Hakeem Harrison: A curious black man’s journey from Yale to Silicon Valley
“I was applying to jobs for five or six months before I started getting the ones that I wanted. The whole applying to jobs process in general is a very interesting experience — very stressful.”
Two weeks ago, Hakeem Harrison began his new job as a client development officer at a startup called Bidalgo, an Israeli company looking to grow its U.S. footprint. Including Hakeem, the company now has eight employees in its North American branch, located in San Francisco.
The company is an official Facebook Marketing Partner and primarily a social media advertising agency. Bidalgo wants to carve out its niche in the market by successfully creating, managing and analyzing their clients’ digital ad campaigns.
“I’m going to be managing between thirty and forty clients,” Hakeem said. “It’s going to be a bigger scope than what I was doing before.”
Previously, Hakeem worked at another social media advertiser called Ampush, which boasted a stereotypical startup culture: the office featured a pool table, ping-pong table and more fun games. “It just became too hard to work after like 2:00pm,” he said.
In his 18 months at Ampush, Hakeem focused on analyzing ad data. At Bidalgo, he will concentrate on sales, where he hopes to further develop his communication skills.
Because of Bidalgo’s smaller office and the fact that it is yet to accept venture capital funding, Hakeem anticipates a much more “heads down” type of environment — he looks forward to that change. At Ampush, he felt like his professional growth had slowed.
“It was more about making sure I was still expanding instead of stagnating,” he said. And he believed the California startup community was still the best place for him to continue his development.
Getting to California
Hakeem graduated from Yale University in the spring of 2015. As a strictly liberal arts institution, Yale doesn’t offer professional degree programs like business. Because a business concentration wasn’t available, Hakeem majored in economics instead.
But Hakeem knew that he wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in finance, banking or another more traditional business job like many of his classmates.
Following his sophomore year, Hakeem interned at Volkswagen Group of America in Herndon, Virginia, where he felt like things were “very status quo,” and left him unsure if he could make a real impact there. The next summer, he took a major shift, securing an internship in Istanbul with the Turkish Basketball Federation (TBF), doing public relations and communications work.
The TBF wasn’t a startup opportunity, but Hakeem enjoyed the benefits of working in a small office where fewer numbers often meant that employees had to undertake tasks that went beyond their job description.
After completing his internship with the federation, Hakeem was still unsure what he wanted to pursue post-graduation, but the experience provided him with more of a framework for his job search.
“I knew what I didn’t want but I didn’t know what I did want,” he said. Hakeem applied to upwards of 50 jobs between late fall and early spring of his senior year — he even submitted an application to a company in Argentina.
“I was like, anything that looks interesting, I’m going to apply. If I’m qualified I am, if not, I’m not. We’ll see what happens.”
His mom put the pressure on him to find a job during his senior year. “My mom was like, ‘you need to have a job by the end of spring break or we’re going to have some problems,’” Thankfully, Hakeem secured the job he wanted at Ampush prior to her spring break deadline. She was pleased and, according to him, her tone changed considerably. “Once I finally got a job out in California she was like, ‘oh you know you can move back here if you want.’”
He passed on his mom’s offer to return home to Washington, D.C. and ventured to California — for the first time — to start his tech career in Silicon Valley.
Navigating as a well-educated, young, black man
Many tech startups in Silicon Valley feature diverse work populations, but unfortunately black individuals make up an extremely small percentage of tech startup diversity figures — some experts estimate that the figure is as low as two percent.
“I don’t think people are going out of their way to hire black people, but there’s also just not a lot of black people trying to get into tech,” he said. Fortunately, Hakeem says he’s never felt discriminated against by his co-workers, who are nearly all young millennials.
But he has felt racially profiled during his time in San Francisco. “I’ve had a problem with people taking my ID when I was trying to get in a bar and I get turned away,” he said. And on a few occasions, Uber drivers have simply refused to unlock their doors when they realized he was their customer, choosing instead to just drive away.
