Who is Clayton Banks?
I am the co-founder and CEO of Silcon Harlem. Silicon Harlem is about transforming Harlem into a tech and innovation hub. Our focus is on urban markets, particularly inner cities, those who are marginalized in a lot of ways, and providing the broadband connection that they need to improve their lives whether it's through education, through jobs, through health, etc. My entire career and life has been dedicated to figuring out how to help people communicate better between each other – it touches on everything from intergenerational as well as diversity that we talk so much about in today’s business environment. So I’m very dedicated to what I call ‘moving communities forward’.
So let me tell you about my career and particularly my career journey if you will. So I've been very fortunate in my life – very fortunate, I don't take it for granted - but I have five passions in my life, five really distinct passions. And the good news, I've been able to actually work and make money in all five of them.
(See below for more detailed stories of "Clayton's Career Journey of Five Passions")
Top Accomplishments: The Gamer
Of all my accomplishments, and there's many many that I can go on and on about, the one that I probably feel most proud about is the ability to get kids from high school to college, and then see them graduate and go into to a career. In one particular example, I was teaching up at George Washington High School which is in Washington Heights, and I was a young man there that was a junior in high school who loved videogames. So I tried to really connect with him on that, but he was coming from a very tough neighborhood, a tough upbringing, and was having a hard time bonding with me. And I wanted so much to bond with him, but he didn't want to be looked at as a teacher's pet, or that he was like friends with me to the other students, but I knew that he had a lot of talent.
So that program ended. I was starting a summer camp, and when the kids checked in I noticed he was in the summer camp of mine. I said, ‘I know this guy. I met you at Washington High.’ ‘Yeah, I was at Washington High School.’ So his senior year, he decided to take the summer school with me – again I tried very very hard to bond with him. He turned out to be the smartest kid in my class, but also wanted to fit in with all the kids so didn’t want to show any favoritism to me. It was breaking my heart, it was like I wanted him to be like my son, almost. So he says to me towards the end of camp, I really want to go to college and I'd like to really focus on video game development. So I gave him three or four schools that he should look at and perhaps apply. And he did, he applied to Full Sail down in Florida, which I knew had a great program for what he was interested in. And he got accepted, which was a very big deal because he comes from a family where you’re not supposed to leave home – it was just him, his mother, and his sister – but he left home, he’s down in Florida. And the next thing you know he’s writing me all the time and he's telling me how much it has changed his life and how much of a good time he is having in Miami. And he's about to graduate right now.
So when I look back at my career, of all the various things that I can point to in terms of accomplishments, it’s that type of accomplishment that I get most proud of. When a young person can say I had a little bit of influence in their ability to move their life forward in a way that's going to change his trajectory, not only of his but his entire family.
(See below for more stories on "Clayton's Top Accomplishments")
I'm very proud of the fact that I grew up in my early days on a military base. My father was a 30 year Marine and one of the things that was quite evident to me, even at a very young age, is how similar everyone is. Because my father's rank determined what neighborhood we lived in on the base, and it turns out in that neighborhood everyone was around the same rank. So they're getting about the same pay, and everyone had a mother and a father. So there was no difference between me and any other person in the neighborhood regardless of how we may look differently. And so I saw a real democratization, if you will, of people where - if I had a new bike they had a new bike; if they had new shoes I had new shoes. There was no have and have-nots we were all sort of working together.
The military is made up of every culture, every ethnicity – Filipinos, Chinese, African-Americans, Samoans, Whites – everyone was in my neighborhood and I went to school with all of those cultures and ethnicities pooled together. And never felt a sense of difference in any way except for the fact someone might look different than me.
So that gave me a frame of reference which said, everyone's equal. So in today's world where differences are much more sexy to talk about – how different we are, and therefore create division, which leads to some degree a lack of diversity - it goes opposite of everything I know, opposite of everything I have grown up to be a part of.
