A conversation about the changing faces of Richmond through the lens of history - Extended Interview

Immediately following the murder of Floyd, Craig reflected with Richmond entrepreneurs Ace Callwood, Zane Gibbs and Valerie Oliver at the Robert E. Lee statue where they discuss the impact of evolving racial justice on the city of Richmond, Virginia.

Craig: Cheers!  So a lot has happened in Richmond in the past six months.

Earl: Wait, what’s happened?

Craig: (ha ha) Tell us, what your perspective is?

Ace: We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. I don’t know if that’s news. So, yeah, I mean, COVID, particularly with the major health system here in town, has affected the city the same way it’s affected the country, and the rest of the world. But on top of that, we’ve got this racial injustice, right? I hear it appraised as everything that’s happened or what is going on. It’s like, no, we got cops killing black folks. I like to call it what it is. And yet there’s this tenor, I think, to what we see, the inequity, the injustice, the police brutality. There’s a tenor to the conversation this time. Starting with George Floyd and the demographics involved in a lot of the conversation, the protests, the activism, and, yes, some of the riots, which I’m sure we’ll get into. But I think our requisite that has shifted and there’s a major movement, arguably the largest civil rights movement in human history is happening now. And part of that is here in the form of the capital the Confederacy.

Earl: I think it’s got legs, too. It wasn’t that long ago we had a million women marching a couple of times, but that seemed to come and go. And this thing doesn’t seem to be going. No, it’s coming and coming and coming and building. So y’all that are Richmonders, what does it look like?

Rasheeda: There’s a quote on the Lee monument that says “This time is different”

Earl: There’s a couple of other quotes. (laughter)

Rasheeda: There are several quotes on the monument, but there’s this one in particular. It’s on this side and it’s in small, white, all caps. And it says “this time is different”. And I think that’s the perfect explanation for what’s going on.  To Ace’s point, I think everybody had to be quiet and shut in the house because outside was closed in order for this to actually work. It’s not like it was orchestrated.

Ace: It’s the perfect storm

Rasheeda: It was a perfect storm, though, because when you have nothing else to do, you don’t have a distraction. And so you now have don’t have a distraction. Everyone is facing the reality that we’ve been living forever for 400 plus years. And I think what’s happening now is there is a there’s a combination of a new generation rising, like this new generation of young folks. I’m like, oh, yeah, y’all are not playing. You are calling people out.  You do not care. And I love it, right? I love the energy. And there is also something that comes with that that gets our generation to say, yes, and we are here for you because we have we have the brand equity, we have the dollars, we have the ability to then move substantive change forward. So things that were taking four years now take four days because people are listening, but the right people are speaking up and saying, “you know what, we’re kind of over it”.

Craig: And that’s the interesting thing you referenced. Y’all are all thought leaders because you’re entrepreneurs here in Richmond and each of you has your kind of own slice. There does seem to be a positive look forward. So, Zane, I know you and I talked about this. So tell us about the the positive outlook.

Zane: Yeah. So I think it ties in to what Rasheeda was talking about. You know, I think one of the great things about Richmond is there’s this entrepreneurial spirit that is not a San Francisco kind of feel. Right. I mean, here, when somebody says, “can I have coffee with you to talk about my idea”, the leader actually shows up.  That’s really cool. And so what it creates is a sense of optimism. And so, you know, he’s talked about sort of the demographics of the movement this time. And I’ll tell you, I’m optimistic about what I see in terms of the young folks that are coming out, not only just their drive, but their representation across cultures.

Earl: And we have what’s going on on social activism with the statues.  From a technology startup, do you feel like it’s hindered or slowed it down?  Do people look at Richmond and say that’s not where we want to put our money?

