Uncharted Insider - August 2021
On building wealth, the race/class narrative, being misunderstood, and going to cooking school.
Welcome to the August edition of the Uncharted Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Uncharted Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.
- We will be announcing our Economic Inequality Initiative cohort in the next few weeks. Stay tuned! We’ve been laser-focused on narrowing down from 344 applications to 10 ventures (we have raised additional capital to expand our cohort size from 8 to 10).
- We’re excited to welcome two new people to the Uncharted team: Andrea Perdomo as our Director of Economic Inequality Initiative and Sara Garciá as our External Relations Manager.
On Building Wealth
A few weeks ago, I was riding in the back of a Lyft driven by a teenager who told me that he’s driving for Lyft and day-trading on the Robinhood app to make summer money, and it struck me just how different Gen Z’s relationship is to the stock market than mine was as a teenager (my first exposure to the stock market was being gifted a piece of thick paper that formally declared I owned exactly one share of stock in Exxon Mobile (don’t worry... I have since fully divested)). We’re in an age of booming access to financial markets, and this has profound implications for wealth building across races, genders, generations, and classes. In 2020, US households accumulated $12 trillion in new wealth (at a wealth-building rate unprecedented in recent history). Stunningly, 50% of all this new wealth came from one place: rising stock prices (rising house prices accounted for only 17% of new wealth created). It’s no surprise that participation in financial markets is a powerful wealth builder, but the problem and nuance are in how unequally Americans participate in these markets: only 33% of Black Americans own stocks compared with 61% of White Americans. If you play with this interactive chart from the Federal Reserve, you can see how wealth has been built (or not) across race, age, and wealth distribution. The rate of wealth building in 2020 was fastest amongst older, White populations, but the rules of wealth building are shifting with new trends led by Gen Z around retail investing. Say what you want about Robinhood, but retail investing platforms could be some of the biggest drivers of wealth-building amongst populations who have traditionally not participated in the financial markets: 63% of Black Americans under the age of 40 are now participating in the stock market, and 29% of young Black Americans became first-time investors in 2020, compared to 16% of White Americans (source).
I've been diving into the role of narratives in social change by exploring the work of Ian Haney López (author of Dog Whistle Politics and leading voice on the race/class narrative). It might feel easier for those of us in the business of social change to launch programs and start organizations, but there are few things as effective as shaping broad narratives that influence contemporary mores, ideas, and policies (historically far-right philanthropy has done a better job of understanding this than progressive philanthropy).
López suggests that our groupishness is wrongly oriented. Much of the anti-racism movement has been about the group of White people and the group of People of Color. He argues that simply looking at these racial groups is not enough; instead of pitting POCs against White people, he advocates for creating a multiracial coalition united in addressing economic inequality. It's a populist narrative anchored in the belief that the real cleavage is not between racial groups, but rather between the White rich and the multiracial rest, and we need to unite our movement along this vertical race/class axis as opposed to a more horizontal race-only axis. His work dovetails with Heather McGhee's book on the cost of racism to everyone in The Sum of Us, and with Alicia Garza's encouragement for multiracial coalitions in The Purpose of Power.
But shifting from horizontal groupishness to vertical groupishness is not easy. This race/class narrative faces another, countervailing narrative in America about the American Dream and the desire of so many low, middle, and high-income folks to one day become economically mobile and become rich(er). López wants to paint the rich as the people who are taking advantage of this multiracial lower and middle class and rigging the system, but deep down, many people aspire to be rich, which leads me to wonder if the biggest challenge to this economic populist wide-tent narrative is another narrative around aspirational economic mobility. How likely are we to unify against the wealthy if we’re secretly holding out hope that one day that could be us? (This aspirational “American Dream” narrative was one reason (among many) why low-income White folks voted against their own interests and for Trump). The most nuanced narratives might be the most accurate, but the adoption of any narrative is inversely proportional to its level of nuance.
On Being Misunderstood
What defines the human experience more: our capacity to judge or our desire to be freed from it? This might feel like a pedantic question, but we live at a time when conditions are ripe for judgment and misunderstanding: we’ve never been more accessible and visible to each other (via technology) but have known less about each other than right now. As the velocity of judgment circulates faster and faster, so too does our desire to be freed from it, to be understood when conditions lend themselves to being misunderstood. Take Simone Biles, who received a wide range of blame, judgment, and praise for her decision to withdraw from the Olympics. Or Jeff Bezos, who was the recipient of a similarly wide range of opinions about his decision to go to space and invest his wealth in Blue Origin. In both cases, extensive, animated theorizing went into deconstructing these individuals’ decisions and rendering remarkably strong opinions about what Biles or Bezos should have done. One theory for the reason why people write long, expository autobiographies is simply to be vindicated from all the ways the public misunderstood them (at 768 pages, Obama is only halfway (!) into a two-volume series on his decisions as president in A promised Land). Show me a long autobiography and I will show you an author who was misunderstood.