To make a point even more gross, if you will, I grew up surfing. I grew up playing video games, I grew up taking computer apart, I grew up listening to rock 'n' roll. If I describe that on paper and hand it to you, you probably don't think of me. But that doesn't make sense to me – it's like, a lot of my friends did that. And so the idea that – and I love the fact that diversity is a hot topic – but I think people are missing a lot of point. What I found growing up was that diversity was the thing that was propelling our success as young kids. We could think more creatively. When I created a fortress in my neighborhood at eight years old and we would emulate our parents – you know, in terms of military creating a fort and how do we reinforce it. It took all of us to come up with the idea. And we entertained the diversity of those ideas to create a better situation. So diversity, in my opinion, has never been a problem. This is the problem we have today is that we frame things as a problem. Diversity is an opportunity.
And it's one of the great things that I learned at a very early age that if you can embrace diversity, not based on how you look, but based on the frame of reference that you come from, good ideas will come together and move things in the right direction. I'm very proud of that background and I have let it sustain me even to this day. And there have certainly been times when I've been faced with racism, faced with ageism, face with all types of weird, unproductive relationships, which I find unfortunate. But also I'm not mesmerized by it because I know how to get through those type of efforts. I have to say, without that frame of reference I probably would fall into the same trap a lot of people fall on, which is ‘oh, you know there's someone more superior or somebody more subordinate.' That’s not the case. That's all socially constructed. So I don’t buy into any of that, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be as clear about that as possible - that I can sit with a President of the United States, that I can sit with a gang member, that I can do all those types of things because I’m not tied up into these false norms that I think are hurting our country.
As an African-American male, as much as you are staying focused and look forward and try to be as much of a team player, and in my case as much of a leader as I can possibly be... there are times when you run across relationships that for whatever their background or whatever their situation is, creates a perception about you that is not necessarily in line with what you think. An example – I was in Minnesota, I was invited to a conference, and a particular attendee came up to me – a very prominent one – and said ‘I am a reformed racist.’ And I said ‘wow, now this is something we can talk about’. He literally said 'I'm a reformed racist, and I've been taught, learned to see people a certain way, and you I have thought of, prior to today, as somebody who would be less then someone from my own race. Even in your same title in your same position.'
And I was shocked and agape, just as anyone would be. But he said, ‘I’m reformed’ - meaning that I've been more exposed, now that I’ve been in this professional career (we were both in the cable industry at the time) where I'm getting out of my comfort zone and I'm actually interacting with people from different walks of life and finding out that were much more similar than we are different.
I've been lucky enough, I've been called in all derogatory terms, the N-word and stuff like that from afar. And I've had to process that. It really hurts your feelings at first because you’re like ‘woah!’ It was so shocking to be called that. But I chalk it up to just ignorance in a lot of ways. So I get past these issues by relying on my background, relying on my frame of reference, relying on my real clear knowledge that we have more in common than we do different. And the small percent of our country that hone in on this unproductive behavior is just that – it's a very small percent. A majority of Americans, I believe, understand that we're all in this together. But there's always those small factions that are going to try to push our country another way – I want to fight against that.
There are two experiences that I had that I believe fall in the P.O.L.I.N.G. mantra that's part of the Inspiring Diversity movement. One of them starts with my presidency serving on the National Association of Minorities in Cable. And this is in the early 90’s where there was a big diversity problem in the cable industry. There was no real ownership in the business,
executive management, board positions were all lacking in diversity, for people of color as well as women. And so I was the head of this organization that in some ways was supposed to be really helping that initiative move forward.
And so part of that was. ‘how do I utilize my access – because I was an executive – to help 'others’. And there are 'others' in that industry that had the credentials and the experience to take on bigger roles but just needed that access and exposure. When I think about P.O.L.I.N.G., I think that a major part of P.O.L.I.N.G. is ‘how have you influenced others’, or ‘how have you helped others’.
One of the great moments was in 1997 we had a conference in New Orleans. And this was one of the hot topics. I was hosting a breakfast, which is going to attract all the top players all the top owners in the business and certainly a lot of people of color and women – all in one room. I invited Jesse Jackson to come be our keynote speaker. He was very much a voice – and still is – around fairness and equity and diversity. So when I called him, he accepted the invitation, I then got very nervous and said, ‘I’d better speak with him prior to the event’. I wanted to prep him because I still worked in the industry and I didn't want him to say anything that may compromise my own job.