Ace: It has set a an interesting bar. The pandemic.  Normalizing, taking virtual meetings and making virtual deals. So from a from a funding perspective, Richmond is a second tier city. So that is a pejorative. Right. Steve Case, did the Rise of the Rest tour and we’re all talking about getting out of New York, Boston and Silicon Valley where all of the dollars are spent. You know, for folks who look like me in the high growth, scalable tech game, arguably being here and the quality of life despite the second place trophies we’ve had lining our city, I’ve now got an opportunity where I can get in touch with, you know, Greycroft or Bain or fill in the blank.  Like those folks are more willing and able to make virtual deals from afar because now everybody’s working remotely, we’re all working from home. We’ve actually leveled the playing field in a lot of respects for a city that has not particularly been great at funding companies. I mean, for as much as I love this town because it’s a great place to live, you kind of got to go elsewhere to get money. Now, I think we’ve leveled out a bit and that I’m curious to see what that looks like for the next 3 to 5 years.

Zane: I would just I would add to that. I think, you know what’s interesting, Earl, is this moment in time has sort of separated from an entrepreneurial perspective, sort of the Old Richmond, from the New Richmond. So the entrepreneurial part of Richmond honestly called it has been a little bit of a bump in the road. It’s changed things a little bit. But, you know, most young people, most folks that are in the entrepreneurial space, it’s business as usual.I think for what we might call the Old World Richmond or, you know, the part of Richmond that isn’t really focused on entrepreneurialism, I think the disruption there has been a lot bigger.

Ace: There is an Old Guard. I want to point out, because we were filming the other day. Yeah, I’m sure you remember this, Amy. You were out. You know, when when you think about Richmond and some of the industries, insurance, finance, creative talent, those are kind of the big three. I saw the old guy in his Lexus driving down Monument Avenue. We’re filming the Robert E. Lee statue and he’s in a tie. And this is maybe two or three months ago. Yeah. So like beginning of lockdown, right? So if he’s going to work. He’s going to a bank downtown, or a law firm downtown, right at 9 a.m..

Ace: Like he’s driving down Monument from the farm. Like you can connect some dots and figure out where he’s headed. This is the guy who rolls down his window and yells to us for the full film film crew, “go to work!”. All right? Like there’s an old guard that exists in Richmond, and that old guard is rearing its real ugly head. But it helps to understand who those people are. Sharing that story about the business leader in town and all of the people who’ve like that post are executives here and leaders there. I mean, we’re seeing this divide and there’s a line of delineation very similar to the monuments that were that demarcation line.

Craig: Well, so and that’s that. Rasheeda, I wanted to ask, because you were at my daughter’s school. Maggie Walker Yeah. You were in the first class at this incredible school named after Maggie Walker, who is an icon of the city. And yet your experience there was a little different. You don’t get more Richmond than having a having a diploma from Maggie Walker, right? What was what was that like for you and what has that experience like?

Rasheeda: Well, the thing that I’ll tell you about that is so when I went there, it was not at Maggie Walker High School. And I think that context is important because Maggie Walker High School was one of the two black high schools during segregation. It was created for black students.  When they started the school, they didn’t know if it was going to work. So we showed up and they were like, we’re going to give it a shot. And I am I am.  I consider myself to be a graduate of Richmond Public Schools, which is predominantly black and always has been. But at that time, we also had predominantly black teachers. I did. I had a white teacher in first grade and didn’t have another white teacher until I got to Maggie Walker.

