How LGBTQ Entrepreneurs Can Get Involved In Politics

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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.

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