Aaron Samuels: Co-Founder & COO of Blavity Inc.
Aaron Samuels is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Blavity Inc., a digital community for Black Millennials that reaches over 30 million people per month across five digital properties including Blavity News, Travel Noire, AfroTech, Shadow And Act, and 21Ninety. After working at Bain & Co. as a strategy consultant, Aaron left his corporate life to pursue his passion as a writer and builder of community. He has since written a book of poetry, toured the country, performed on television, and landed himself on Forbes’ coveted 30 under 30 list as a rising star in the tech and media space. Aaron received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and his MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. When he is not at Blavity, Aaron is a nationally touring poet and speaker. His debut collection of poetry, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps was released on Write Bloody Publishing. Aaron Samuels is Black and Jewish.
Q: IDENTITY. Such a loaded word. A word that it seems you have spent your life defining. Your Twitter bio reads: Black. Jewish. Poet. Your book Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is filled with poems bringing this topic to life. What are the key moments that have shaped your identity?
Aaron: Growing up as the child of two clinical psychologists in a mixed-race, mixed-faith household meant that I was talking about identity from a very young age. For me, the very notion of identity was often a rebuttal of the sentiment that I couldn’t be many things.
When I would go to Synagogue with my father and my brother, we were often the only Black men in the room. But my parents raised me to see my Blackness as something that enhanced and complicated my Judaism, as opposed to something that took away from it. Similarly, when I was in many Black community spaces growing up, I was often the only Jew. Again I had to learn that my Jewishness was deeply intertwined in my Black identity.
Because of this core tension in my childhood–having identities that others said were in conflict, but consistently rejecting this notion–it made it easier for me to reject similar tensions as I grew up. In college, I was a dual major in Economics and Philosophy. In my early twenties, I was a poet and a businessman. In my mid-twenties I was a co-founder and a student. At each crossroad, where others may have said it was difficult or impossible to be many things, I have embraced my multiple identities and found communities that supported my multiplicity as opposed to pigeon hole me.
Now, as I enter my 30s, I am intrigued with the combination of identifying as a writer and as an entrepreneur. In my experience, writers often have a dual presence. They are simultaneously existing in a moment, while also documenting and annotating that moment. I believe this meta-cognizance creates a rich hyper-awareness that causes writers to notice the small details, the words unsaid, and the potential paths not taken. In this way, writers are living in both the world as it is, as well as the fictional overlay of the world as they see it–with the many parallel universes of that moment each living on top of one another jockeying for the writer’s attention. I have found that this way of living in a moment, and seeing both the actual and the possible, is the same way that entrepreneurs experience their reality.
As a Black entrepreneur, I am a part of a community of people engaged in the process of creating things that didn’t exist yesterday. And this requires a particular imagination that I believe is enhanced by my Black identity. There are few–if any–things more expansive than the Black imagination. As a people that has been systematically oppressed, our fight for freedom has required us to constantly imagine a better world. In this way, Black people are also often simultaneously living in a tension between the actual and the possible, between the harsh realities of the forces that seek to capitalize on our submission, and the deep legacy of revolution that pulses in our DNA. I think this is why so many incredible entrepreneurs and writers have emerged from the Black community. Our imagination is paramount to our identity.
Q: CREATIVITY. You have brought your passion for creative storytelling to Blavity, the rapidly growing platform that you Co-Founded, which gives a platform for the black story. Has being the COO, a position that is traditionally one of more day-to-day, process-oriented tasks, changed the way that you go about your personal creative processes?
Aaron: In my professional career, I have had the job title: writer, consultant, product manager, and COO. I laugh with my friends who have also had similar titles, because those titles have so much vagueness that they don’t really mean anything without further context. There are so many types of writers and consultants, the job product manager is highly company specific, and the role of a COO can change on a daily basis. But the thing that each of my past roles have had in common is that they have required creativity for me to define the roles for myself.
Is the COO role process-oriented? Yes. Absolutely. But a process orientation often means creating systems and processes when they previously didn’t exist. The idea of following a process every day is very linear and regimented. But the creation of a new process is highly imaginative and requires both a knowledge of the business as well as a knowledge of the key individuals involved.
In this way, I think my background as a creative is actually one of the strongest assets I have as a COO of a rapidly growing company. Our processes need to change rapidly, often requiring full revamps on a quarterly basis. Writer’s have an expression: kill your darlings. This expression refers to the editing process. Sometimes when editing a poem or a piece of text, the best thing to do is an entire re-write, as opposed to tiny line edits. In fact, a poem may take 20 or 30 full re-writes before it is ready for publication, and even then, the poem may still be incomplete.
Going through this editorial process early in my career was some of the best training I had for my role as a COO. It taught me to let go. Even if I made the perfect workflow last month, the world can change drastically this month and require me to let it go. The process of ideation and rapid iteration that Silicon Valley praises was taught to me through writing.
When I ask myself what success looks like in my role as COO, it’s simple: I am trying to work myself out of a job. I believe if I can design a well functioning organization, where my coworkers are empowered to make autonomous decisions within a culture of support and authenticity, then the job I am doing today shouldn’t exist tomorrow. In this way, my role as COO will continually be redefined as new challenges and changes emerge. In a similar way, the vision statement for Blavity, Inc. is to help create a world in which all Black people are happy. But as we get closer to achieving this goal, I am sure new challenges and opportunities will emerge that cause us to creatively redefine our definition of success.
Q: LEGACY. Another loaded word. The generic meaning is defined as something that is passed on from one generation to the next. What is the personal meaning of this word to you though? What is the legacy that you are building to leave behind for this world?
Aaron: My grandfather was the son of Jamaican immigrants. He worked his way from the military to the technology sector and eventually became one of the first Black executives at IBM. He died before I began elementary school so I don’t have many memories of him but what I do remember is that he used to ship computer components to us when I was still crawling. My dad and I would sit on the basement floor and put RAM onto the motherboard and connect multiple hard drives into the desktop shell. I remember installing Windows 3.1 by typing the command into MSDOS years before I had read my first book or done long division. For me, technology was about family.
After I co-founded Blavity, Inc., my dad managed to dig up an old cut out of a Jet Magazine article highlighting my grandfather and the work he was doing at IBM. The way my dad describes it, my grandfather was at the center of national Black news! And he said if my grandfather could see what we were building at Blavity, Inc. today, he would be so proud. This was his Legacy.
For me, Legacy means recognizing that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. I believe that the work we are doing at Blavity, Inc. is innovative and revolutionary. But I also believe that if my grandparents, and their grandparents hadn’t made the incredible sacrifices they made, I wouldn’t have the privilege of my own audacity. My dreams build on their dreams.
Similarly, Blavity, Inc. also stands on the shoulders of giants. Without the impact that Jet Magazine had on my grandfather’s generation, or the impact that Essence Magazine had on my mother’s generation, the idea of a Blavity, Inc. for the next generation of Black Millennials wouldn’t have been fathomable. This is Legacy.
Our mission at Blavity, Inc. is to connect the world to Black culture. We aim to transcend digital and physical community. Every article we write, and every event that we do, each social post on our platform is designed to improve the lives of Black people. I hope this is our legacy. That we can create a company that is competitive and profitable, and also simultaneously prioritizes Black happiness at the core of everything that we do. I hope that two or three generations from now, somebody looks back and says that their idea was empowered because of what we are building today. If we are imagining a world where all Black people are happy, then imagine what more we can build once that simple fact is a given. Imagine what could come next.