The World’s Brain

We live in interesting times. The world is changing faster than ever and depending on where you sit (or who you are following on Twitter) that change is either accelerating the future or about to destroy humanity. Maybe both. And some days, our point of view on this debate is more volatile than the price of Bitcoin.

Take the topic of “diversity.” For 50% of my friends in Silicon Valley, “diversity” has become an inspiring north star that brings renewed energy and meaning into their professional lives. For the other 50%, it is closer to a dirty word that, at best, makes them squirm uncomfortably and, at worst, is a “woke left battle-cry, antonymous with meritocracy.”

It is complex and it is confusing, and, in confusing times, we tend to look to our leaders — the builders of the future — for answers. So what are CEOs at the helm of the organizations building this future (or ruining it, depending on your worldview) supposed to do? Fully embrace diversity as core to the mission of the company like Benioff and Salesforce? Or cut the diversity conversation in the workplace altogether like Jason at Basecamp? You know an issue is complex when really smart, energetic, optimistic, well-meaning, and talented people fundamentally disagree on it to the point that it makes the news.

As an African-European-American going into his second decade in Silicon Valley, this is a particularly important topic to me. And yet, setting aside whether words like “Social Justice” or “Inclusion” are inspirational or exasperating to you, I believe amongst all the complexity something really fundamental is being lost: to solve the world’s greatest problems, we are going to need everyone at full capacity. We are going to need to activate The World’s Brain.

I like to imagine humanity as “The World’s Brain”, a giant thinking machine that works to solve humanity’s greatest problems: 7.6 billion people processing data 24/7, drawing from the accumulated wisdom of 6,000 years of civilization, with the ability to look at any given problem from as many different perspectives as there are people. There is no problem big enough for The World’s Brain — pandemics, climate change, infinite energy, digital money, or becoming an interplanetary species are all just a few computations away from being solved.

The bad news is that The Brain is not functioning very well. Doing some rough math, we are maybe at 4% capacity — 6% if you are generous:

Note: There is high correlation between these four subtracted population categories and thus overlap to be accounted for. However, it doesn’t actually matter if 4% is activated vs 6% or even 18%, what matters is that the number is entirely too low and we’re limiting ourselves as a result.

Like every computer, The World’s Brain follows Moore’s law: the more circuits and connections on the motherboard, the faster the processing power. Each of us is a processor/neuron and the total technological output of the species is equal to the percentage of the population that is problem-solving.

The good news is The World’s Brain is getting better: Using similar math, we estimate that we were at 0.5% capacity in 1900 and 1% capacity in 1950. The bad news is that it is not getting better fast enough and, while some of these factors are difficult to move (e.g. we are not going to solve global poverty overnight), we could solve others, such as historical exclusion of underrepresented groups or lack of formal schooling in developed countries, over the next 5 years if we just put our collective thinking towards them.

Put another way: Elon Musk is great, we all want electric cars and space rockets (the jury’s still out on Dogecoin), but can we get a few thousand more Elons in the next decade? He really can’t invent it all. Technology is a driving force behind this positive change, but the key question remains: Can we use the incredible wealth created by technology to get another 96% of the global population in problem-solving mode in the next decade?

It doesn’t matter if you believe that we are all equal or that some of us are less equal than others. It doesn’t matter if you think that Elon is one in a billion or that the kid next door could be Elon if he didn’t have to work 16 hours a day to support his family. The truth is, at some point, humanity is going to go against a problem that no single human, no single country, and no single population group can tackle by themselves and we are going to need The World’s Brain at full capacity to overcome it. And we recently ran a global experiment where we saw the disadvantage of only using 4% of The World’s Brain — a global pandemic that has killed too many to count, and leaves me in Silicon Valley vaccinated while my family in Nigeria is months, maybe years, away from the vaccine.

So as an immigrant running a venture capital fund that likes to invest in underrepresented founders I have been asking myself: “What is the single most impactful thing I can do to help activate The World’s Brain? Given my resources, where can I do the most good?”

The good news is that there are already incredible organizations out there that, for decades, have been making an outsized impact on activating more of those overlooked neurons for The World’s Brain, including some of the founders we have backed at Base10. The schools are known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and these HBCUs award 40% of the country’s black STEM degrees and 60% of black engineering degrees. Howard University alone awards as many black PhDs as Harvard, MIT, Yale and Stanford combined. They are well-positioned to be tech’s diversity engines.

Yet, they are doing this with a hand tied behind their backs. By the numbers, the average endowment per student at HBCUs equates to $15,000. Comparable non-HBCU endowments have $410,000. That means 27x less funding for scholarships, student resources and programming, access to tech training, or career and skill-building. Combine that with the fact that nearly 30% of HBCU students live below the poverty line when attending their HBCU and you can see where this is going…

Fewer Elons building unbelievably innovative companies, less power to The World’s Brain, and a higher chance that we actually don’t have enough human ingenuity to solve climate change or the next pandemic. So how can we turbo-charge these engines?

Here is where we are starting: today, Base10 is unveiling the Advancement Initiative in which we have partnered with HBCUs, foundations, and some of the world’s best private technology companies with the goal of powering 100,000 scholarships and financial aid awards to HBCUs and their students. What we are doing is a deceptively simple solution to what feels like an endlessly complicated challenge: We invest in some of the world’s best companies and we donate 50% of our profits, in the name of those companies, to help educate the next generation of leaders. Through these investments, each HBCU student we support, each new engineering hire we enable, each new family that is pulled into a higher economic bracket; these represent a new neuron joining The World’s Brain, another resource that can help solve our collective problems.

It is daunting and sobering to think that if the world had 100 people in it, only 4 of them, no matter how remarkable they are, would be tasked with solving all the problems that come with living on a giant rock, hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. We instead invite you to think about it this way: imagine what we could do if we teamed up to get the other 96 people what they need to join that collective goal. We don’t believe the Advancement Initiative will get us all 96 people we need, but we certainly hope it helps inspire solutions better and stronger than our own.

Let’s do this together.

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