Hank Williams is a low-key guy.
By his quiet yet thoughtful demeanor you would never know he has had an intangible impact on the New York City tech industry long before the term “Silicon Alley” came into fashion, is a champion of the diversity in STEM movement, and helped inspire the creation of digital.nyc. The first thing Williams will tell you is that although he lives in New Jersey now, he is and always will be a Harlemite.
Williams began writing computer code in the late 1970s after getting a Radio Shack Model One TR-S80 when he was living in Lennox Terrace. His passion for technology and New York City have since intertwined over the past four decades, what began as numerous startups and enterprises has culminated in the mission to inspire others in Harlem and throughout the five boroughs to pursue careers in what he terms “the innovation economy.”
The biggest company Williams created throughout his early career was known as ClickRadio in the late 1990s. The platform allowed users to listen to songs and vote up or down whether they liked them or not, and although is a common business model for things like Pandora now, was a revolutionary concept. Unfortunately when the dotcom bubble burst so did ClickRadio’s capital stream, and Williams was onto a new project.
Currently Williams has been creating a platform that organizes and catalogues emails with an interface more like a Facebook site than the traditional email inbox. The interface treats emails for what they are– a social media, and allows the users to interact with each other in a more intuitive fashion.
The product, known as [“The product”] groups emails by person or affiliation (companies, PTA groups, etc), and from there catalogues shared files as pictures and weblinks, as well as allows users to comment on them. The goal is to help people from losing important work documents in the fray of spam and forwarded email chains from your uncle in North Carolina.
Williams’ passion for technology and empowering the user is evident when conversing about [“The product”], a fire which is kindled five-fold when talking about the state of diversity in the New York City– and the nation at large– technology and innovation industries.
According to Williams the key to success for New York City and its tech industry will be whether they cultivate future generations of kids from all socioecomic and ethnic backgrounds who have “access to education, and access to ‘the pipes’–the internet.” Without both of those two vital tools, people can become lost in the system, by either ignorance or restriction of no fault of their own.
In order to help the future generations succeed, Williams realized that a member of the community cannot simply create options and pathways for their youth and entrepreneurs, but “be Evangelists; go out into the community let them know” that the programs exist. Williams stressed that people cannot sit idly within their community, but rather that personal engagement is the best way to foment action and change.
“Everyone can do something involved [with the community]– in tech, in business,” said Williams. “Mentorship is a huge contribution many people can make and it’s simple. Step one is deciding [community involvement] is important.”
Williams said it was crucial that technology education and access are available to everyone, because the future is going to be defined by the technology society creates and how it is subsequently implemented.
“The role of technology in society continues to accelerate,” said Williams. “People of color participating as part of the Revolution is in real danger, and large swaths of the population could be left behind.”
Although Silicon Alley is more diverse that of its West Coast doppleganger Silicon Valley, that is a product of the nature of their respective cities, not industry choice. As Williams recounted the spectrum of diversity in the NYC tech industry has been neutral since the ‘70s, but the most important step forward has been the discussion.
“20 years ago people had not thought about [diversity in technology]; people weren’t talking about it,” said Williams.
After being asked to participate in CNN’s ‘Black in America’ series, in an episode featuring the paltry amount of diverse leadership in Silicon Valley, Williams said that a national conversation began the start, which was a “huge” step forward.
Williams decided to “strike while the iron was hot,” and co-founded Platform, an organization that as an initial step would put on a yearly conference to inspire the next generation of diverse innovators. The 2014 conference held in October featured the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Shelton, Deputary Secretary of the Department of Education, alongside Topper Carew, co-creator of the TV show “Martin,” filmmaker, and urban designer.
“Technology, science, art and entrepreneurship are the future of the planet and the core of the current economic revolution,” the website reads. “Platform is a movement to ensure diverse inclusion in that future.”
In order to ensure such inclusion in the future, soon after the creation of Platform Williams had some initial ideas for Digital.nyc. The concept was to create a site that pulled together the extraneous edges of cyberspace into one single vast hive, where innovation and inspiration unite. As people caught wind of the project it took a life of its own, ultimately becoming the public-private joint venture online hub sponsored by New York City and powered by IBM.
“In my journeys over the past year talking with professionals in the tech industry…[it was apparent] there was a bit of an intimidation factor about New York City, such a big and complicated place,” said Mayor Bill DeBlasio during the press conference announcing the launch of digital.nyc “But if we could demystify it, if we could simplify it the whole world would want to be here.”
If everything continues as Williams hopes, digitally.nyc will not only bring the world to the city, but bring Harlem, her innovators and wealth of untapped potential, to the world.
“Mentorship is a huge contribution many people can make and it’s simple. Step one is deciding [community involvement] is important.” — Hank Williams
“The role of technology in society continues to accelerate. People of color participating as part of the Revolution is in real danger, and large swaths of the population could be left behind.” — Hank Williams
“Technology, science, art and entrepreneurship are the future of the planet and the core of the current economic revolution. Platform is a movement to ensure diverse inclusion in that future.” — Platform.org website
“20 years ago people had not thought about [diversity in technology]; people weren’t talking about it,” — Hank Williams.
“There was a bit of an intimidation factor about New York City, such a big and complicated place, but if we could demystify it, if we could simplify it the whole world would want to be here.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio