Out of Africa: A crusade against prejudice on the path to parity

24th September 2020

Disillusioned by his experiences in Silicon Valley, Mark Karake, decided to throw away his financial stability and burgeoning career in order to enhance the life chances of people in his native Africa. It was a risk he felt duty bound to take, but did it pay off?

San Francisco was once the ultimate draw for free-wheelers and drifters – a sanctuary for the drop out generation. Not even the beatniks, however, could have prophesised about what would emerge across their holy land. In the last few decades, Silicon Valley has increasingly become a seductive hub of tech wealth and a magnet for curious incomers – especially those with digital aspirations.

During a 15-year career, Mark Karake experienced the full force of the Valley’s emergence. At first, he had been excited by the possibilities of life in the fast lane and jumping on the technological megalith; taking opportunities, meeting influential people and immersing himself in a new culture.

Unfortunately, reality ‘bytes’ and Mark discovered that if your face doesn’t fit, the valley becomes a hostile and forbidding place. Being a rare black person among a vast population dominated by white privilege, his journey became a navigational nightmare and a maze of institutional racism. Prejudice arrived in many forms – his ability to climb the professional ladder stalled as ‘invisible’ obstacles surfaced, while micro-aggressions, such as exclusions from social events, made him feel increasingly alienated. Naturally, his self-worth plundered as he witnessed the ease with which young, white communities sailed through life, unimpaired by demography.

The crippling sense of rejection was at odds with Mark’s financial situation, which was effectively a smoke screen covering the truth of his predicament. He knew that ‘Black Lives Mattered’, but who would listen to him in the valley? Who would understand the concepts of diversity, equality and inclusion, when there was another billion bucks to be made? He could easily have continued picking up a very handsome salary and seen out the rest of his career – but it would have been at the expense of fulfilment and happiness. It was not a price he was prepared to pay.

Keeping it real

One day, in 2018, Mark decided he’d had enough. The bars, restaurants and decadence of San Francisco were simply no substitute for triggering change, transforming lives and making an impact. It was time to get back to what’s real, and that meant going home – home to Kenya.

With his experience in getting pioneering projects off the ground, he realised that he had something to offer in Africa’s emerging markets. He also understood that the buoyant start-up scene in Africa was being threatened by opportunists who looked very much like the Silicon Valley profile; upper-middle class, white and rich.

It was a monumental challenge, but Mark wanted to steer funding, networks and job opportunities towards black people. This meant leveraging Africa’s abundant youth and being the catalyst for futuristic innovation – essentially Mark wanted to create an ecosystem which thrived because of Africa’s indigenous population, not in spite of it.

Fuelled by his very personal experience of exclusion, Mark launched Impact Africa Network (IAN) in January 2019. The intrepid non-profit start-up studio in Nairobi had a bold mission – to ensure young talented Africans had a chance to fully participate in the digital revolution, not as bystanders, but as creators, owners and navigators of their destiny.

A whole new world

IAN’s unique model offers year-long ‘Innovation Fellowships’ to talented college graduates, providing them with the opportunity to work on trail-blazing ideas, with a view to those projects becoming fully-fledged start-ups – all under the guidance of experienced leadership teams and a mentoring network.

In addition, IAN is creating an enabling environment for black people to have equal chances when it comes to creating wealth, while also giving them a ‘seat at the table’ when pivotal decisions are being made. In just 18 months, IAN has provided Innovation Fellowship opportunities to 36 talented graduates – and many more will follow.

The organisation’s culture also upholds parity by providing equal opportunities to both men and women to lead projects. Indeed, ‘Jenga School’, IAN’s first growth-ready start-up is led by a woman, Esther Mumbi, and focuses on making Africa the engine room of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent. Meanwhile, IAN’s ‘The Chini ya Maji Podcast’ hosts entrepreneurs from a multitude of backgrounds to share ideas, experiences and challenges in the start-up universe. It has already recorded 52 episodes, attracting almost 10,000 listens.

As a non-profit entity, IAN is oxygenated by grant and philanthropic capital. Since its inception, it has received backing from various avenues, including wealth entrepreneurs from Australia, Canada and even Silicon Valley; providing an important element of reconciliation for Mark, in the process.

The panel of impact leaders includes Jeff Dean, Head of Google’s AI division, Stewart Butterfield, CEO & Co-founder of Slack and Aaron Levie, CEO at Box. These leaders have not only delivered vital funding, but they also act as advisors, and have opened doors for IAN through their influence. Furthermore, Jeff Weiner – Executive Chairman at LinkedIn – has committed to matching all microdonation champions from LinkedIn, up to the target of 500.

Ultimately, the company’s long-term vision is to develop 10 scale-ups, provide 10,000 jobs and realise a combined market value of $10B. This ‘10 10 10 plan’ will provide the springboard for even greater milestones, as Mark strives not only to shift the social-economic landscape, but also influence political culture and drive positive change across other continents. The enduring vision is to permanently change the African narrative.

From the adversity of his own situation Mark’s dream of a fairer world is beginning to take shape, carving a new valley in which the dreams of young, black and gifted individuals are providing the building blocks for a future that rejects prejudice and propels talent.

Anyone interested in making a micro-donation to IAN can visit the support program here.