The death of George Floyd has awoken a movement across America that I hope will lead to substantive changes in the way governments, enterprises, and communities deal with people of color. Yet while the confluence of events over the last few weeks has touched me to my core, it’s left me with more questions than answers.
To understand my point of view I want to give you a brief explanation of my background. I am a naturalized American citizen that immigrated from Jamaica to the USA at age 19. Like a lot of immigrants, I came here for more opportunities, including a better education, improved career prospects, and the promise of the American dream.
When I first arrived in America, I planned to attend college, but first I had to figure out how to pay for it. As I started looking for jobs, thinking a simple part-time job would be easy to find, I found that even McDonald’s was looking for prior experience in their job applicants. Evidently finding work was going to be much more challenging than I had anticipated.
Finally, I managed to land my first job at Papa John’s delivering pizza. In those days we didn’t have GPS, and I had only just learned to drive, so I got lost on every single delivery. I had to give away so many pizzas because of tardiness that one week when I called in to get my schedule, I was told I wasn’t on the schedule for that week. After calling for a few weeks and learning that I was still not on the schedule, I got the message. Though technically I think I’m still employed there as I was never officially fired.
After saving some money, I was fortunate to be accepted to a local university, but it was tough because my dad was the only one working and back then we didn’t understand how to get financial aid since he didn’t go to college himself. Midway through college, I ended up joining the military in order to pay for school. When 9/11 shook the country, I was at the end of my service period, but I was ready to go to combat because I understood that the freedoms all Americans enjoy are not free – they are paid for with blood. Since the army had too many people with my job type, or MOS as they call it, I wasn’t deployed. My family was happy, but to this day I have mixed feelings because I believe it’s an honor to serve your country, and both at that time and now, I feel that America is my country. I was awarded an Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM), but to this day I do not know what I did to deserve it.
Up to this point, I really didn’t understand what it meant to be black in America since I never faced any overt racism from anyone. Looking back now, I realize I lived in a bubble and was just extremely fortunate to avoid some of the most drastic prejudices that exist in this country.
After the military, I helped my father in his mechanic shop, which succeeded for a while but ultimately failed. I went on to start one of the first online car wash businesses, which allowed customers to book their service online and pay with their credit card. Though this has become commonplace, it was pretty incredible and unusual back then in the early 2000’s. I ended up buying a failing cleaning service and merging it with two others to create one of the largest cleaning companies in the area at that time, with millions in revenue and hundreds of employees.
This would be a feat for any young entrepreneur, but given that none of my peers had reached the same level and that I had a hard time finding other successful black entrepreneurs at this level, I felt especially successful. I felt like I had overcome all odds and was living the American dream.
At this point in the story, you may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with racism? This guy has had it good.” And you’re right. I have been fortunate because I was able to afford to live in a good neighborhood that is predominately Jewish, drive a good car, and my kids, 14 and 15, go to good schools. But just because I was a single case of black success doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist in America. Rather, the fact that I had such a hard time finding peers and role models that had achieved my level or higher is evidence of how much of an exception I was – how much black entrepreneurs are crushed and blocked at every turn.
My own bubble burst during the financial crisis when I had to start over and deal with people who were on a whole different level from what I had ever encountered before. At this point, I was completely broke and, while job-searching, got an opportunity with a posh investment firm to do some IT consulting. I borrowed my dad’s ’92 Crown Victoria to attend the interview, only to run out of gas in front of the building the interview was in. Fortunately, construction workers helped me push it out of the way so it wasn’t towed. In stark contrast to my dire straits, the interview was on the 20th story of an incredible building overlooking the bay. Even the elevators felt luxurious. Unsurprisingly, the COO was white, and none of the people I would be dealing with were black.
The COO said he would give me the job because he believed I was better than everyone else, but he didn’t want me as an employee but as a contractor instead. My personal opinion is that he didn’t want to give me any benefits. At the time, I was just happy to get a gig, but I was struck one day when he brought me into his office and told me not to think of that job as part of my retirement plan. It was after this comment that I realized I was the only black employee/contractor working in that office. It occurred to me that the only reason I was hired was because my particular skill set was very hard to find at the time, especially given my intimate knowledge of their industry. I worked very hard to give them 1000%. To be honest, a lot of what they thought I knew I did not in fact know. I spent hours watching videos, practicing, and perfecting my craft, sometimes staying up all night just to get it right. Yet even so, with all my knowledge, skills, and diligence, I wasn’t worthy of being made a full employee.