Rasheeda: And it was on the third floor of Thomas Jefferson High, which also matters because they put this elite group of students on the top floor of a predominantly black high school, and they started creating this delineation.  A school that they were talking about closing at the time. There was a walkout in my sophomore year about that. And so they already started creating this elitist environment and perception during that time. For me, it was difficult. And for my peers, it was difficult. One because they didn’t know what to do with us. So they were just like throwing too much academic work at a group of 13 and 14 year olds. But more importantly, because there was this attitude of “Those other kids”.B  ut those “Other kids” where my friends that I grew up with and they look like me. And I was uncomfortable in this other space. And so it got to this place of, you know, “you’re a quota”. You kind of all the things that you would amass, right?  “You’re here from a quota”. You don’t really fit that kind of thing. And this school is now in its 29th year and that’s still happening. I’ve talked to the students. They’re still. Experiencing that. That is their experience. And so we have been saying this. There is a culture, and I said this in the public comments to a board meeting last two weeks ago. I said you’ve failed to address the fact that this school culture is centered on whiteness and affluence, and until you solve that problem, you’re going to continue to have a diversity issue. Because if you have a poor experience, who’s going to talk? The parent that say, I’m going not to send my kid here. And that becomes their recruiting problem. So your attention problem becomes your recruiting problem and your pipeline problem. Well, that conversation has elevated in these past few months, and I think it is getting more traction. There’s a lot that happened there, but it’s because of what’s what’s going on. But for me, like my co-founders, when we talk about Jackson Ward Collective, we look at Maggie Walker.

Craig: Inspirational person, I mean, it was the Black Wall Street.

Ace: And the birthplace of Black Capitalism.

Ace: And what they don’t know is that Jackson Ward was actually kind of first named Black Wall Street. It was the destruction of Tulsa that elevated that name, but it was the destruction of I95, cutting straight through Jackson Ward that destroyed Jackson Ward.

Craig: Which which Dontrese is exactly what you guys are trying to address. Yeah. So we visited at the Hippodrome today.

Earl: Yeah, absolutely. And just to set that up, too, I mean, just thinking about it, the statues have been around for a while, but the statues are not the only remnant of a really dark past. Right. You guys with this “Hidden in Plain Sight” project actually look at places that people no longer remember what that was.

Dontrese: We’re covering that in our Hidden in Plain Sight. We’re covering the person of Maggie Walker. Not so much the school, but the person in this person she was. And so the whole concept behind Hidden in Plain Sight is the fact that there are things within our city that we are walking by every single day that had a tremendous effect in the city of Richmond, the culture of Richmond, the economics of Richmond that are being erased, that are totally being erased.

Craig: Wait, I’ve heard this argument before that.

Earl: You’re trying to get rid of history.

Dontrese: And so, ironically, when you look at some of the sites that we’re looking at, when we look at the plight and the struggle and the the fight of the African-American, the black experience here in Richmond, the pain and the suffering, all of those things within our research that we’ve done with our first initial ten sites, those that rose up in that category are erased. They are parking lots. You talk about neighborhoods. You talk about Jackson Ward, you talk about Navy Hill. You talk about Lumpkin’s jail. You talk about the Richmond 34 Sit In at the tall homeless parking lot now.

Ace: You throw I95 in the expressway mix and you look at historically black neighborhoods.

Craig: Even the cemeteries.

Dontrese: Absolutely. So what we want to do is we want to make sure that we are telling those narratives, that we are bringing them to the light so that folks can understand not only the pain that that was there in terms of Lumpkin jail, which we spent some time at today, but also the celebration of Maggie Walker, the celebration of the Hippodrome and those types of things. Those are I mean, that area in Jackson Ward, you know, pick an era. I think it was one of us that we were taught to pick an area, to go back to to go back to live in. I would love to be back in that area of Jackson Ward when it was just wrapping with the the Eagleson Hotel, the Hippodrome, everything within that. The culture that we were bringing to this city as the Harlem of the South… Was ridiculous.

Rasheeda: What is that you see? Right. You had insurance companies. You have financial services like everything that we need as a community. And then when you see that community thrive, then all of a sudden, I mean, this is systemic racism.

Earl: It’s taking away the.

Rasheeda: Building of highways through communities is not unique to here. It’s happened everywhere. And like when we think about what our goal and our mission is for Jackson Ward Collective it is actually to just support black business owners. So build up that same that same spirit, its “learn, grow and own” in the black community. Yes, it’s in Jackson Ward, but it’s everywhere. Right? How how do we make those connections? How do you bring that forward? Because we do great together, but there are so many things that have put us off to the side. I mean, you spent time in my previous building. How many black founders? Founders, not employees did you see?

