s not the duty of Black people to educate White people. However, it’s easier for me to quickly triage genuine ignorance, intervening before it snowballs into a larger ingrained thought, like thinking Barack Obama is neither Black nor an American.
3) Quoted from an African Proverb, “smooth seas rarely make skillful sailors.” Be uncomfortable, and be comfortable being uncomfortable. It will dramatically improve your ability to reason, while making agile decision changes. Being slightly amorphous allows you to pivot with ease — one of the most important practices in business, especially in the tech sector.
4) As George Addair once said, “everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” So, take the leap. At one point, I was confronted with the dilemma of diving into the startup space as a founder, or having a cushy job that I could easily coast through. Would taking a cozy job get me anything more than I already had? No. I’m in my 20’s, so might as well face my fears of failure now, while no one is directly dependent on me, rather than risk it all later in life. No one knows how their story will play out, but this is the most exciting time of my life. No matter the outcome, I was here, battling on the frontlines with an incredible team, building something truly revolutionary — and that’s really all I’ve ever wanted. However, I had to cross over my own fears to get here.
5) If you want to sit at the table, then you may need to bring your own chair and — frankly — the whole damn table. Countless times, I’ve been left out of calendar invites to meetings that literally concern my role. When confronted, my superiors have told me “they forgot to include me.” I don’t think there was malintent. I believe they genuinely forgot me, which is worse in its own way. To actually forget me — with my big personality and bold presence — shows they were never paying attention to begin with. So I learned quickly that regardless of your title or position in the company, you will need to fight for your seat at the table with as much rigor as you did as an entry level intern. I would say this is true for anyone, regardless of race, but when we as minorities achieve “success”, we cannot rest on privilege that we never had to begin with. All that does is perpetuate the existing hegemonic mentality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Voltaire once said that, “God gave us the gift of life, but it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living.” For me, it reminds me to take time to embrace my own humanity: to love deeply, to explore, to reflect, to look past wealth and appreciate wisdom, to occasionally mute the cries of responsibility to focus on freedom, and to breathe. Although life may be short, it is the longest thing that you’ll ever do, so make the most of it.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
As a diehard Warrior fan, I would love to meet Klay Thompson, however, Trevor Noah is someone I would be very interested in dining with. He utilizes his platform to demonstrate that everyone has a right to be outspoken, opinionated, and virtuous — particularly those who are able to bring a diverse perspective to the conversation. Growing up, there weren’t nearly enough Black celebrities in America who were willing to “stand up” to the System — who were willing to provide their voices to speak out against the discrimination towards minorities. Trevor Noah empowers young people, especially young people of color, to be confident to not only stand up against hatred and bigotry — which seems to be amplifying itself in recent years, likely due to the unbounded reach of social media (but’s that a topic for another day) — but also against the feigned ignorance of racism that people hide behind. He energizes this generation and the next, so that they educate themselves on their rights and stand up for themselves, and others, against discriminatory practices.
In particular, I really appreciate his take on the theory of “the Black tax,” which he references in his memoir, Born a Crime. This is an idea, presented to him by his mother but held widely within the Black community, that the young, successful, Black pioneers of the family are unable to fully enjoy their successes because they are responsible for lifting up the “pillaged” generations of the past. The typical definition of “the black tax” is that Black people have to work harder than their counterparts to achieve similar outcomes. Trevor Noah takes the idea one step further, demonstrating that the African American experience is impacted equally by present-day obstacles as well as decades of internalized struggle — that in our community, success doesn’t exist in a silo.
I think Trevor and I would be able to have an interesting discussion about not only about tackling racial issues in the country, but also about our similar life experiences as young, Black, entrepreneurs making our way in White dominated markets. Furthermore, I would appreciate the opportunity to help him educate his viewers on “The Rise of Bitcoin and Other Stupid Meme Currencies” — because at the end of the day, all people — regardless of color, creed, or country of origin, should be able to utilize currency that is not unilaterally controlled by those who seek limitless power and profit without regards for the collateral damage left in their wake.
Originally published at medium.com