But I just also want to make sure he wouldn't be caught off guard and be properly prepared. I asked him to meet me for dinner the night before, but he turned me down. I had a guy working for me, whose aunt owned a restaurant in New Orlean called Dooky Chase. I asked my assistant to call Jesse back in his office and ask him if he would meet me at Dooky Chase. It turns out that it’s his favorite restaurant in New Orleans. So I got a chance to have dinner with him that evening, and I walked him through what I thought were the important aspects of this diversity issue were having with cable. And he delivered a speech that next morning that was riveting, on point, and literally helped the industry understand what was at stake. But more importantly was the action he took. The action he took was that he started two things. The Wall Street Project. But also he had a strategy to help these companies. He bought stock in all of these cable industry companies for one reason – so he could show up at the shareholder meetings and really influence the thinking. It worked. A lot of the companies, a lot of those who were providing services, embraced diversity, started hiring diversity officers, putting in strategies, and we saw that industry become much more diverse than ever in its history.
So it helped others, it showed leadership, it showed all of those real key principles of P.O.L.I.N.G.
P.O.L.I.N.G.: Digital Divide
What do I have looking to the future when I think about P.O.L.I.N.G. ? One of things that is really important me is, I have enough knowledge and enough experience to try to preempt digital divides. We are growing up with this litany of digital divides, whether it was the cable rolling out the rich neighborhoods and then slowly getting down to the poor neighborhoods, or the Internet – same thing. Go to the affluent areas and eventually you get down to the regular masses and even broadband to that extent. So what if we could preempt
next digital divide? So the logical question is, what is the next digital divide?
Well from my vision, I believe the next digital divide is smart technology.
And smart technology is one of those things that will roll out – affluent people will have access to it, affluent people will get the benefit of it, and eventually it will roll down to lower income people. But what if I can preempt that - because there's two reasons why it happens. One, you’ve got to have the knowledge that it's happening. Two, you got to be able to afford it. So, on number one, it’s all about literacy – digital literacy. I have a friend that’s developing a smart shower. Water can recycle three times before it runs out, saving the average home $1000 a year. Who needs that? Everybody! Who's going to get it? The affluent people, then eventually the lower income people. We can preempt that. That’s a digital divide.
Smart socks. Small clothes - socks that can your vitals, so if you're diabetic you can save your life is in these type of smart technologies. Your home, your cars, your health, all being influenced by smart technology, will create another digital divide. So I apply the P.O.L.I.N.G. principles to use my skills, my access, my exposure to preempt the next digital divide. So I don’t have to talk about the past anymore. I can talk about the future. And I'm using those P.O.L.I.N.G. principles to make sure that I can actually preempt the next digital divide.
Career Advice to Younger Self
So if I was to get some advice to my younger self, it’s the same advice that I would give anyone today, young or old, frankly. I've been very blessed with my career in a lot of ways, worked through some of the best companies, I believe. Been able to start three different companies essentially. So I’ve had the great thing that I think is most important, which is access and exposure. President Clinton used to say to me all the time, intelligence is distributed everywhere evenly. Everywhere. But access and exposure is not. So what that tells me is those young people in marginalized neighborhoods, in what we call sometimes gang-driven neighborhoods, there’s brilliance in there. But we ignore it. We want to pass it by. So they’ll use their brilliance in another direction; if you don’t harness and direct it, it gets used somewhere or another. Everyone in prison is not dumb.
So you’re looking at leaving a big part of the community behind based on the fact that you just don’t want to deal with them. But there’s brilliance there. And I say that because one of the things I would advise everyone and anyone including myself at a younger age is – don't take a single person for granted. Don't overlook people. You may come from a home where you grow up with less than, you grow up with not the perfect family structure, and home and white picket fence and a dog. Maybe you grow up in a borough that's tough and rough and maybe you grow up in the situation where you know you just got to make it.
That doesn't discount your talent your ability or your intellect. I realized at a very young age that I had a lot of talent, but I also realized that I should take anything for granted. I did at times. But at this point in my career I realize 'don’t take anything for granted, or anyone'. Because there are a lot of people who go from nothing to something, and from something to great. We have people of all different backgrounds, that come from all different types of circumstances that can end up in the same place.
