[EXCLUSIVE] Blavity Co-Founder Jeff Nelson Breakdowns the Importance of Data at AfroTech 2019
Tamisha Monet Interviewed Jeff Nelson, Co-Founder and CTO of Blavity, Inc. at AfroTech 2019
AfroTech is the largest Tech conference catered to Black millennials who aspire to break into the tech industry through conduits of leadership, entrepreneurship and engineering with panels, discussions, events and educational tracks. AfroTech is an ecosystem of venture capitalists, engineers, start-up founders, employers and more. Get funded, get hired, get sponsored, get plugged in and receive the support you need to propel you forward in career trajectory only at AfroTech. AfroTech news is a subsidiary of Blavity, Inc.
Blavity is a community of the most exceptional multi-cultural creators and influencers in the world. They partner with diverse content creators and influencers to help them reach a wider audience, amplify their message, and fund their hustles. Believing that the world shifts according to the way people see it— and if you change the way people view the world, you can transform it.
Jeff Nelson is a technical entrepreneur driving innovation at the intersection of human and machine intelligence. Jeff is a Co-Founder and CTO of Blavity, a digital media collective that provides content focused on news, women’s empowerment, travel, films and entrepreneurship for over 20 million urban millennials each month. Jeff also is the Founder and CEO of Cinchapi, an early stage technology startup that gives businesses real-time data insights with the power to act when it matters. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Jeff studied Computer Science at Washington University in St. Louis and worked in engineering and technical business development roles at Palantir, MailChimp and Ionic Security.
Tamisha: How are you today?
Jeff: Officially Day 2...but for many people this is the first day of AfroTech, first day long part of the conference...in a word it is unbelievable...so many people here, so much energy. I’m having fun. I kicked off the engineering and design track. And the turnout there was great. I think there were just as many people at that track that attended the first AfroTech.
Tamisha: We love growth and innovation. With that being said, what is the ecosystem you’d like to create here at Afrotech?
Jeff: We want to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, corporate individuals, anyone who is passionate about tech building a tech enabled future. And that takes on so many different forms, but we wanted to create that ecosystem where Black people have initial ownership. Where we not only have a seat at the table but in many ways we own the table-we own the seats; we own the rooms. We can really shape the future because the future is going to be tech driven and tech-enabled and we have to have our voices there. That’s really what the vision of AfroTech is all about.
Tamisha: Your company Cinchapi, you take the data from these type of events and do what with it?
Jeff: Cinchapi is a company that’s focused on building platforms that help people better understand and better use data in real-time. So, here [at AfroTech] is a great example where you have us transmitting data all the time, right?
Jeff: So, the challenge that organizations have big and small is that they can collect this data but they don’t know how to use it, they don’t know how to separate signals from noise, they don’t know what problems they can solve, they don’t know what they actually know because they don’t understand the data. So, Cinchapi is about making it easier for companies and organizations of all sizes to do just that-make data make sense.
Tamisha: Did you see a need and that’s how your company Cinchapi was created?
Jeff: I started my career working at a company where I was building data platforms from there to take my portion to Fortune 500 companies, law enforcement agencies and other organizations and institutions to help them understand data. I saw how the people who were actually tasked with making decisions struggled to use technology and because of that they were in many ways stifled from doing their jobs effectively. I saw that need and recognized that data wasn’t just about the amount of data or big data,as we said but it was about the speed in which data was changing and that data was being generated. About real time data, so we wanted to make a platform that focused on helping people understand real time data.
Tamisha: Taking that into account, what are some surprising ways data can be used?
Jeff: Surprising ways that data can be used, just look at some of the devices we use. I'm going to “couch” this in artificial intelligence and machine learning that's what data is about-using larger and larger amounts of data sets and constantly training algorithms in real time to adapt. When you think of the fact that we’re in a world with self-driving cars, we’re in a world where your watch can tell you, you need to go to the doctor because something bad is about to happen, we’re in a world where all the devices in our home are connected and they’re smart, your refrigerator can tell you when you need to order more milk or go to the store, right? All of that comes from data. It all comes from being able to capture these large data sets in their raw form-you might not understand how these data sets can lead to that type of technical innovation but when you capture it and understand it. You can detect patterns and you can build technologies. That’s really the exciting part.
Tamisha: So, what kind of data are you hoping to gather from AfroTech, today?
