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Ben Jealous opts for 'social-impact investing' over mayoral run

Ben Jealous opts for 'social-impact investing' over mayoral run
Benjamin Todd Jealous is a former president and CEO of the NAACP. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

People fretting about the city's future and looking for new leadership have asked Ben Jealous to consider running for mayor of Baltimore — certainly one of the toughest jobs in America — and there should be no surprise in that. A Columbia graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Jealous was just 35 when he became president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the five years he spent at its Baltimore headquarters, he returned the NAACP to relevance, re-energized the organization and improved its finances. He's only 42 now, and based in Baltimore with a venture capital firm with a social conscience.

And that's just the dilemma: Jealous told me last week that his position with Kapor Capital puts him on the edge of entrepreneurship in the tech industry, a place where he and the couple who started that company, California entrepreneurs and philanthropists Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, believe they can make a difference in the lives of young African-American men, among others. So Jealous can't see getting into government — not that there's anything wrong with that — just when he believes he's about to solve some social problems through the marketplace.

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The Kapors' goals include bringing more minorities and women into the tech world and closing the achievement and wealth gaps. There is both growing criticism of Silicon Valley for its lack of diversity and growing pressure to bridge the nation's digital divide as a way to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people in old, post-industrial cities like Baltimore. Economists keep telling us there are thousands of jobs in information technology in Maryland, but not enough educated and trained home-grown workers to fill them.

Jealous runs the Baltimore office of Kapor Capital, and given the company's investment mission — "100 percent social impact" — he's decided not to run for mayor.

"People asked me to think about it, and I did for a couple of months," he says. "But timing was an issue." He became a Kapor partner only a year ago, and he has yet to move his family to Baltimore. Still, he's aware that many people are looking for more choices in city leadership.

No one expected this to be an issue this year and next. But the death of Freddie Gray changed everything. In the midst of April's unrest and the surge of violence that followed, City Hall drew the heat and light.

Until Gray's death, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appeared to be cruising through 2015 toward re-election in 2016. There were only rumors that her predecessor, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, would challenge her. Now, having completed the probation attached to the embezzlement conviction and perjury charge that ultimately forced her to resign in 2010, Dixon is in the race, claiming sidewalk support everywhere she goes.

A young, Harvard-educated engineer named Calvin Young says he will seek the Democratic nomination. Connor Meek says he's going to run for mayor, too. He's the young fellow who exposed (and helped reverse) the head-scratching practice of Baltimore police district stations shutting their doors to the public each night at 7.

City Councilman Carl Stokes and state Sen. Catherine Pugh are seriously considering launching campaigns for the office, and Del. Jill Carter says she's thinking about it, too. "I've made no decision, yet," Carter says. "Just watching and contemplating."

David Warnock, the civic-minded venture capitalist and new chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, has been mentioned as a candidate. I asked Warnock if he intended to get into the race.

"Like you I'm deeply concerned about the future Baltimore," he replied in an email. "I'm also very optimistic about its prospects. The performance of the last two mayors speaks for itself. Hope that's helpful."

Not very — particularly with regard to Rawlings-Blake — but it was all Warnock offered.

Jealous said he expects to see "a very strong candidate get into the race soon." He would not say who that person is. It is clearly not Ben Jealous.

He also considered a run for Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat, but decided against that adventure, too.

Meanwhile, he runs the Baltimore office of Kapor Capital and feels he's in a great position to have "social impact." He has good reason to feel that way.

His bosses have been described as "a tech power couple to the powerless." Mitch Kapor, the inventor of Lotus software in the 1980s, is a longtime champion of diversity in Silicon Valley, as is his wife. Two weeks ago, they went to the White House to pledge $40 million over three years to make tech entrepreneurship more inclusive of women and minorities.

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Some of the Kapors' investment will go to summer education and technical training for minority students. But the bulk of it, more than $25 million, will go to direct investments in technology startups, half of them with "founders from historically underrepresented communities."

That's what Ben Jealous is working on these days — "social impact investing" in the tech world — and why he won't be running for mayor, at least this time.

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