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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

q-and-a

Talking about race in aerospace with Elroy Air’s Kofi Asante

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 provoked outrage and protests around the world. The urgent conversation surrounding these events has since spread to every corner of society, including the advanced air mobility industry. Companies such as Volocopter and Wisk, and individual leaders in the eVTOL space, have made public statements denouncing racial prejudice. At the same time — as anyone who has been to an eVTOL conference in the past several years can attest — Black people remain hugely underrepresented in aerospace’s “third revolution.”

Kofi Asante is an exception. Previously part of the strategy team that launched Uber Freight, Asante is now head of strategy and business development for Elroy Air, which is developing the hybrid-electric Chaparral drone to “democratize access to rapid logistics.” He is the son of an African engineer from Ghana and an African American professor of communications from New York, who encouraged him from an early age to be aware of and proud of his Blackness.

On June 3, he addressed his non-Black friends and colleagues in a Medium post titled “What can I do to help?” which offers five suggestions for people who want to be allies of the Black community at this pivotal moment in history. We asked Asante to elaborate on his ideas and his experiences as a Black man in the largely non-melanated worlds of tech and aerospace. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Kofi Asante - Elroy Air
Elroy Air head of strategy and business development Kofi Asante.

Elan Head: Can you talk about the experiences that led up to your decision to share this post on Medium?

Kofi Asante: Of course. When the initial video [of George Floyd’s death] was released I saw it on social media, and it immediately made me — from a pattern recognition perspective — just go into this moment of frustration and sadness. And I think there was an initial element of like, “Here is a piercing racial injustice that I will once again have to process on top of all the other challenging circumstances that are happening during 2020.”

But something unique and beautiful that ended up happening to be a catalyst for me writing this piece was that I didn’t feel like I was alone — honestly, for the first time in one of these experiences. Countless non-Black allies who are very caring in my world, whether investors or executives or other entrepreneurs, reached out to check in on me.

So there was basically a moment where I felt like this was a different experience than what I’m used to seeing from these types of recurring tragic events. And it really gave me a lot of the courage and strength to write a piece like this. That’s why I titled it “What I can do to help?” from their perspective, because that’s probably the most common question that I’ve been asked.

Elan Head: You noted in your post that a lot of people worry about not having the right words to say, and that’s something that I can relate to because it’s something that I worry about. And I think that may be one reason why we’ve avoided these types of conversations in the past. What do you think we need to be doing in order to start having these conversations and bringing this out into the open in a way we haven’t before?

Kofi Asante: I think everybody has a different set of experiences and encounters with these types of conversations, based on the way that their parents might have spoken with them, or the friendships that they might have had, or even their own background and different struggles that they’ve had to deal with. Holding those aside, I think something that’s really meaningful is just continuing to seek out relationships with people that don’t look like yourself. As you do that, you build a layer of trust that allows you to make mistakes when you’re asking certain questions or when you’re talking, that are all under the umbrella of just love and caring.

I think if you’re able to build those relationships — in the workplace, in your personal life — it tends to create an opportunity to be able to have dialogue around topics that we may not be as comfortable with. And then asking some questions and listening: That combination tends to get people from wherever they’re at to being able to have some meaningful conversations.

For the first time in history, everybody has an opportunity to visibly sit with the racial inequality that’s going on not only in the U.S., but around the world for the Black community. You don’t have to have been an activist. You can start today and start to ask those questions, acknowledge and educate yourself and educate those around you. And from my own personal experience, I’ll say I’ve never been hurt by someone asking me how I’m doing or checking in.

Elroy Air Chaparral cargo drone
With its hybrid-electric Chaparral drone, Elroy Air is targeting missions including humanitarian relief, pharmaceutical and parcel delivery, and military resupply. Elroy Air Photo

Elan Head: What has your experience been like as a Black man in this advanced air mobility community, which has a lot of people who don’t look like you?

Kofi Asante: It’s hard to speak for anybody else in the Black community in this space, and there aren’t that many of us. But for me it’s been relatively positive. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many caring non-Black investors and executives and even people on my own team who just care in a way where their heart is there, even if they don’t know the exact right words to say. And I think I’ve felt that way not only here in the U.S., but also in the international business development community. I’ve had an opportunity to go to a number of countries where I felt very well received.

One thing that can be sometimes a little challenging is just the fact that I have very rarely seen anyone else that looks like me in any of the rooms that I walk into. When you’re going into a boardroom or going to talk with investors or sitting in an executive meeting, it’s very rare that you see another Black individual anywhere else in the room. That I feel doesn’t have to be the way that it is. It also takes up another amount of mental and emotional space as you’re in a meeting, just knowing that that it’s imbalanced in that way. And so I feel like there’s a lot of work to do. I feel like people’s hearts are generally in the right direction, but now it’s about taking that next step and moving the needle on making sure that there are more Black individuals in decision-making roles and positions of power.

Elan Head: What do you think are some concrete steps that the industry can take to make that happen?

Kofi Asante: What I like about our industry — aerospace or drones or autonomy — is that we’re faced with some of the hardest challenges, and instead of us saying that there’s no way to get it done, or we don’t know where to start, or we don’t want to deal with them, we typically are magnets to the hardest problems and challenges and find ways to create solutions. And I don’t think that this one is any different. You don’t expect to build a drone, or a flying car, or a rocket overnight. You take steps meaningfully and strategically. And you come up with robust plans and you track against those and you iterate on them and you don’t give up.

I feel like it’s really the same concept when it comes to diversity — not accepting things for where they are, but instead gravitating to the option to be a generation of pioneers that actually create an inclusive and open opportunity for the early-stage leaders and investors to look different than they have in the past. This is not a overnight solution, and it is potentially at heart a very hard thing to tackle because of how deeply rooted it is in our society and how many centuries that the scales have been tipped in the other direction. Even just thinking about my mom: My mom had to go to a different elementary school because of de-segregation that had just happened. We’re not that far removed.

But when you don’t know what to do or where to start, think about it in two ways. One, just remembering that you continue to run towards the hardest problems that we have to solve with technology, and you can do the same when it comes to this human one. And then two, you don’t have to know everything to do up front — you can figure it out as you’re going along.

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