Jeff: What we really want to understand is the Black people that are interested in tech, the kind of companies that they’re building, we want to know where those companies are. What resources they need so we can help to bridge connections with founders and potential venture capitalists. Whether it’s connecting them with potential employees, helping them to recruit, whether it’s getting them customers. We want to know what they’re doing, what they’re building, which companies they work at and how we can help build connections.
Tamisha: I think you guys have done a great job at that. We look at the sponsors and partners that are here and how you bought in the community of Oakland. How important was it for you all to have Oakland involved in AfroTech?
Jeff: We couldn’t come to Oakland and be inauthentic. That’s the thing. We didn’t want to be gentrifiers, right? We wanted to come in and get the buy-in of the Oakland community, become apart of the Oakland community and then really broadcast the Oakland community.
Tamisha: Being as busy as you are, as one of the co-founders and the CTO of Blavity, CEO of your own company, how do you practice self-care and take care of yourself?
Jeff: So, self-care is something that all the Blavity co-founders practice. We were at school together in Saint Louis at Washington University, one of our dear mentors he was the dean and vice chancellor of students, he lived by this mantra E.S.E: Eat, Sleep and Exercise. He really impressed us no matter what you have going on, you’ve got to be able to carve out time for those things. For me as an engineer, it’s a logical math problem, there are 168 hours in a week, if you just take that 68 and say I’m going to dedicate that to self-care right to eating, sleeping and exercising, you’ve got 100 hours to do all the other things that you’re interested in. A lot of the time we’ll trigger ourselves and say well I don’t have time to eat and sleep but you do have time. And if you don’t take advantage of that time, then you’re going to be out of time.
Tamisha: Looking at where you started to where you are now, did you envision what Blavity has grown into today?
Jeff: We always saw this but we thought it would be 10-20 years in the making.
Tamisha: Interesting, when I interviewed Aaron earlier. He quoted you saying the exact same thing, you guys are all genuinely connected.
Jeff: To be here in year four of AfroTech and year five of Blavity, Inc. as a whole is a testament to Morgan’s leadership first and foremost. The team that we’ve assembled without them none of this happens, also just us as a people. Blavity is nothing without our people. The vision is one thing, and execution is another. They’re indispensable but if you don't have the culture and the community to latch onto that vision, to really carry it forward. None of this stuff actually happens. We saw it but we didn't think we’d get here this quickly. We gotta dream bigger. Now, we’re here...
Tamisha: Started from the bottom...
Together: (Laughs) And now we’re here.
Tamisha: If you had to say that you had a ratchet guilty pleasure what would it be?
Jeff: (Laughs) So, I don’t think it’s ratchet but my wife thinks it’s ratchet. I love sunflower seeds and my favorite flavor are Dill Pickle.
Tamisha: Wait, that’s a thing? I just knew you were going to say BBQ or maybe Ranch ?
Jeff: I love those too but Dill Pickle is my favorite favor.
Tamisha: Alright, I’m going to the store and try a bag now. LOL.
(Jeff proceeds to name different stores).
Tamisha: Your wife is right. You know all the spots, that is ratchet! LOL.
Jeff: I know all the convenient stores, corner’s stores, etc.
Tamisha: Did you growing up eating sunflower seeds? Is it childhood nostalgia?
Jeff: Yes, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. What I would do is as another form of self-care, whenever I was feeling stressed I’d get a big bag of sunflower seeds and go to town. My wife just looks at me in disgust, shaking her head like, ‘ugh that’s gross’. LOL.
Tamisha: Anything else that you want the people to know?
Jeff: We’re incredibly grateful! We don’t take this for granted. I just want them to know we’ll be back in Oakland next year. It’ll be the first weekend of November. Come back and help us continue to build this thing. If you got feedback and suggestions, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.
Tamisha: There’s different division of Blavity, tech, politics, travel, media. Which industry do you all have your eyes on next?
Jeff: I can’t break any news but I’ll say this Travel Noire for travel, AfroTech for tech, 21Ninety for women’s empowerment, Summit21 for beauty, Shadow and Act for news and entertainment, and Blavity for news and politics . The areas of additional areas of opportunities are sports and music. Those are areas where Blacks either own those areas or have a large presence-so to speak. Those are areas we can potentially look at, those are the things we think about. Don’t be surprised if you look up in a year or two and we’ve ventured into other areas.