James Felton Keith is an engineer, economist, author, speaker, the Chairman of the International Personal Data Trade Association and a serial entrepreneur having co-founded SLAY Media House, Accrue and other ventures.
Most recently, he’s the first black, bisexual candidate to run for election in the U.S. House as a representative of New York’s 13th Congressional District.
I spoke with Keith at StartOut’s Congressional LGBTQ Entrepreneur Summit earlier this year about why he decided to run for office, how to get politically active as an entrepreneur and how important it is for LGBTQ leaders to be vocal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brian Honigman: You have a really diverse entrepreneurial background. Why are you running for office?
James Felton Keith: I’m running because I think that I can close the income inequality gap. That’s the only reason I’m running. And it is a rare opportunity to have a conversation with the general public about policies that I will get passed anyway since I run a trade association.
I lobby the lobbyists. I’m not a lobbyist. I don’t do that work, but I develop the big ideas. I write the book, and our team goes and pushes it. And we raise funds around it. We make the world move. At least, we would like to think that we do from the standpoint of cyber security, data and inclusion.
I think that I represent the vast majority of the people in my district, in my state, in this country and in the world. And I think we have a really unique solution to how we pay people in this rapidly automating time. And so I’m running for office because I think I have the solution.
Honigman: How would you recommend LGBTQ entrepreneurs start getting politically active and start running for office? What steps should they take?
Keith: There’s not a real formula, but I think you have to have adequate infrastructure, so cultural infrastructure. I think the people who are available to run right now, they probably already are. If they’re not, they need more fixings to be prepared to run.
And I think it is our duty, people who are available enough to be transparent with ourselves, to be that infrastructure for them. What I specifically mean is I think my claim to fame is I have had a great team the whole time, of people saying, “Yes. You can do it,” of people saying, “This is how you might do it,” of people saying, “Well, you did that thing. This is how you might do it better.”
And so I think if people don’t already have that in play, they’re probably not going to be a robust enough candidate to overcome the existing barriers that they might possess just in being a minority or being LGBTQ, for instance.
Honigman: How would you suggest they prepare? I don’t mean run for governor tomorrow, but start to get civically engaged?
Keith: I think at every point that you progress in life, new opportunities open up to you. And so you just have to be available to receive those opportunities. Whatever work you do like volunteering for example, you got to do it and stick with it. There’s a big difference between saying, “I’m doing this because I want to run for office in two weeks,” versus, “I’m doing this because I think what I’m doing here is right and I think I’m going to learn something about myself.”
I think your everyday goal should be focusing on spending time on endeavors that allow you to become a more whole human being because the best politicians are so grand at being themselves that they can convey a message whether it be a complex one or a not so complex one to people.
And people digest it. And more than digesting the message, they want it. They want it from that person. And when you look at presidents, for instance, I think Barrack Obama and Donald Trump are highly actualized. They’re able to articulate to their bases how they actualize.
And so, if a person wants to be in a position of power, whether you’re CEO of some company, whether you got a company of five people or company of 500 people, you want to be in a position to say, “I know who I am. I am closer to knowing who I am, rather, than you are. And thus, I’m qualified to take you on a journey.”
I think people who want to lead should endeavor to bounce their existing perception of themselves up against as many obstacles as possible to confirm or affirm themselves. So that when they come back to the people and say, “Hey, I want to lead you.” And people go, “Why?” They can have an answer. And usually, when you can answer why, you’re good to go. People are beyond impressed when you have a rebuttal and you’re not stuttering, period. And it doesn’t always have to be in a grand form. It can be a conversation amongst three people that builds you up for that.
Outside from endeavouring and getting to know yourself better, you have to have a certain sense of courage. And that’s where I think infrastructure comes into place. Where people have to be available to tell you, “You can be courageous.” That’s not something that an individual gets on their own. You can’t just grow into that. Your community has to offer it.
And that is why I think some of the work that we’re all doing, even that we’re doing here today with StartOut is we’re building a community. But we’re also building a support infrastructure saying, “You can be out wholly as whoever you are. And in doing that, we’re going to do our best to support you when you’re right, challenge you where we don’t understand how you may or may not be and see how we all grow.”
But that’s the infrastructure piece. We have to have community. Great leaders come out of great communities and they just happen to be the people who rise to the top of a hotbed of other great leaders.
Honigman: How important is it for an LGBTQ entrepreneur to not just be out, but be vocal?
Keith: I think it’s absolutely necessary. It’s paramount. Throughout my career and my adulthood, I’ve lived in a relatively successful place. Pre and post, not just being out, but being vocal. I think coming out in the workplace, forced me to actualize faster. And then really study who I was, how I was presenting myself. And if I was comfortable with what I was presenting, if it was too much of an act, or if it wasn’t an act at all.
I think it is absolutely important for individuals to be able to be out and also vocal about who they are in the workplace because it will allow them to self-actualize more. And it will also allow them to influence the people around them to self-actualize more. And that’s only scales over time.
Honigman: So in your own career, you’re acting as a role model in a lot of ways and I see that with SLAY TV giving LGBTQ people of color representation and role models in media that they often don’t see elsewhere. How would you recommend LGBTQ entrepreneurs be better role models so that they encourage others to succeed and encourage them to start their own businesses?
Keith: One of the first things is acknowledging that they have something to offer, right? It’s a bit of self-care. Somebody told me– they were like, “You’re the first black representative of the LGBTQ community to run for federal office ever.”
And I was like, “Let’s look it up and make sure that’s a thing.” And then they were right. It’s a thing. And I’m totally available, comfortable in myself to say, “Yes. I’m going to be that guy, and we’re going to wear it a certain way. But we’re going to do it in our way.”
Because a lot of people come to us and say that, my husband and I, we should dress a certain way, look a certain way, etc. when we’re out. And we’re like, “We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to put him in a suit that looks identical to mine. We’re not these two straight buddies hanging out.”
If he’s wearing a shiny blouse, then that’s what he’s wearing and that’s who he was before this. That’s what we’re selling to people and that’s what they need to gobble up. And just kind of owning yourself, owning your identity and saying, “I am enough to be a role model and be myself at the same time. And that’s a good thing.”
The way folks can encourage themselves to be a role model is to understand they have some intrinsic value and the way that they can distribute that is to tell other people that they are valuable in all the work that they do. They should say it. It always comes back to that. No matter what we’re creating out here, I’m distributing a piece of me and that piece of me is like you. You have so much to distribute, to influence us with, to infect the world with, so do it.