Personally, I’ve observed in myself that one of the biggest struggles in my leadership at Uncharted has been the times when I felt misunderstood. Over the years, the hardest decisions I’ve had to make have been the ones where I knew, by virtue of information asymmetries or confidentiality or something else, that I would be misunderstood. Whether we are misunderstanding or being misunderstood, I don’t know what to do about all of this other than to be graceful. There is grace in approaching someone with the humble curiosity of seeking out every obstacle in the way of our understanding, and there is grace in those private moments when we remind ourselves that despite being misunderstood, we did our best. The cohesion of our social movements, narratives, organizations, and communities depends on this grace.
What big trends are you seeing? What insights have you had? What are some major learnings in the last month in your work? One of the most powerful ways we can learn is by 1) gleaning the insights from those around us, and then 2) compounding those learnings over time. Simply share any big ideas or learning using this link, and I’ll select a few to publish in the next Insider so this community can continue to compound learnings from each other.
Can you help?
This month, I’m looking for introductions!
- Do you know someone at the Suh Family Foundation?
- Do you know Jessi Shikman at First Round Review or anyone at First Round who might be able to connect us to Jessi or folks on the First Round Review team?
- Do you know anyone at the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation?
- Do you know anyone at Luminate who is focused on US issues?
What I am reading
- Are our social movements defined by a fight for freedom or a fight for power? The need for compassion and the power of trans activists. This is one of the most extraordinary podcasts I’ve listened to this year featuring activist Alok Vaid-Menon. (Pair with: For the Love of Men by Liz Plank, a book outlining the path from toxic to mindful masculinity.)
- The role of religion in determining the ethics of artificial intelligence. We’re obsessed with ethics in tech, but whose ethical frameworks are we using? Here. (Pair with: The homogenization of artificial general intelligence.)
- In 2020, Joe Biden won only 500 counties—but together they account for 71 percent of American economic activity. Donald Trump won more than 2,500 counties that together generate only 29 percent of economic activity. The cultural dominance of coastal elites and how their existence has turned politics into a struggle for respect and status. Here. (Pair with: Isabel Wilkerson’s distinctions of caste and class and Tressie Cottom’s contention that status is hyper-contextual.)
- How digital networks will become the economies of the future. A short Twitter thread by metaverse pundit Chris Dixon. (Pair with: Balaji Srinivasan on the future of crypto economies and Facebook's metaverse plans.)
I’ve taken the last two weeks off from all things Uncharted to attend a 2-week bootcamp at a culinary school in Vancouver, B.C. on plant-based cooking. I approached with two goals: 1) learn the first principles that underpin all cooking, and 2) develop more culinary creativity by operating within the dietary constraints of plant-based cooking where butter, cream, cheese, and meat are all unavailable, leading to inventive recipes and surprising substitutions.
This course ended up being one of the best things I have ever done (and I believe one of the highest ROI things I will ever do...it will fundamentally change every meal I make for the rest of my life). The course was a change of pace from the routines at Uncharted: I loved the tactile, physical dexterity needed to wield a knife, the sensory intelligence needed to evaluate the ripeness of a fresh tomato, the intellectual understanding needed to perceive how heat, acid, fat, and time change the chemical composition of ingredients, the creative vision needed to imagine a dish, and the strategic planning needed to script the key moves so it all came together at the same time. But perhaps most of all, I loved how the first principles of cooking invite us to let go of adhering to the check-lists in a recipe book where there is only one right way and instead trust ourselves, develop good kitchen judgment, rely on our taste-buds, and embrace the inevitable imperfections of taking something from idea to reality within just a few minutes or hours. The kitchen is the original rapid-prototyping workshop, it is the stage where we can apprentice in the human work of creating something from nothing, of course-correcting as we go by constantly tasting, re-flavoring, and tasting again, and of extending the grace to ourselves when the food didn’t come out exactly the way we envisioned. It’s just one meal, and if we’re lucky, we can try again tomorrow.
Amongst the wildfires,