Sultan White is an alumnus of TC’s Anthropology and Education program. He earned his master’s degree earlier this year. Now in Washington DC, Sultan is working as an intern at the Obama Foundation and developing a social enterprise start-up that he founded while at Teachers College. The TC Anthro Blog had the pleasure of catching up with Sultan to hear about his work in DC, his experience in TC, and his broader life journey. Hope you enjoy!
Working at the Obama Foundation must be exciting. Can you tell us about what you’re doing there?
It’s quite common for presidents to establish a foundation after they leave office. The biggest necessity is to house the library, all the archives from the presidency. But President Obama also wanted to continue his work in a meaningful way. He carried over a few initiatives, like My Brother’s Keeper, which started as an initiative to support young men of color, along with the Girls Opportunity Alliance, which tries to help the 98 million girls worldwide who don’t have access to education.
The Obama Foundation also runs a fellowship that brings 20 people from the US and 20 people from abroad to establish programs that they couldn’t necessarily do as individuals. The Foundation helps with funding, access to experts, and the huge brand that is the Obamas. We’re also helping the fellows work out their theory of change.
The Foundation has a start-up mentality, since it’s only four years old. If you’ve been there for a couple years, you’re already a veteran. This means there is also a big learning curve. People are used to the White House mentality, just plugging in and continuing whatever has been done. But now they are challenged to think more like a start-up, be more creative.
I help with all the different programs, doing systems mapping. With whatever people we’re supporting, we make a systems map to identify avenues of impact. Analyzing those avenues, we ask, which are most meaningful? Then we put together a plan to follow those.
Sounds like truly important work. Now, you’re also running your own business, right? Can you tell us about that work, too?
I got the idea while reading an article in the Tampa Bay Times about “zombie campaigns.” That term refers to a campaign bank account that is up and running, even after the politician left office, or even after they died! These accounts are left open and the money is legally allowed to be invested. Of course, people find creative ways to siphon that money for themselves, sometimes making four times their salaries using this little loophole.
The SEC is supposed to regulate this kind of activity, but they’re turning a blind eye, because the legislators who control their budget are the ones using the loophole. So I though, if campaign finance law is slow to change and regulation is slow to enforce, what’s another way we can help this issue? I thought there was an opportunity for social enterprise to help make a change.
I spent the summer of 2018 reading up, taking classes at TC. By the end of the summer, I had my idea. I pitched the idea to some of my confidants, to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and recruited a team. Together, we figured out how to tackle the problem. These campaigns have this money and it can be invested. Politicians are very conscious that their positions let them influence the market. If a politician owns equity in the fossil fuel industry, they might have an incentive to deregulate the fossil fuel industry, to see appreciation in their portfolio. If politicians own any stake in the companies, and they’re passing laws to increase the number of prisoners we have, then they’ll see an appreciation in their stocks.
We want to make sure politicians are divested from factory farms, private prisons, arms manufacturing, and fossil fuels. Instead, we can get them to make investments in companies that support women and Black and Latinx people, that have strong relationships with unions, that actively hire veterans, or that invest in renewable energy.
Our pitch to these politicians and their campaigns is that socially responsible investing will bring value three ways. The first is financial return. This isn’t charity, it’s an investment. The second is that it looks good. Politics is a game of perception, getting voters to like you. The third is that we elect these politicians to be public servants, and this is just another avenue to do their job even better. All together, if our plan works, this could help the social enterprise movement take off with both capital and policy.
That’s such an interesting idea. Has studying anthropology helped you run this business?
Definitely. There’s a common phrase business people like to throw around – know your market. There’s a lot of ways to go about that with research and data. But there’s a reason I chose to move to Washington DC to run this company. It’s to be in the mix. Not just making connections or gathering letters of intent, but actually understanding the needs of these people. What do they really want? Not just the politicians, but the people who work on the campaigns. The value of understanding that is beyond just Google research.
From the anthropology program. I understand that the only way to get past fear of the other is to get to know people by spending time with them. I’ll understand that they’re just people, who might be powerful, but they have needs and wants. This approach also helps me learn their language, which is huge for acceptance. So definitely, anthropology plays a big role in how I do business.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from? How did you get interested in anthropology?
I was born in San Francisco. At the time, my dad wanted to get out of San Francisco, because he thought it wasn’t great to raise kids. And for some reason he took us to Las Vegas! So I was raised in Las Vegas for most of my childhood. My parents got divorced and I had to move around a lot, so I saw so much of America at a young age. I ended up at Exeter, a boarding school in New Hampshire, where I saw snow for the first time. Exeter offered me a scholarship when I was in eighth grade, and I took it because I was sick of moving around.
That gave me a culture shock because it was the first time I was around all that wealth and prestige. It really changed me. When I first got there, my grades were terrible. They put me into a program for kids who were struggling. I ended up with a solid group of friends, along with other Black kids who went to the school. We did the same clubs and activities. I graduated and went to Middlebury. It was basically Exeter 2.0, which I couldn’t stand!
I transferred to Hawaii, where my family has deep roots. I got a huge grant because of it. Our family history is convoluted and somewhat lost, but we have our great grandmother’s papers, which showed that we had been there since Hawaii was a kingdom. I fit in much better there; Hawaii was a very diverse state.
At Hawaii, I studied economics and business, and then worked for the city when I graduated. The mayor of Honolulu appointed me to sit on a neighborhood board. I facilitated neighborhood meetings between people and their police, fire departments, and local government. That’s when I really got interested in civic engagement and people trying to make change. That can be hard to do as an economist, but I thought studying anthropology would help. I did my research, heard about the program at TC and its reputation, and I applied.
What have you been involved since you came to Teachers College?
I think if I didn’t go to Teachers College, I wouldn’t have been able to make this company. There were so many free resources there, like the design clinic or all the events where I pitched my idea.
One of my favorite things was getting involved with the Morton Deutsch Center. They do lots of practice with negotiation, which is helpful considering my interest in business, but it’s not all about winning. It’s about sustainability, finding something that’s mutually beneficial.
I also did the student accelerator at Almaworks. They have a space rented out at a WeWork in SohHo. Every week, you go down to work on your business idea with big shots. It was cool, it helped me understand the startup world a little more. It’s a little different definition of success from civil impact, but it was good to understand what I was working with.
Additionally, the Law School has a community development and business clinic, which is free legal advice for student companies. So they helped write all my founding documents and bylaws. I worked with a lawyer who wants to go into corporate law.
What were your favorite classes and professors?
Academically, TC was great. I loved the discussions, like in our Political Anthropology class with Professor Nicholas Limerick. I knew I wanted to take that class even before I came to TC. Professor Limerick’s Culture and Communication class was also great. Of course, also the Methods class with Professor Amina Tawasil. I needed to understand that for my work within my company, with my customers.
Dr. Peter Coleman’s class, Fundamentals of Conflict Resolution, was awesome, too. It works up to his sustainable peace theory. The whole conflict resolution community at Columbia has unified around it. The theory means recognizing that our world has a system in place, not just simple cause-and-effect relationships, so we have to come up with solutions that work within a whole fabric that is constantly moving. They’re using this framework to look at all these peaceful societies around the world, not just societies in conflict.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.