Traveling the globe can lead to profound revelations and personal growth. Such was the case with Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, whose recent trip to Lagos, Nigeria, marked a turning point in his perspective on governance, culture and the future of technology. His experience not only allowed him to observe both the similarities and differences between the megacities of NYC and Lagos, but also encouraged him to reflect on the interconnectedness of communities and cultures around the world.
Richards sat down with Epicenter to discuss the biggest takeaways from his trip and why it was such an emotional experience. He told us about meeting young Black billionaires, shared the practices he hopes to implement here in NYC and his plan to put $30 million into schools.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: What sparked the idea for your trip to Africa and how did that come about?
Richards: We’ve been doing a lot of work in Queens around breaking barriers in tech. Last year we launched the Queens Tech Initiative, where we raised about $100,000. The idea was to ensure that five startups got $20,000 each. When you look at the U.S. population and New York City’s population of Black people in tech, it’s less than 12%. So we did our research to find places that are getting it right — where there are Black people who are actually growing their startups, who are getting nurtured, who are getting access to the necessary capital. And there were two places in Africa that popped up — Nigeria leading the way, and Ghana being number two. So we reached out to the people who run the innovation labs out there and got connected to the governor’s office. That’s where the idea was born.
Epicenter: Before your trip, you tweeted how emotional you felt about going to Africa for the first time.
Richards: This was a very emotional trip, as you can imagine. I just started to think about our ancestors, right? And I’m thinking like, wow, I became the first Black man to be borough president in Queens. Before the trip, I actually finished the book “Until We Reckon,” which is about the criminal justice system and ties into some of the history of why Black Americans specifically are left behind in so many areas. I was just thinking about the huge disconnect between Black Americans and Africa. I’m a firm believer that if you know who you are, then you won’t be out here acting a fool. There’s just such a disconnect between who we were. And when you touch that soil, you start to recognize that nobody’s giving you that ‘you don’t belong here’ type of glance.
Epicenter: Would you say that Africa is generally misunderstood by Americans?
Richards: Oh, absolutely. We have these depictions of Africa like there are lions running around everywhere. You get off that plane, and you see us. Now, there is poverty, extreme poverty. I mean, we couldn’t even use the water to brush our teeth, we had to use bottled water. But at the same time, you see people walking in pride, with their shoulders up, head up high, no matter where they’re at. The entrepreneur skill set — they’re turning nothing into something. So that was a big takeaway for me. But the other most powerful part about it was seeing Black people who control their own destiny. I think that’s the best way to sum up the trip — Black people making decisions for Black people. The media here doesn’t do us justice, but it’s a beautiful place. Of course, it has its challenges but everywhere does.
Epicenter: Can you elaborate on that?
Richards: So 60% of the population of Lagos is 25 or younger. And remember, Lagos has some 15 million people on the books with 25 million people off the books. They have a growing immigration trend, just as we have here, where people want to be in Lagos because it’s the center of innovation in Nigeria. It was really amazing to meet Black people who are developing their own software, Black people who are developing their own apps and Black folks who actually have the support of the government with access to capital. The government literally supports their efforts and will give them seed money to start up. We went to a Microsoft pitch one day where you had nearly 40 young Africans pitching their app ideas, everything from health care apps to creating prosthetic 3D legs. And these kids were raising millions of dollars. We met about four or five billionaires under the age of 40. So that was another big takeaway. I’m still unpacking from the trip and I don’t mean my suitcase.
Epicenter: What are some ways we can ensure equitable access to the tech field as it pertains to race and gender here in New York?
Richards: For one, we developed an exchange with Lagos. So there’s permanent infrastructure being put in place between Queens and Nigeria. I’ll also say that the governor’s former head of technology in Nigeria actually lived in Far Rockaway, so he has a Queens connection. And we’re in the midst of working with the Adams administration. I called the mayor personally and said, ‘Mayor, this is what we need to be doing to break down the barriers.’ I want to see the city really commit to creating a center, like an incubator for Black tech.
Epicenter: Moving forward, how do you plan on implementing policies and practices that will recreate the success Lagos has experienced?
Richards: We want to ensure that people of color have a level playing field here. So that means access to capital, tech incubators, working with venture capitalists to support startups and also developing the pipeline from elementary to high school. This year, I’ll be putting $30 million into schools — a large amount of that money is going into tech upgrades, STEM centers and hydroponic labs. If you don’t see people who look like you in a space, then you don’t believe you belong in that space. In Africa, it’s normal. Like I said, they own their software.
Epicenter: Is it safe to assume you plan on returning for another trip to Africa down the road?
Richards: Oh, hell yeah. We’ve developed such a close relationship with Nigeria. It was great to be there. I definitely want to get to Ghana, Rwanda, and South Africa. It’s funny because my son now knows a little bit more about Africa and said he wants to take the trip now. He’s 7. I’m like ‘brother, you can’t take a 13-hour flight right now’ [laughing]. But when he’s about 10, maybe he can roll. But the mere fact we have more kids interested in traveling is great. We just want to expand and not have them thinking Africa is this place you can’t go to because that’s a barrier in our minds. If you can travel to Cancun, Colombia or elsewhere, you can definitely travel to Africa.