Have a Strategy. Develop the plans for implementing your vision and values. Know what resources are needed (people, skills, processes, technology) to execute. Anticipate your threats and obstacles. Evolve your plan to mitigate or neutralize these. Share it with the employees. Pressure test it. This is how you focus the energy of your teams.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kwesi Ames.
Whether he’s supporting nonprofit organizations in the Washington, DC region, coaching an award-winning youth robotics team, or sharing his experience while serving as a vice president at Salesforce, Kwesi Ames is a Black man in tech who has dedicated his life to advancing others in a space oftentimes not occupied by Black men.
Hailing from Trinidad and Tobago, Kwesi is a graduate of Howard University who is an inspiring leader making an impact wherever he goes. “As a Black man in such a visible role, Kwesi has realized that representation really matters… he’s come to appreciate that people often don’t know what’s possible until they see someone like them doing it,” says Laura Lindeman of Salesforce.
From getting into cloud computing at a relatively early stage when he joined Salesforce, to scaling an organization and serving as a role model, Kwesi’s goal is simple: to help others fulfill their potential.
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?
One day, I was walking by the computer lab in my high school, and I noticed a group of kids playing quite possibly one of the best computer games at that time — Ghostbusters. Intrigued, I went into the computer lab to see what was going on. As kids do, I played for a bit, left, and figured I’d go back again because I had so much fun. When I returned, I was confused to see my new friends not playing the computer game and instead were typing these strange words onto the screen. What I was seeing was coding in BASIC, and it was my initial curiosity at a computer game that drew me into my career today.
As a result of my newfound interest, I dropped the chemistry course I was taking and replaced it with computer science. It was there that I started with BASIC programming language, and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are several interesting stories, but I think the most interesting involves a former manager seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
My boss approached me one day and said, “Hey. I think you should be a supervisor.” Stunned, I told them I wasn’t interested because all I wanted to be at the time was a tech nerd. I’d never considered myself as a leader. The thing about that manager was he was persistent. After two weeks of convincing me to give it a shot, he won me over. I reluctantly stepped into something uncomfortable and new, and it ended up opening my eyes to abilities I didn’t know existed. Whatever my manager saw in me, it was dead on.
Thanks to his intuition about my abilities and his persistence in helping me see those abilities, I went from leading my shift team of 5, to leading the global team of about 40 employees. It’s humbling to be able to say I’ve led successful global teams when I was once timid about my leadership abilities. I’m glad I gave it a shot.
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?
Some people are scared of sending an email to the wrong list, but you can’t send emails if you don’t have a server, right? What happened to the server? I deleted the root filesystem. An rm -rf mistake.
It wasn’t funny back then, but I laugh at it now. It taught me several valuable lessons:
1. To pause more and make sure I double check my work.
2. Never let a good mistake go to waste. i.e. Learn from them.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail. Your career will be filled with mistakes (and learned lessons). Embrace it.
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?
Giving up never really factored into my thinking.
My very first job out of college was my own business. I teamed up with a few friends of mine, and the focus of our company was writing scripts. For two years, I was the CEO and survived on $600 per month. As you can imagine, it was hard. At one point, a company showed interest in buying us out, and that was an exciting time for all of us.
Looking back, we had no idea what we were doing, but it equipped us with the skills and confidence to be successful and bold in every aspect of life.
I’m thankful for the people in my life who taught me about perseverance. In Trinidad, my grandmother built a wooden shop where she sold fried fish on the side of the road. For her, there was no option to give up. When I think about strength, she’s who comes to mind, and I like to think she passed that quality down to me. Because of the example she set, I also worked hard to have the opportunity to attend the best school on the island of Trinidad. None of my relatives at the time had yet made it that far educationally, so I understood the weight of my responsibility to do my family proud.
No matter how hard things have gotten, I always ask myself, “Will this make my family proud?”
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?
I used to hitchhike to school. Without reliable transportation available, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me to and from school. If not for them, I’m not sure where I’d be.
Someone who has had an impact on my life would be my scout leader because he taught me, “always strive for excellence”. In him, I saw someone who gave back selflessly in the community. He exposed me to leadership opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for him.
Another person would be my computer science teacher who introduced me to coding in BASIC.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stay the high ground.” Always be authentic, don’t play politics, be real, be true. Don’t devolve your humanness. Even if you stumble, walk with your head held high. Remember, you can never lose, you only win or learn.
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?
America has serious anxieties about the shifting demographic of the country. There are some people who would rather see Black people in “their place”. When those people see their world becoming more black and brown, there’s a fear of sharing power and wealth. Equality sounds great, but we aren’t yet having the courageous and difficult conversations to really understand our current inequality and what must be overcome and shared to really carve a path toward true Equality.
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?
Because you want diverse thought, the best thoughts come from a diverse pool. If you hire the same people, you’re going to get the same thoughts. But when you have diverse backgrounds, you’re going to have a different line of thinking and better problem solving. It’s proven. Diverse teams can connect and relate to our diverse customer base. Your community is made up of all kinds of people.
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 in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We need an investment in STEM education to be a default. We’re not going to fix this problem today. I want to walk into a PreK program and put a robot in their hands, and it’s part of their curriculum through high school. There’s no shortage of jobs, jobs of the future are in front of the computer. You cannot escape technology, so embrace it. Change the education system. Give people champions to mentor them. Address insecurities and imposter syndrome in people of color. Make equality and inclusion part of your company ethos.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Racial Injustice. The company formed a Racial Equality and Justice Task Force to take action in four areas: People, Philanthropy, Purchasing, and Policy. The task force is composed of employees of all levels with related expertise to drive progress. I was a member of the task force addressing the People area. Our goal was to double the U.S representation of Black leaders and increase underrepresented minority employee representation by 50% by 2023. My colleagues in Philanthropy were investing $200M and 1M volunteer hours in racial equality and justice over the next 5 years. The folks working on Purchasing, committed to spend $100M with Black-owned businesses and $100M in capital to Black and underrepresented minority founders over the next three years. Lastly, the employees addressing Policy, were working to advance laws and regulations that protect against racism and discrimination, by advocating for meaningful police reform, civic engagement and protection of voting rights, and for economic empowerment policies that address the equity gap.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
They stand out because they make Equality of value. There’s a real sense of enablement toward the employees. Employees are hired to do their jobs and managers are hired to get out of their way and incentivize them. It feels like a big startup.
They can’t solve the world’s problems, but at least they’re trying. They made sure women’s pay was equal to men. It’s a process that happens every year. If there are deficiencies, they make it equal. The company has a heart. While they don’t have it right, their approach is in the right place. It’s an open atmosphere for business and controversial topics. Also, the 1–1–1 model, where the company gives away 1% of its revenue, 1% of its product, and 1% of the employees time, to causes in their communities.
The company feels human. It allows people to be their most authentic selves.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ll start my new role as SVP, Operations at Dizzion Inc. where my goal is to help the business scale and meet its growth demands.
Passion Project: Launch a nonprofit organization that exposes more black and brown youth to STEM. I have been coaching a robotics team of 7–12th graders for almost 2 years, and I’d like to expand that to reach more kids.
In a few years, I see the organization developing into a platform that would enable more parents and non-tech educators to form teams, make it less intimidating, and ultimately introduce more kids in their communities to STEM. I want to do my part to make my industry and ultimately the world a little bit of a better and more inclusive place.
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”?
It depends on the problem. What are the blockers? Start with yourself. Start with self-care. Start with your wellbeing. Get exercise. If you aren’t well, your performance will reflect it.
If you’ve been on an airplane, the safety announcement instructs passengers to put their mask on first should the cabin pressure change. The same applies in every aspect of life. If you’re not listening to yourself and what you need, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Not specifically sales, but everyone in a company needs to understand their role and purpose within the company. Care should be taken to ensure that everyone is on the same page with the overall Vision. Set goals. Define success. Make it collaborative. Make it a culture of connectivity.
The worst feeling in the world is feeling like you’re not supported.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
It all starts with listening. Get to know your customers. Really understand what they want. If you can measure that, you can enhance it. Anticipate their needs. Communicate timely, honestly and be transparent.
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?
My role thus far has been to maintain service availability and thereby, keep the customer. I don’t wait to help. I connect with customers, to understand their business and how they use the products. This allows me to be proactive about driving improvements to their customer experience, to anticipate their needs and be seen as a part of their team and not just a vendor. You must put customers at the center of your business strategy.
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. Have a clear Vision. A Vision is a statement of what you want to achieve. Every employee should understand it, be aligned behind it, and know how they contribute to it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
2. Establish your Values. Values are what is important to you. They are crucial to help you prioritize, or guide in times of uncertainty. If everything is a priority, nothing is.
3. Have a Strategy. Develop the plans for implementing your vision and values. Know what resources are needed (people, skills, processes, technology) to execute. Anticipate your threats and obstacles. Evolve your plan to mitigate or neutralize these. Share it with the employees. Pressure test it. This is how you focus the energy of your teams.
4. Understand your measures of success. Identify the data and metrics to determine what success and winning looks like.
5. Focus on culture. Be deliberate about developing a balanced, fun and productive culture. You want a culture that encourages well-being, innovation, and a willingness to be agile, move fast or pivot. You want to be inclusive and diverse.
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. 🙂
1. Equal access to STEM: I would like to commoditize access to STEM and put robot kits and the tools to program them in the hands of black and brown children all over the world.
2. Police reform. I’d like to figure out how to get jurisdictions around the country to undo the bias that causes them to look at Black men as an instant threat, or as if we’re three-fifths of a person. We’re just as human as anyone else. Treat us like it.
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 🙂
Nelson Mandela. I don’t cry for celebrities, but I cried when he passed away. I remember being in my hotel room in Singapore when I heard the news. I grew up during apartheid, so his story is especially impactful for me. He gave up his life for the betterment of other people, and that is something truly inspiring to me. He had one life to live and gave it to his country.
I would love to ask him, “Where did you find the strength to give up so much and ask for nothing in return?”
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!