A recently published two-year study by researchers at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington found that drivers of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft routinely discriminate against black people and women.
Back at Yale, Hakeem experienced what it was like for his presence to make people apprehensive, too.
Although the crime rate is on a steady decline in the area, New Haven, the city surrounding Yale, was ranked one of the nation’s most dangerous cities throughout Hakeem’s college career. Multiple times while walking at night, fellow students crossed the street to avoid passing him directly, fearful that he, “a tall black man,” was a “townie” who might try to rob them. He recognized some of the students — students who would happily talk to him during the daytime.
An intoxicated Yale classmate once told Hakeem, “Honestly, before I met you I didn’t know anything about black people. I think you changed my mind.” Hakeem recalls being both annoyed and confused as to why his classmate would share such a statement. “I was like…I don’t want to hear that,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to be a catalyst for your growth. Just be a better person.”
“Should colleges be coddling students and giving them this false sense of safe space when that’s not what the world is going to be like? And if college is supposed to prepare you for the real world, how are they supposed to mitigate that? Let’s just say I don’t really know what the answer is.”
The fall following Hakeem’s graduation, Yale made national news when students protested in response to the racial insensitivity of some of their peers’ Halloween costumes. Hakeem returned to campus that fall for the Harvard vs. Yale football game. “You could definitely feel the tension on campus,” he said.
“I read this article once that was an opinion piece my dad sent me. It was like, should colleges be coddling students and giving them this false sense of safe space when that’s not what the world is going to be like? And if college is supposed to prepare you for the real world, how are they supposed to mitigate that?” He continued, “Let’s just say I don’t really know what the answer is.”
Doing your part
Because of his academic successes, Hakeem knows that he will often move in spaces where he is in the minority. In many ways, that provides him with an opportunity to educate people from other backgrounds and learn from their different perspectives.
Some of the most renowned black male leaders have set an example for Hakeem on how to approach the obstacles he’ll face as a man of color. He said the Autobiography of Malcolm X was an important book in his life. Hakeem also enjoys James Baldwin for his writing style and views on dealing with race. Barack Obama is a present day figure he looks up to.
But, Hakeem says, his day-to-day role model is definitely his dad because of “the small stuff he did to raise me and [my sister] and make us see what’s important in life,” he said, “and then seeing him put it in practice and how he carries himself everyday.”
For the past couple years, Hakeem’s dad has volunteered as a reading partner at the elementary school he attended as a child. “The biggest thing for him is that he senses that there’s a lot of kids out there who don’t have a strong role model in their lives and he wants to be that for more kids.”
The lessons he learned from his parents keep Hakeem pushing forward. “I want to make sure that I can feel like my parents get a return on their investment,” he said.
Investing in himself
“The thing about San Francisco is that there’s a little of everything,” Hakeem said. “I probably spend a lot of time just walking around seeing the city — trying to avoid hills.”
Hakeem has found that people on the west coast have a greater affinity for the outdoors. “Everything takes place outside. If you’re inside, people are like, ‘what are you doing?’” He plays basketball on the outdoor courts. He spent some time working on his golf game at a cheap course in a local park. Sometimes he and his friends head down to the racetrack for the Sunday $1 beers and $1 hot dogs special. “And it’s a big concert city. I go to a lot more concerts out here,” he said.
San Francisco has provided Hakeem with the perfect space to explore both personally and professionally. One of his strengths is his eagerness to try new things. “I think that’s just confidence that comes from always challenging yourself and trying to put yourself in situations that won’t necessarily be the most comfortable,” he said.
Although he’s yet to answer many of life’s bigger questions, Hakeem is doing well by focusing on making the most of the present, learning as much as possible about business and himself.
“I’m just going to keep making sure I feel challenged in what I’m doing,” he said. His hope is that everything else will fall in line.
You can catch up with Hakeem on LinkedIn.