At the Intersection of Tech, Culture and Commerce

Arif Gursel
Arif Gursel strides up the steps into the MetLife building’s marbled atrium, a few floors above the coworking and event space he’s opening in May. The Union, as he calls it, will cater specifically to Black professionals and students.

It’s late morning at Afrotech and Arif Gursel is ready to take the stage. He’s come to San Francisco’s Pier 27, a new event space on the Embarcadero, to rep Heroku, the SF-based cloud-computing company where he’s director of product and ecosystem partnerships—one of a handful of professional titles and roles he bundles under a single designation: entrepreneur.

Gursel’s November appearance at this two-year-old conference uniting Black tech founders, executives, engineers and students is one stop among a string of business dates that’s taking the ever-hustling 39-year-old to 16 cities over 30 days through the beginning of 2018. Amid panels and talks with honchos from Pinterest and Reddit, progressive celebs like Jesse Williams and Kehlani and stylish UX designers from Uber and Airbnb, Gursel delivers a presentation titled “Developing Cloud (PaaS) Extensions: Secure the Bag.” But as always, he has a grander vision in mind.

Dressed in an ivory cable-knit sweater with leather patches on the elbows and the letters TU in crimson appliqué on the chest, he bounds onstage with a “What up, Afrotech!” and quickly shouts out Tuskegee University, his alma mater and one of America’s 101 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. The crowd hollers back.

Audience properly roused, he continues.

“How many of y’all know what the cloud is?” Murmurs, a show of hands.

“How many of y’all have built something for the cloud?” Further buzz. “That’s dope. How many people have actually used a cloud extension or built a cloud extension? Even doper.”

During his 25-minute talk at Afrotech, Gursel effortlessly, authoritatively dances between impenetrable coder jargon, empowering life-coach affirmation, hype-man fervor and hip-hop-head erudition. The apex of his dexterous performance is what he calls The Six Code Commandments, which he illustrates with a PowerPoint image of the cover of Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint and a paraphrase of the Notorious B.I.G.

“I’ve been in this game for years,” Gursel says, gesturing to the crowd. “It made me an animal.”

Someone shouts back: “I wrote you a manual!”

Gursel, grinning: “A step-by-step booklet for you to get your game on track—not your code pushed back!” He laughs. “You gotta love a Jay-Z slide with a Biggie verse, y’all! This is Afrotech—I don’t get to do this anywhere else.”

They’d love it even more if they knew that, in the 1990s, Gursel grew up a few doors down from Biggie, back when the future superstar went by Christopher Wallace and St. James Place was still a rough part of Brooklyn. To this day Gursel credits his former neighbor with sparking the first flame of self-actualization in his mind. Biggie wasn’t the kingpin he rapped about, Gursel will tell you, just a fat kid doing his thing. Not even the best rapper on the block. But he wrote his own script.

Another rapper from the day, Bronx-born KRS-One, coined the term “edutainment” to describe the lessons on Black history, civil rights and contemporary politics he called out over Scott La Rock beats. No doubt KRS would be impressed by the blend of technical skill, business acumen, motivational enthusiasm and rock-star charisma that Gursel shares in his public speaking and beyond, in his work as an investor, teacher and mentor.

Essentially, Gursel is a connector. He’s accumulated a tight, accomplished circle of Black engineers, artists, investors, thinkers, dreamers and doers. And right now he’s deploying all of his experience and all of his connections—plus a significant portion of his personal wealth—into an ambitious new project in Seattle. Its physical home is downtown but its impact, as Gursel sees it unfolding in the future, will be worldwide.

Keeping up with a man who turned down a record deal to go to college and become an architect, who dropped out of college to work as an engineer at Microsoft, who later attended University of Chicago and left with an MBA, who then went on to found a pair of million-dollar companies—a man I’ve seen with two cell phones pressed to his head at the same time—isn’t easy. We’re diving into the life mission of a highly driven, demonstrably capable polymath.

“It’s not a mission,” Gursel tells me, “it’s our purpose for being. Missions are things that you may fail at, right? Purpose is what we wake up to do.”