Ace: Ain’t but a handful.  But I’m a big guy, so I most of that handful.

Rasheeda: We’re not there. We’re not in and we’re not there because of the wealth gap. We have to keep our full time jobs, go start this thing and stop getting a paycheck and.  You can’t afford to do that.

Ace: There is a safety net, that’s requisite to take the risk, right? Step into starting your own thing. Right. And make the system the systemic piece is right. Like I go back to the the interstates. Right? And like, it’s a thing that we don’t say is explicitly the interstates are designed we think they’re designed to take people places. Let’s be real clear about who those people are. Right? Let’s take the white folks through the black neighborhoods without having to go through the black neighborhoods. Right. Like, how do we get them out to the suburbs without having to and get back downtown to the financial center without having to deal with us? Right? You know, like that’s that’s what we’re talking about. But there are so many pieces of that systemic racism that exists that has I mean, the redlining I don’t know if you saw the article, the just redlining, the the idea of drawing literally that they were red lines on maps but denoting good neighborhoods versus bad neighborhoods. And that was typically along racial lines, right?

Earl: Where you want to invest, and where you don’t want to invest.

Ace: Or where you want let people who came from this area get a loan, make investments, buy new property, or move on the other side of the line. And so when we think about the way education has been affected by that, the way generational wealth by buying property has been affected by that, so on and so forth. The access to income, the access to once you start there and then you think about why we don’t see founders necessarily, right? But represented in our incubator downtown, it’s because most of us, a lot of us have not had the the privilege of having that safety net or that I can move back home or mom and Pops got me for a little bit.  If it goes off the rails, I’ve got to have that job.

Earl: So, I mean, there’s some movements that are happening now. The question is, are we going forward or backwards? I mean, what’s the sense what’s the future for Richmond, especially from you guys perspective?

Rasheeda: I think I think Richmond has the potential to move forward just like anything else. I I’m appreciative of everyone coming to the table and saying, I want to make this investment. I want to do this. The key that I am always focused on is, is this a one time thing? Is it performative or anything sustainable? And so when people come to me and my partners and say, you know, I want to invest in black businesses, I’m like, That’s great. Here’s a start. But let’s talk about full investments in black owned businesses. Like let’s actually nurture those so you can put real dollars into it. That’s when I think people will know the answer of, Oh, progress. But we’re making the right steps and I think we’re having the right conversations. We got to see action in there.

Zane: I think Richmond is one of those cities that I’m most hopeful for. And the reason for that is this is not a new struggle for us. As the capital of the Confederacy, this city has really been trying to deal with this history, probably more than I would say any other city. And, you know, I really see what I think is the beginnings of a lot of change and a lot of positive steps. You know, I think there’s sort of five components maybe four or five components that have to come together in order to make things really work for everybody. And I think that’s the key. There are parts of this city that are going to naturally evolve and do just fine. There are others that are going to be lifted up, but there are parts of this city that are left behind. And in those areas we really need to think about capital. How do we infuse capital into those areas? Credit? How do you get credit to people in those areas? Connections? You know, if I’m in an area of the city where I’ve got a great business idea, but I have no way to connect to anybody. It’s just a good idea out on an island, right? You need connections in order to make things work. You need you need, you know, other things to really help sort of make that business go forward. Right. So, you know, those are three. But I think I’m hopeful because I see a lot of people who are on the sidelines in that conversation prior to COVID, prior to, you know, the social unrest that we’ve had. Now, you know, coming off the bench saying, hey, look, I’m suited up. I want to even if I’m just coming in for practice, you know, or maybe a couple of minutes in the game. I want to be in the game. Yeah. So they’re no longer on the bench. And I think that’s the interesting part.

Earl: There’s some people that look like me that think that things are not progressing, right? I mean, you seen a guy, like, looks like me that thinks that this is we’re going backwards. We need to go make it better. You know, make it Good again? Or great again?

