Venezuela’s Mess — and What It Means for Socialism

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Venezuela has one of the most dysfunctional economies in the world. It has an abundance of inflation (currently 185 percent) and a surplus of exchange rates (two, besides the black-market rate) — and a dire scarcity of necessities like rice, eggs and diapers. The local economy relies almost entirely on oil, whose price has nose-dived, and the government is married to a model of socialism that has long since ceased to exist.

This is the dysfunction the very functional Luis Vicente Leon — Twitter star, government critic and one of Venezuela’s most respected voices on the economy — confronts daily. Over cold, sweet ice tea (and sugar is not easy to find!) Leon sat down with us to discuss the origins of Venezuela’s economic crisis, the hard remedies required to turn the situation around and the risks that linger in the interim. We rightly assumed that, as an economics professor at two local universities, a regular contributor to six national publications and president of Datanalisis, a company that produces financial-market intelligence, he wouldn’t be short on explanations. What follows has been edited and condensed. 

OZY: How did the economic situation in Venezuela get so bad?

Luis Vicente Leon: The crisis in Venezuela is a mix of a lot of things, but the most important manifestations are scarcity and inflation. During the Chavez era, the government thought the private sector was putting them at risk, so they adopted a primitive strategy of interventionism and began interfering in companies and expropriating part of the economy. They controlled prices, which made the cost of production higher than the revenue companies could earn, and they overvalued our local currency to stimulate cheap imports. In 2008, the government was responsible for 8 percent of total imports. Today, they import 50 percent.

Before, people didn’t realize there was a crisis because the government had money and could import things with dollars. But as oil prices plummeted — oil revenue has declined from $100 billion in 2014 to a projected $24 billion this year — the government defaulted internally on commercial debts, and suppliers abroad stopped providing goods. Local production, meanwhile, is nonexistent, and all government companies are a disaster.

We have shortages of whatever the government has expropriated — sugar, milk, coffee, cement, iron, etc. 

OZY: Is socialism to blame?

L.V.L.: Modern socialism recognizes the necessity of the private sector and the need to make agreements with producers. You don’t close the country to the rest of the world or control exchange rates. The problem is not socialism. It’s the government’s implementation, which is absolutely irrational, and trying to go back to primitive socialism.

OZY: What can be done to fix the situation?

L.V.L.: The government needs to recover confidence in the economy and recognize its mistakes; without confidence, people won’t participate in the marketplace. People don’t want to put their money in a jail, and right now Venezuela is a jail. The government is essentially telling investors, “Bring your dollars, but you won’t be able to bring them home. Bring your dollars and I’m going to control prices and you’re going to lose money in order to help the country.” No investor is going to go for that.

It’s also not enough to say we’re going to change. To change, you must change everything — including the model and maybe even the government. You need to open the market, open exchange rates — allow it to go up, devaluate and recover its real value — and you need to negotiate with the private sector to reprivatize the economy even though prices will increase. At the same time, the government must create a mechanism to subsidize poor people directly to allow them to surf the crisis.

But none of this is possible without money, whether from oil revenue or assistance from international lenders such as the IMF, International Development Bank or China. But nobody will provide financial help without confidence.

OZY: Does (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro ever call you for advice?

L.V.L.: The government has asked me in the past but not now because they think I’ve become very critical. But I’ve always been like that; it’s just that now there are bigger problems to criticize. But I have to recognize that as much as the government also criticizes me — Maduro singled me out in his last nationally televised broadcast — they’re nice to me. I’m not an enemy.

OZY: You’re in the business of predictions. What’s on the horizon for this tumultuous country?

L.V.L.: There are two scenarios. The first is anomie: The country becomes more primitive but the people accept it. The government continues to provide cheap essentials to maintain the poor people and allows the middle and high class to create a dual economy where you can use your own dollars to bring in goods and live with it by paying a lot of money. Consumption will be less. People will live with less. This is not popular but is very important and has a huge probability.