What’s in a Name?
I was working at a company where an African-American woman had become one of the top executives at this company, and one of her counterparts was a white male who a lot of us of the company felt, and had a perception that he was a racist. And the two of them would have to be in meetings together (he was there before her). So, as she became more and more integrated into the company, they ended up striking a conversation.
And it turns out that her last name and his last name were different, but yet connected because he would say to her, ‘oh I’ve got your name as part of my family’ and she said, ‘that's funny, I've got your name as part of my family.’ To make a long story short, it turned out that his family owned her family at one point. So when you talk about full circle, here they are sitting in the same meeting, at the same level, with the same title, and you would think that him saying that – making a point – she could retreat and become feeling inferior and stuff like that. But her response was simply this – ‘It's funny how I could start so far behind you and we can end up at the same place right now.’ And that's the same advice I would give myself as a younger person and I’d give anyone to this day. I know people that go from literally (in some ways defined as) nothing to Harvard. So that's what’s inspirational in this country.
Thoughts on Inspiring Diversity
The number one aspect you need for a strong, diverse, thriving nation, state, city or community, is inclusion. And one of the things I am so moved by is the approach Inspiring Diversity has in that commitment of inclusion. Everyone matters, if you will. And Inspiring Diversity says – in and of its title – that everyone matters and everyone counts. And it's everyone's ideas that make a difference. Shortening it to ‘iD’, for example, is just a great example of how Inspiring Diversity is open. It's given everyone both a connection and an iD and that's great because I want to be recognized as me for who I am. So having my iD through Inspiring Diversity helps me want to do more. And it's the same with diversity in and of itself – having more and more people embrace that helps our country. One of the things that I find interesting is if you grew up in an area where it is very homogenous and you don't have the opportunity to grow up in a city like a New York City or Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit – and you grew up in a very small, rural town and the things that you taught become much more focus on how you different than how your similar can slow your process in overall development.
So Inspiring Diversity is just the idea that we need as a country to get everybody moving in the right direction in terms of an inclusive approach to life. Because I grew up watching pigs roasted in the dirt – it wasn’t coming from my culture, it was coming from another culture, but I have an appreciation for that. I was in Japan and someone invited me to a barbecue and my reference of a barbecue was one thing, their reference of a barbecue was something else. I learned from that and I appreciate that. So Inspiring Diversity has this great platform, more importantly a great opportunity to influence all of that. To say to the world that this is an opportunity, that this is something that we can do together – have an inclusive strategy, help the equity for everyone and give people a real opportunity to reach their full potential.
The fact that Inspiring Diversity can connect people, can provide references, can provide material, can help you think through how to be even a better leader is what we need in this country right now. I think it's more important than ever that we do it here in America and that it’s spread across the globe.
Ive been fortunate to be surrounded by really great support. My parents obviously are the first line of sight when I comes to those who have influenced me. Having a father that served our country for so many years – he served in World War II, in Korea, and two tours in Vietnam. So he was a real dedicated person and I picked up a lot from him, just watching that experience. He also knew how to live life. He was real fun person, but yet serious because of that military background. And my mother – our high school called ‘Mother of the Year’ – was one of these people that was very dedicated to the five kids that she had. And all of us felt like her number one kid, so she was that type of loving person that gave me a soft side to myself. It’s easy to have a hard side, but it’s not easy to have a soft side - but she really demonstrated, not taught, just how important it was to see people. And I really appreciated on both sides, that influence.
As my career moved on, there were certainly teachers and coaches that I've had that have been very influential. Probably one of the best ones that I ran into was my manager at Showtime Networks who was a very well trained, management-minded person and taught me the ropes of how to really handle complex situations, negotiations, a variety of people. He was really giving in terms of mentoring and, to this day, I very much appreciate what he had expose me to.
It’s one of those things I realized learning from him - there are far more many bad managers than there are good managers. And the reason is because bad managers teach bad managers. So if you have a bad manager you will most likely become a bad manager. I had a good manager. As a good manager, he taught me the correct way. So now I consider myself a good manager and I can teach more people how to be good managers.