My next experience with discrimination happened a few years after when I turned that consulting gig into a consulting company. I built up a relationship with a large multi-billion dollar company over 3+ years and helped build a software product for a major department of the company. The product was so successful they decided to roll it out enterprise-wide and asked for the cost. I gave them a quote, and I was assured that it was as good as a done deal, but since they were in the middle of a merger they would formalize it afterwards. Because of our history, I trusted them, and because I knew that they would need it quickly, I started building out the application and hiring people, which ran into the high six figures. A few months later I was called into a meeting to discuss rolling it out, as they knew I had been developing it already. In the meeting, we discussed all the technical details, and when I asked if it was approved they said yes. Thinking I was just going through the motions, I asked at what price, remembering the quote that we had already submitted and which had been verbally accepted.
But when they told me the price I almost fell out of my chair. Unbelievably, it was 25% of the pre-agreed-upon price. Furthermore, I was informed that the price was not negotiable. I was in trouble, as I had already spent twice that amount, and it was not even close to finished. At this point, I could have kicked myself thinking I should have gotten their agreement down in writing, but what came next was when I really understood that being a black businessman dealing with a large corporation is like climbing a thorn bush naked.
As I swallowed the budget issues, I would hit milestones and request payments, and they would pass me from one person to the next or request that I sign a new contract and change the milestones in such a way that I had to do more work. To put this in perspective, I worked with them for years on this project without any complaints, and the reduced contract price for the entire project was only mid-six digits, which for a multibillion-dollar corporation is practically a rounding error. They kept demanding more work under the guise of “adjustments” to the project without offering any additional compensation for the extra hours we had to put in. I already knew we would have trouble breaking even, but this just put us even further in the red. We ended up exhausting all our resources, laying people off, and nearly going bankrupt. At one point, they put a black guy in charge of our project, but it was a setup, as they ended up firing him not long after.
Honestly, my team and I never recovered from this blow. It really took a toll on both my employees and me financially and mentally for years. My experience is miniscule compared to what others have faced, but listening to the voices of other black people over the last few days makes my heartache. I am not anti-white as some of the nicest people I have ever met are white. But there is a problem when 12% of the population is black, yet less than 1% sit on corporate boards, are Fortune 500 CEO’s or have access to capital.
There is a collective national trauma all black entrepreneurs and business owners share. We are routinely shunned on contracts, underpaid, and cheated out of what we rightfully earn. Our ideas and creations are disregarded and stolen, repackaged with a white veneer, and sold for a much higher price. Our achievements are downplayed. When we complain, protest, and reach for higher goals, we are always “being disrespectful” or “expecting too much.” When will our rights as humans who strive and achieve and dream be acknowledged? When will we be allowed to exist and be accepted just as we are? When will we finally achieve “normal” status rather than “other?”
I see a lot of corporations putting out inspiring and supportive commercials, offering moments of silence and saying all the right things, but are they going to change their governance and purchasing policies to ensure black enterprises they deal with are not disadvantaged? Will they commit to doing more business with black-owned enterprises, to supporting and mentoring black entrepreneurs so that they can help to encourage a new generation of leaders?
Corporate America needs to step up and put their money where their mouth is. Their treatment of black entrepreneurs and business owners reinforces, normalizes, and perpetuates the status quo. Their mistreatment of our work, rights and intellectual property tells their employees, business partners, and customers that it is ok to treat black workers this way. But it’s not ok. We deserve respect and equality. Yet without substantive change, we will be right back at this moment time and time again.
Although this is yet another dire and dark moment in our nation’s history, I am ever hopeful. This is the country that has let me start over and climb up to achieve success time and time again. Neither viruses nor unemployment nor bankruptcy nor prejudice have stopped me or dimmed my hope for a better tomorrow. I have a dream, and I believe these setbacks are merely the catalysts that will bring it to life.
God bless the United States of America.
Jason Murray is an entrepreneurially-spirited, concept-to-completion project leader and business & technology consultant with 15+ years of experience in analyzing business needs, defining enterprise architecture, and successfully delivering technical solutions to complex problems.
Vineforce displays Jason’s instincts for software development, design, and implementation, as well as his insight into clients and what they actually need in their software, born from his many years in the field. Perhaps most important is Jason’s unique understanding that it’s the supporting team that pushes products from “good enough” over the line into “truly outstanding” territory. He has carefully cultivated a thoughtful, creative, thorough, and empathetic team that deeply understands the clients, their needs, and their industry. Spanning 4 different countries and a rich backdrop of diverse cultures and personalities, the Vineforce family is perfectly poised to support clients and make Vineforce a service that truly shines.