Earl: What do you think, what do you think?

Ace: Yeah, I think those people who want to make it great again. Right. Great was the fifties where we were segregated or in the eighties and the war on drugs. And we were throwing us in jail. I mean, great black folks can’t time travel, right? Yes. It doesn’t make sense for us. So when I when I think about where we are, part of it is where Zane started. You know, of all we’ve had for a long time is hope. We can’t not be hopeful. Right. Think about what that would look like. If you just lose hope, that’s. That’s despair.  It doesn’t get us anywhere. So, like, there’s no other option than to be hopeful. But when I see some things, the statues coming down. Great start, I suppose, right? Like, yeah, it can’t be performative and it can’t be pandering. And if if that is the thing, taking our eye off the ball of police reform and, you know, community oversight, etc., etc., I, I’d rather keep those up and get the real work done. It’s the first piece.

The second for me is I think about my work at the Health Innovation Consortium to help health systems figure out how to make more efficient decisions more effective. Part of what we did was turned the former Museum of the Confederacy behind Jefferson Davis’ old house into a decontamination center for N95 masks. All right. Like, I mean, talk about using what I consider redundant space in Richmond, Virginia. You know, as I was shooting emails to Execs the health system from the steps of Jefferson Davis back porch. Right? Like that for me is progress where we’re seeing that those aren’t the things that define our city. They’re remnants to a past that we don’t care about.  But we can use better to move forward like there’s some progress happening. And I think it starts with the hope that that’s part of what we are, what we what we know.

Zane: And I just want to add to that, if I can, real quick. I think, you know, what you’ve done is really think about what are those future focused outcomes that we want to have as as a city and as a culture and as a society versus the previous sort of backward looking.

Craig: I would suggest that much like the civil rights movement, it’s white and black people working together. We had a very intriguing conversation with the Eukrops, Katy and Ted. And I will say that I think people are trying to come alongside. And we do want, you know, Earl and I, the only white people at this table right now. We do want to come along and we want to help. Are there things that we. We need to pay attention to? Try it out?

Rasheeda: Listening? Yeah. That’s the thing I’ve been telling folks is that historically what happens is white folks will say, I want to help, and then they try to do. You’re not listening to what we’re saying we need. And I’ve had I’ve had this conversation with city council folks. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of folks. And I’ve said, we know what we need. We lack access to some things. Use your influence or privilege to open the doors, can make connect the dots, make the access, and then come alongside. But don’t try to take over and lead. That that’s the role.

Dontrese: No. I mean, I think we’re surrounded by smart folks here. I mean, you’ve guys hit on everything. I think your points were valid. I also think that we’re in a providential alignment with COVID and the social unrest to where folks are having to eat this in their face and realize what’s going on. But I also love the idea of what you’re doing with the Collective is providing those resources for our groups. Right? Like we we don’t have the resources, so stop trying to do for us and just allow us access to the things that will allow us to do those things.

Craig: It’s about money.

Dontrese: One of the things you hit on which which we talk about all the time is generational wealth like that. We need to, as black Americans, start to think about generational wealth. We need to start setting up our cultures to understand generational wealth and what that means so that we’re not struggling the entire time, because that’s the biggest gap. What I see is white America. They have that and they have the resources and access. So give us the resources and access and then allow us to start to change our mentality, to build generational wealth and then action. We have to act. I’m tired of talking about it. I want to be about it. And what I feel now is our group, our generation is coming up as new, new emerging leaders. Enrichment is phenomenal. Now, we need to keep that and be inspired by the youth that are standing on the monuments, that are demanding change, that are inspiring us to do better things and pave the way for them to continue it because it’s going to continue. We may not see the change, but at least we can be part of the change that helps the city.

Craig: As a Richmonder, I’m just so happy to be friends, new friends with all of you. All you guys have such great perspective and so thank you so much. Thank you.