We’re standing in a newly refurbished space on the ground floor of the 55-story MetLife building on Third Avenue and University Street. Gursel calls it the Union, and it’s one very tangible realization of his purpose.

When it opens in May, the Union will be a hub for educational programs, digital media production, coworking and cultural events—all for Black people, who Gursel prefers to call Pan-Africans—in the heart of Seattle. (“Pan-Africanism is a movement in what you call the Conscious Black Ethos,” Gursel explains, “where everyone around the globe can trace their ancestry back to the African continent. So Black people of African descent have a shared experience ultimately.”)

“The Black community is at the bottom of the totem pole 400 years after slavery,” says Gursel, standing in what will be the coworking and event space portion of the Union. “What we’re trying to do in PACE is close that gap.” Photo by Avi Loud

The idea for the Union germinated in early 2017, as Gursel taught a boot camp for Black coders out of his 700-square-foot former office in Belltown. Floodgate Academy, an offshoot of a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., operated from an overcrowded room that saw 30 students at a time scrawling code on every surface available—the wall, the bar, the refrigerator. While teaching classes and placing Floodgate grads in tech companies like Microsoft and The Maven, Gursel was seeking a larger, more centralized space and being offered far-flung options by real estate agents and arts organizations he declines to mention.

“I’m like, did you really just fucking try to redline me? Did you really just tell me to move to the South End in one of your other buildings and not the prime real estate I want for my community to be able to participate in the growth of this city? That’s totally ignoring what you’re hearing in my mission statement and my message. If I have the money and I’m telling you this is where I want to be, don’t tell me where you think I should be.”

This sort of casual racism is exactly what he plans to erase at the Union. The name is a nod to student unions, specifically the Black-by-default unions on HBCU campuses. Gursel wants to create the same Black-by-default experience here.

The Union has its own entrance on Second Avenue, safe from potential hassles that security might give Black students and freelancers coming through the building’s main entrance. Members will have 24-hour access to the facility, as well as access to all the building’s public areas—marble-floored, high-ceilinged meeting spaces, lounge areas and workspaces. The symbolism of walk-up, ground-floor access is powerful. The array of students, mentors and peers that Gursel works with doesn’t fit a particular profile, but authority figures—whether front-desk security or potential investors—often see them in a particular way.

“They’re people of African descent. That’s the only constant. I’ve had unemployed, homeless, engineer backgrounds, career switchers, re-trainers, single parents. Think about sub-communities of African descent: African American, descendants of slaves, first-generation refugees, second-generation refugees. And the one common denominator is that they’re all Black,” he laughs. “My success stories are all over the place, so there’s no demographic that I could really focus on other than ambition and hustle. And do you have the fire burning inside of you to want to change your life? Do you have the will to want to give back to the community?”

Aided by David Harris, startup advocate for the Seattle Office of Economic Development, Gursel learned that the MetLife building, the second-tallest in the city, is required by the City to lease this first-floor location to a social service. The 2,000-square-foot space the Union now occupies was formerly a daycare that sat vacant for years. It’ll be one of fewer than a dozen Black coworking spaces across the U.S.—a variation of specialized locales like the Riveter, a women-focused coworking space on Capitol Hill.

New carpet was recently installed and the walls painted, but as of mid-March the Union is mostly still a blank slate. Near one entrance is a reception area and pair of small rooms that’ll be dedicated to audio recording and podcasting. An adjoining portion of the facility will be decked out with couches and coffee tables as a coworking and event space open to members, sporting “that WeWork feel but more culturally relevant,” Gursel says. He’s lined up the founders of WeSolv, three women of color, as the first cadre in an ongoing Entrepreneur in Residence program. You Had Me at Black, a podcast crew based in Oakland, will host one of the first events. He envisions other social gatherings—dinners, cocktail parties, film screenings—in this area, too.

“He has the brain of an artist—he taught himself to play guitar; he sees the world in that vision—but he was also trained in social engagement and activism.”

Near the other entrance is the main classroom, which will house Gursel’s proprietary rebrand of Floodgate called KOYA Academy. It’ll accommodate a couple dozen students seated at workstations, plus several high-powered PCs for digital animation courses. Classes will be available online for free; volunteer teachers at the Union will provide in-person assistance and mentorship. “The curriculum is not the valuable part, the instruction is,” Gursel says.