From afar, having worked with President Clinton, his influence on me was really strong too. He is brilliant. Every time I was in a meeting with him, he was the smartest guy in the room. He also is very charismatic, so he could frame complex issues in ways that anyone can understand. So that was something I had picked up on and has influenced me. Because there's always complex issues – the question is can you break them down in a way that more and more people can understand and help you with those issues. So that’s been very influential on me.
The community in and of itself. I see in my own community just how much people care. From the electives to the shop owners to the regular resident walking on the street – it's so vivid to see people care about their community. And that’s been a big influence on me. I want to be able to be a part of that - part of that progress.
Clayton's Career Journey of Five Passions
Clayton’s First Passion
So one of my passions is movies. I love movies. You and I could talk all day about movies and actors and actresses and scripts, all different genres etc. So I went to work for Showtime networks; Showtime of course shows movies all day and in that job and in that career path that I was on, I was able to do things such as launch The Movie Channel in New York City. I was able to work on a variety of content acquisitions that we were doing, and more importantly I worked directly with the cable industry on getting our services distributed throughout the country.
So a lot of fun, I thought I'd be there forever. It was just a dream come true to be around movies and make money at the same time. It really blew my mind in a lot of ways. But, oddly enough, as I was moving up the ladder and became part of the executive group at a very young age, I got a call from a HBO executive - which is odd because they are our competition but of course in cable it's really co-op-etition. And he was starting a brand-new network called the Sega Channel.
Clayton’s Second Passion
By the way, videogames is my other passion. So I go from one passion in movies to video games, which I love, and was able to work at Sega Channel – literally the very first all digital network in the history of television. So being immersed in that digital space, also surrounded by video games, was just a dream come true again for me. However, we were financed and invested by predominantly the cable industry and when the Internet started to really blow up and get commercialized, our partners didn't want to necessarily speak about the strategies in the same room. And as their only digital play, they decided to not continue our funding. And even though we had great success and we were turning a profit, the companies that were supporting us were moving onto their own Internet strategies.
Clayton’s Third Passion
So I transitioned and I went to work for Comedy Central. My third passion – I love comedy. I love comedy, and within a few weeks we have the South Park script on my desk and it just became phenomenal that we as a network were able to put that show on the air. At the time Comedy Central was distributed to about 50% in the country and that show took us to 100%. One show turned the entire company around. So we all made pretty good money, and at the same time I was working with comedians like Tim Allen and others. During that time frame we also – during my tenure – hired Jon Stewart for the Daily Show. So it was just a fast, impactful growth period in my career, working at Comedy Central and I had a blast, again. Just like with Showtime with movies I though I’d be there forever, and Sega Channel with videogames, seeing how where the world was going in the digital space, thought I’d be there forever, and then here I was at Comedy Central with these phenomenal shows being launched, and really turning the whole industry around, thought I’d be there forever. But at Comedy Central, one of the things I realized was that I’d seen the future at Sega Channel.
Clayton’s Fourth Passion
So with that amount of success we were having with Comedy Central I decided to launch my own tech company, which is my fourth passion – I love technology. Ever since I was a kid, taking things apart. My father always allowed me to go into the garage and blow things up and tear things apart and put them back together. So it made sense to me to launch a tech company having seen where the world was going from a digital perspective.
Everything was transitioning from an analog world to a digital world. And so having launched my company called Ember Media, it took me around the world. Which of all of the jobs I had, all of the career paths that I was on, I was very dedicated to that particular company. Having Ember Media I then became connected with a variety of companies all around the world, one of them culminating into a job with President Clinton, where we actually worked on an initiative together helping young people that were dropping out of high school – particularly Latinos and African American boys. And we got Scholastic involved and a bunch of other companies. He went on CNN with Larry King and announced the whole initiative and mentioned my name on the show so I was really proud.
But the idea was we would provide a multi-media, at the time, CD-ROM, free, to young people. It had essay preparation, it had SAT preparation, it had a bevy of colleges that you could research and apply to, scholarships and grants. And over 500,000 of these things were distributed throughout the country, and in some other areas as well – Jamaica, and other countries. So I’m very proud of that, and when I think about some of my accomplishments, one of those is that President Clinton put this project in his Presidential Library. So it’ll be there even when I’m dead and gone, so another proud moment in my career.