The second possibility entails a radicalization in society before presidential elections in 2019 and a social explosion that leads to agreements between the military sector, some members of the government and some opposition members to kick Maduro out.

The Indie Festival for Comics-Lovers

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With the emergence of graphic novels as a serious and viable art form in the late ’80s and early ’90s — most notably Art Spiegelman’s Maus, whose phenomenal success forced The New York Times and Publishers Weekly to create a whole new bestseller category — comics became very big business. The new indie-comics explosion broadened the spectrum, encompassing everything from crude one-panel jokes to complex stories and characters that were taken seriously as both art and literature. This newfound respect made celebrities out of artists like Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and Tony Millionaire.

Despite the huge popularity of the new comics, a few years back, New York’s Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art (MoCCA) was forced to close its doors when the directors could no longer afford the skyrocketing rents. The museum’s massive collection of original artwork was saved from the landfill, however, thanks to the intervention of the Society of Illustrators. Founded in 1901 as an organization devoted to promoting and preserving the work of established and new illustrators alike, the Society folded MoCCA and its collection into its own headquarters and gallery space on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

It seems millennials are also rediscovering the hands-on joys of the DIY approach, drawing, Xeroxing, stapling and handing out their own ’zines.

Now, the Society of Illustrators celebrates the spirit of the museum and the future of comic art with the annual MoCCA Arts Festival — to be held this weekend— which brings together new and established artists, indie publishers and comic book geeks of all ages to get a glimpse into what the next generation of comic art might look like. Unlike the massive comic-cons around the country, which have become showcases for major Hollywood studios and video game companies, MoCCA Fest remains very much a grassroots event, and in that reveals something much more interesting than a few clips from the next $200 million superhero blockbuster.

Although the special guest stars at this year’s MoCCA Arts Festival include Phoebe Gloeckner, who emerged from San Francisco’s underground comics scene in the 1970s to become one of the leading female comic artists in the country, and CeCe Bell, whose graphic novel El Deafo (about her own childhood growing up deaf) recently won a Newbery Award, the real story is at the small exhibitor tables. Along with reps from major indie publishers like Fantagraphics and a number of luminaries from the underground comics scene, participants also include a slew of youngsters who’ve been drawing and distributing their own homemade comics, titles dealing with everything from historical events to the antics of their cat to insane, surreal, taboo-busting fantasies.

Some of the artwork may be more refined than others, some of the stories more compelling and some of the jokes funnier, but that’s not the point. What matters is that they’re actually doing something and creating original work. Despite all the long-held apocalyptic rumors about the death of print, it seems, just as millennials have rediscovered the joys of analog vinyl albums, they’re also rediscovering the hands-on joys of the DIY approach, drawing, Xeroxing, stapling and handing out their own ‘zines instead of merely posting everything online. Just as was the case three decades ago, there are an awful lot of kids out there who find something deeply satisfying about producing something people can hold in their hands, no matter how scruffy, scrubby and crude it might be. 

How Soap Saved My Life

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Everything I ever needed to know I learned by watching people die.

I sat in the back of ambulances holding people’s hands and breathing my air into their lungs; I said good-bye to Marine brethren whose birthdays were canceled in Afghanistan. I was a Navy corpsman, a combat medic. As a term of respect, I’m called a “doc.” It’s my profession to keep people alive despite being full of holes made by bullets and bombs, and I loved my job. Death is a motherfucker of a teacher, and if you can bear the lesson, it’ll change the way you do everything. 

“Enjoy the suck!” was what you said in the Corps when things go sideways. Enjoy the suck when the hill turns to a mountain, and then turns to a swamp, and the radio is busted, so the resupply of chow ain’t coming. Enjoy when your old lady starts fucking someone else because you’re always gone being a tough guy, or too distant when you’re home. Your business is to endure. You ain’t the first, you won’t be the last.