Coding, digital animation, music production, podcasting: Creating their own content, Gursel believes, is crucial for Black people to not only tell their own stories, but to take control of their professional destinies. It’s an outlook he shares with LaSean Smith, a colleague from Gursel’s Microsoft days who now manages a mixed-reality studio for Microsoft Windows, and who developed KOYA’s animation curriculum. Smith excels in the application of augmented and virtual reality in commercial and consumer spaces, and sees animation as an under-resourced category in the tech sector, a scalable skill that could provide livelihoods as well as platforms for creative expression.

“What if we take some of this innovation in VR and AR and apply that to people who don’t wanna be software developers but they wanna tell a great story?” Smith asks. “This is a career path to do that. What I want is a population, a wave of storytellers here in the Seattle area. As I look into how to recruit them, the conclusion I came to is I need to be a facilitator, a teacher. I need to invest in talent so that they’re good enough that I don’t have to import people from LA and Vancouver. This is my way to create a better reality.”

The Union and its programming are part of an overarching nonprofit called PACE, or the Pan-African Center for Empowerment. PACE revolves around Gursel’s redefinition of the educational philosophy known as STEAM, which traditionally emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math. Gursel’s version integrates entrepreneurship and media. He describes PACE as a nonprofit run like a startup, and its interweaving of streams is precisely on-brand.

The arts have always been significant in Gursel’s life. Growing up in New York, his mom, Gail Boyd, was an attorney with one foot in litigation and another in entertainment law—all the while involved in diversity and inclusion training. When he was 17, she convinced him to abandon his burgeoning rap career for college; now she sits on the board of PACE. His first startup, VIBEHEAVY, was launched in 2012 with the help of his cousin, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. It began as a music discovery service and has since transitioned into fashion and branding. His wife, dancer and choreographer Jade Solomon Curtis, is creative director at PACE, where she’s folded her company, Solo Magic, and her own work into the organization’s outreach initiatives in order to bring them to audiences around the world.

All these disciplines are means to an end: Everything he’s doing, he says, is about changing lives.

“He’s taking what he learned at the University of Chicago and doing social entrepreneurship. He’s a genius in that and I’m gonna do everything I can do help him,” Boyd says. “He has the brain of an artist—he taught himself to play guitar; he sees the world in that vision—but he was also trained in social engagement and activism. That’s something I was engaged in my whole life, and he grew up going to various protests with me and I was a lawyer for community activists and things like that. That’s part of his life, doing something not just for himself but for his community.”

That community is now opening pathways to opportunity within a system that historically has been stacked against it. “People that have to survive—they build muscles to thrive,” says Harris, from the Office of Economic Development. “But there’s always a level of survival because we’re never satisfied with the way things are. That’s what activates both sides of the brain. You could call it creative or tech but at the end of the day, at the human-centered perspective, it’s people that are always in this cycle striving to survive and thrive. Figuring out how to crack the code then making it better.”

As it stands now the tech economy is a hyperactive wealth machine consuming itself as it grows, benefitting a few to the detriment of many. Everyone knows it, but few are doing something about it.

“I wasn’t always like this—I was a traditional capitalist,” Gursel says. “I was out here trying to make money, start businesses. I wasn’t thinking about my community and a way to give back, even though that’s how I was raised. It took me selling some companies and being at a certain level of comfort and frustration to say, let me focus on giving back. I’m doing the work with the hope that I touch enough people.”

As of this writing Gursel had recently returned to Seattle from three days at South by Southwest Interactive. He was there to launch another of PACE’s initiatives called Black Tech Union, by night hosting parties and by day speaking on panels and plugging HBCU students into on-location job interviews with tech companies. For the moment he’s happy to have time with his wife and two young daughters. But the hustle continues: What will the Union’s furniture look like? How will he scale up the educational programming? Where’s the next round of PACE funding come from? How will he make the nonprofit profitable?

“Who knows, man?” Gursel laughs. “That’s the fun part.”