Shark Tank’s Daymond John Talks Digital Gap in Workers’ Skills

The continued growth of innovation does not just rest on the shoulders of engineers and developers from the country’s top tech schools.

With more industries increasingly relying on new software and systems, the breadth of the workforce likewise needs to be savvy in coding and other skills. That was the message at an event held Thursday at the General Assembly campus in New York.

The results of a study, from Burning Glass Technologies and Capital One, were released highlighting the issue of low- and middle-income workers often not having the training to fill many tech-driven jobs that remain vacant.

In response, Capital One and General Assembly joined forces to create the Capital One Opportunity Fellows Fund, which will aim to make education for careers in the digital economy more accessible to people across country from diverse, and often underserved, backgrounds.

Over five years, $150 million in grants will be committed to community-based organizations to offer education to try to narrow the so-called digital divide, Capital One’s Carolyn Berkowitz said. That will include working with General Assembly and online education provider Grovo to create new ways to bring digital literacy to more people seeking jobs.

Another aspect of the effort is to change companies’ attitudes about where worthwhile workers may come from. “Employers naturally go to the kid from Harvard just because he came from Harvard,” Berkowitz said. Talented workers with the digital skills can also come from coding boot camps, she said. The first 10 fellows of the program, who will have access to training resources at General Assembly, were also introduced.

More people across different demographics need to cultivate opportunities in the innovation scene, said Daymond John, CEO and founder of New York-based apparel company FUBU. John, who also serves as judge on the TV show “Shark Tank,” was the featured speaker at the event and talked with me about how technology has changed his industry.

Software and other digital tools have naturally made life more efficient in the apparel market. Digitally exchanging information about garments, for instance, has reduced the need to travel overseas to visit manufacturing facilities, John said. Old traditions of designers using a tape measure and other manual devices have also been replaced by digital tools, he said, with the exception of couture apparel. Further, it is easier for independent designers to get their creations in front of potential buyers thanks to sites such as Threadless, he said.

The pervasiveness of technology speaks to the need for more people from diverse backgrounds to develop skills for the new economy. “When we look at Silicon Valley, half of 1 percent of people who get funded there are African-American,” John said.

He attributed that in part to a lack of financial literacy and training in technology. “That creates more dividers away from the money, investments, or strategic partners,” John said.

There are ongoing efforts on various fronts to help more women, minorities, and other underserved groups become more involved in the digital economy. Last week Anil Dash and Rev. Jesse Jackson discussed the issue during the Social Media Week conference.

There is also the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline, an initiative launched last May by Mayor Bill de Blasio to get locals the training necessary to pursue jobs at tech companies in New York. Kristen Titus, founding director of that program, was on hand Thursday and said there have been struggles even with big tech companies trying to be more inclusive. “We need so much more of what is happening [at this event] today,” Titus said.

FUBU has looked for ways to adapt to the changes wrought by technology. The company became popular in the 1990s as a maker of apparel and accessories popular with the hip-hop scene. Tastes change, though, as often happens in apparel, and the brand focused on primarily selling its wares to overseas markets until 2010, when John introduced FB Legacy in the U.S. Under FB Legacy, the company produces custom garments for certain music artists and groups.

Eight months ago, he launched a brand called Jewel House in association with rapper Lil Boosie. That showed John how consumers have changed the way they discover and purchase new products away from brick and mortar stores. “In the first two weeks, 97 percent of our Jewel House sales came from iPhones and iPads,” he said.

His company has been leveraging online media, particular social networks, to connect with consumers. “Years ago, music videos [on television] got my low-cost advertising out.” These days his company gets in front of online audiences through social media stars such as Nash Grier, known for his videos on Vine, and actor Josh Peck. “They’re the new celebrities,” John said.

One of the benefits of working with social media stars, he said, is their followers stay connected because they want to interact with them—and that often translates into more sales. “The conversion rate when they speak to their audience is way higher than anybody else,” said John.

The first ten fellows to benefit from the Capital One Opportunity Fellows Fund (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth).

The first group to benefit from the fellows fund (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth).

FUBU, or For Us By Us, got its start as a brand to reflect urban culture. The objective for the company was not necessarily focused on minorities, John said, but about being more inclusive.

“People for a while thought FUBU was purely for African-Americans,” he said. The company emerged out of frustration, John said, with other businesses not reaching out to diverse communities—but he wanted to embrace difference groups of people with his brand.

A conversation with his white Jewish stepfather helped John frame the approach for FUBU connecting with a wide cross-section of consumers. “He told me to be pro-black, but not anti-anything else,” John said.

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