Opportunity — It is key to find the right opportunity to showcase your talents and products. It is important to recognize the needs of users and respond with thoughtful services that will best serve them.
Reflection — There is always room to grow and improve. At Change.org, we really took a step back this summer to reflect on the mistakes the company has made in the past or things that we could be doing better. This has led to new ideas and an excitement to be better and offer better products to our users.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rashawn Davis, manager of the Racial Justice Fund at Change.org — the world’s largest petition platform. Daily, he leads the development and strategy of the organization’s commitment to distribute 6 million dollars to Black-led organizations that are doing critical racial justice work. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York University.
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?
I came to tech from a different path than most. After college, I was a community organizer with the ACLU fighting for police reform in my hometown of Newark, NJ. It was fun and impactful work but also very exhausting. My time at the ACLU led me to graduate school at NYU and then a gig with a national non-profit working on deeper criminal justice policy, specifically around criminal record clearance. During that time I was also appointed by Mayor Ras Baraka to serve on Newark’s new police review board, the same body whose creation I advocated for as an organizer years earlier.
The opportunity to join Change.org was interesting to me because as an organizer I had always been aware of the petitions on Change, and was aware of the platform’s role in changemaking. More than that though, I had already seen how social impact worked from the lens of government and nonprofits and this was a chance to see what social impact could look like from a technology lens. I went for it, and I’m glad I did.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I think generally just seeing how frequently celebrities, athletes, and politicians around the country use the platform to spread a message whether its environmental justice or police reform, and also how often they use the platform to support the change efforts of others. We’ve worked with people like Usher, Paris Hilton, Taylor Swift and so many more to support causes they care about.
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?
When I began at Change I definitely made mistakes in almost every area of our campaigns work. But, no one was harder on me than myself and those mistakes helped me connect with many of my colleagues who were willing to coach and teach me the things I didn’t yet grasp.
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?
I would not call them hard times, but my first few months at Change.org was my most challenging time. Whenever you transition to a new organization there are always shifts in culture, language and priorities but that can feel amplified when you’re moving into a new industry like I did, going from nonprofit/government to tech. Of course, you have the support of other staff members, but it can still be tough to establish a routine and cadence to all of it. I had to convince myself to embrace the challenge of carving out space for myself in a new environment. It’s often when we feel uncomfortable that growth happens.
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?
Not one person, but many people. I feel strongly that where I am in life today is a result of many people who have poured in me, many of whom took a chance on me when they didn’t have to. Whether it was the educators in my high school or the special community in Newark that invited me to be a part of a beautiful movement for police reform that started long before I arrived. Folks have been generous to me and I try to reflect that in my life and work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That quote by the late civil rights leader, Howard Thurman has been with me for a while now. I see it as a reminder that any success starts with being true to yourself, true to your personal goals, and true to your passions. Everything else will work itself out along the way.
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?
I think, partly, what we are seeing today is the end result of a failure to genuinely confront the historical harms and inequities that people of color, particularly Black people have faced for many generations. Things may look different today than they did 60 years ago, but those institutional harms of the past are still felt today in education, in healthcare, in policing, in wealth creation, and in opportunity. This moment has demanded that we finally begin to face those things.
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?
To me it’s about diversity of experience. People who don’t look like you or come from the same place as you will often see the world differently from you. Those different perspectives put together, make for a more complete, accurate and fair picture of the world; That should be invaluable to any organization.
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?
I am still new to tech, but I would say it’s the same as any other organization from professional sports to finance. Organizations have to be serious about recruiting Black men, and that might mean expanding the usual way they find and attract talent. I would also say that retaining Black talent is equally important. When I started at Change, I was lucky enough to have a colleague and friend, Justin Lyons who helped me navigate a space that was new for me and where there were few people who looked like me.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
At Change.org, we believe that people everywhere should have the tools they need to make their voices heard. We’re a social good company powered by technology that empowers anyone anywhere to take action on the issues they care about.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think Change.org in many ways represents a marriage between the old and the new. Petitions, people signing on to a cause they believe in goes back hundreds of years. It is one of the earliest and most simple forms of collective protest. We have taken that timeless advocacy tool and put in online in a 21st century environment, and now if you start a petition in your city or town it’s not just your neighbors who can sign your petition but people around the country and around the world. It’s an opportunity that leads to unexpected alliances and coalitions. We have seen that up close in a lot of campaigns — people who find out that they are not alone in the things they care about, and there are people from places you can’t even imagine that believe in your cause.
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.
I am not a founder or leader of a tech company, but from my perspective a successful tech company like virtually any other industry requires:
- Talent — Companies should strive to build a team that has unique skill sets that will best serve their users and clients. For example, at Change.org our staff comes from a variety of backgrounds like public policy, corporate, and non-profit. The unique talents of the staff create a melting pot of ideas and success.
- Diversity — Companies should want their staff and brand to be as diverse as the people that consume it. Diversity is key to getting a multitude of brilliant ideas and outcomes. At Change.org, we are striving more than ever to diversify our staff and offerings of all backgrounds.
- Opportunity — It is key to find the right opportunity to showcase your talents and products. It is important to recognize the needs of users and respond with thoughtful services that will best serve them.
- Reflection — There is always room to grow and improve. At Change.org, we really took a step back this summer to reflect on the mistakes the company has made in the past or things that we could be doing better. This has led to new ideas and an excitement to be better and offer better products to our users.
- A true Mission — A true mission should fuel the work that a tech company is doing each and everyday. When thinking about what project to implement or analyzing a new product, we are always measuring it up against our mission. If it does not fulfill our mission, we can not proceed.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Earlier this summer, after watching all that was going in our country and around the world, Change.org committed 6 million dollars to supporting important racial justice work around the country, particularly the work of Black-led organizations. Being able to help lead this effort at Change has been exciting for me because I am able to speak with truly amazing Black leaders that are doing some of the most important work of our time. It’s an honor to be able to support that work.
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. 🙂
Similar to my Howard Thurman quote earlier, the movement I could advocate is for people to spend real time with themselves. I think we spend so much time trying to keep up with others or fit in that we can lose ourselves, and lose our passions. Working at Change.org has shown me up close the amazing things people can do when they are truly connected to themselves and the things they care about. In a world that is full of people and things telling us what to do, my movement would be about folks spending time with themselves and engaging with all the things that make you, you.
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 🙂
That list is long, so I can’t just name one. But a few people I would love to break bread with and have a conversation are Bryan Stevenson, Michele Roberts, Chris Paul, Lena Waithe and of course, former President Obama.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!