Clayton’s Fifth Passion
Here we are today – as I mentioned, I am the CEO Silicon Harlem, so this is my fifth passion, which really goes across all of them, which is a commitment to community. So I've been able to get access and exposure on so many different levels, working for these great companies, interacting with these great personalities, all the way to working with Presidents and Kings all around the world. And I wanted to apply that to ‘how can I move a community forward’. How can I help a community where there are some who may be marginalized, some that may be struggling? How can I put anchors in place that will give them the sort of boost that they need to approve their lives? So Silicon Harlem is that for me. It’s my opportunity to not only share my skills and my background and certainly my vision, but it’s also to apply it. To actually apply what I think are common areas of focus for a community that will help all – even those who may be doing well.
So one of those factors is broadband. The fact that broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s an essential utility. You cannot hardly manage your health, or your education, or even job employment without the Internet. So we believe there are many people, in particular in areas like Harlem, where 30% of the homes don't have Broadband, and the reason contributing most to that is cost. So we are looking to figure out ways to make broadband affordable to everybody. Because my mantra is, everyone deserves a connection. And that is the bottom line.
So I'm here in my fifth passion trying to move communities forward, starting with broadband. But it’s also tied to digital literacy. You know I can even ask you a digital literacy question. I was at a class just recently at the New School - a class of brilliant master graduate folks and I asked them, "How many of you know your speed of your broadband?". And zero hands went up because we have to increase digital literacy on all levels. But you should know your speed because speed matters. So these are the type of things that I’m now working diligently on and hoping to leave a legacy that we can take across the nation – in some of the most dense of the markets that often get left behind – and see if I can bridge those gaps with this new effort.
Clayton's Top Accomplishments
Top Accomplishments: Education Disk
I’ve had some great accomplishments in my life, and I rarely talk a lot about them, but let me share just a few. So during my Ember Media days, when I was running my own software development company - early on, I got a chance to work with President Clinton. And together we put together a great initiative to help young kids particularly young boys – particularly Latino and African-American – to get from high school to college.
One of the things we found in our research was a lot of times boys don't ask for help. So if we could give them a self driven experience, perhaps some of them would pursue college, at minimum at least finish high school. So we were able to get this into the hands of over 500,000 young people around the country and in other parts of the world, and one of the great things that came out of that was President Clinton decided to put this project in his Presidential Library. So from a personal perspective a very strong accomplishment.
In this particular project we were able to get in the houses of over 500,000 young people. And an interesting story came out of it. We actually were looking to hire a new engineer within our company, and a young man applied out of the New York Institute of Technology and came to work for me. A couple of months into the job, he's looking at a lot of my portfolio and he finds the actual disc that we built to help young people get from high school to college and he comes up to me and says, ‘I received this this when I was in high school’. I said, ‘What?’ And he says, ‘I received this this when I was in high school and it’s because of this disc that I applied to the New York Institute of Technology, got in, and now I’m working for the very company that put that disc together. So that’s something that comes full circle for me, and so that was a big accomplishment – just hearing that story as much as having the disc in a Presidential Library. Seeing the fruits of your labor literally come to your front door was something really interesting.
Top Accomplishments: History Maker
Another accomplishment in my career, which I'm very proud of, is – I've been made a ‘History Maker’ because of some of the things that I've done, in launching the Movie Channel, in launching South Park, and putting together these great digital properties over the course of my career, and launching Sega Channel. All of these put me in the race to be a ‘History Maker’. And as a result I am in the United States Library of Congress as a History Maker – so that's another thing that you write home to your parents about. ‘Hey, I’m a History Maker!’
Top Accomplishments: Clayton Banks Day
Thirdly, I’ve been awarded a day in New York City – they gave me my own day from the Manhattan Borough President. So that felt really rewarding, as she recognized the efforts that I was applying for Silicon Harlem, how I was moving the community, how I was galvanizing the community around tech and innovation as our economic engine. And so she recognized that and awarded a day for Clayton Banks. So, I was really proud and honored about that.