You know what makes warriors warriors first? Suffering in bondage as a group. That’s it. All the fight skill happens after weeks and months of sorting out the quitters, and tormenting the strong, until looking at all the shaved-head recruits like yourself, you realize you either made a terrible life choice/mistake or you just joined some strange and fantastic order of magnificent killers. Maybe a little of both. Enjoy the suck becomes a mantra, and it’s a reminder that you have a choice, a reminder that your attitude and spirit are unbreakable, should you choose. Should you have a sense of humor at the abject pointlessness of it as it’s sold and described, you may find your own deeper personal experience in the midst of it all. 

When you’re ice-skating across land mines as a full-time job, in a wasteland of heat and misery? You better have that little Jedi mind trick locked down tight. It’s going to suck, and folks are going to die. In the words of the great samurai Musashi: “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” Musashi never said your death, his death, their deaths. Just accept. It’s coming. Be ready. Smile. Wash your ass.

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The author in Afghanistan (left) and as soap magnate (right).

Source Courtesy of Max Moore

I made it through six combat tours by keeping to a specific routine in the madness. Stay fluid, while keeping to a discipline. Clean your rifle before you clean your teeth, and find a moment and a little water for a quick bath every day I could. My nightmare wasn’t dying; it was dying as a stinking mess. The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae were bathing when the Persians first saw them. Samurai would burn incense in their helmets before battle. Warriors across time made a point of getting clean as one of the few controllable actions you can do before stepping into chaos.

But then you know what happens? Despite being ready, being unafraid of death? You load up your rucksack and climb onto a plane that has ice and clean water and a flushing toilet, and you return home. I was incredibly overwhelmed with joy, but unexpectedly there was this nagging depression that followed me to the land of freeways, free sex and air-conditioning. I felt like I’d been robbed, cheated out of the good death I was ready for.

So I came home, and had to get used to living. I had to reset my death clock. I was still haunting fight gyms and mixed martial arts (MMA) studios, looking for a beating but bored. The depression got worse. My mother died. Her house burned down. My job evaporated. I was definitely not enjoying the suck anymore. I was out of gas. So, after a rough week, I paused. I took my Glock out of my mouth and took a shower, and I started looking for a fresh fight. 

I went back to that place in my memory of the joy of getting clean, and for whatever reason, I started making soap. It was something to keep my hands busy. It kept me from drinking and drugging.

And then everything got really weird.

People started liking the soap and insisting on paying me for my soap. I started finding marginalized combat vets on Skid Row who were living nasty and needed the soap to prevent disease while living outdoors. And then things got weird all over again. I started Maxwell’s Soaps as a business. The BBC comes to interview my company for an international story. An online store is born. I build a small soap factory in Los Angeles and start giving soap away to the homeless every time I sell a bar.

I’ve found my new fight: I sell soap so that I can help get homeless people clean. I bring that same bit of humanity and dignity to them that I needed when life sucked and I was losing my mind. And that takes us to here. Here I am. Presently writing this little essay for you all as a vat of soap boils in the next room. Unafraid of dying, yes, but also unafraid of loving people deeply with all my heart, like I might live past next week.

This Tiny African Country Is Leading the World’s Drone Race

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In this limited series, OZY looks at leading-edge ideas in technology, health care and education that are emerging from different countries within Africa.

Imagine this: A child is sick in a small village in the hills of Rwanda. It’s late at night, and the nearest hospital is hours away. So the kid’s worried mother picks up the phone, and, shortly thereafter, the much-needed asthma medication arrives — thanks to a drone.

Yes, Dr. Drone may sound futuristic, but it could be a way to get ahead of neighboring Kenya, which has banned the use of this tech for fear of the terrorist group al-Shabaab. And unmanned aerial vehicles, as they’re technically known, could also be a game-changer for humanitarian purposes and trade in countries such as Rwanda, with few roads to rural areas. Indeed, this tiny East African country, known as the land of a thousand hills, is leading the continent into the future of drone use — it’s even home to what could become the world’s first drone port by the end of 2017.

The word “drone” tends to conjure up images of terrified children running for cover in parts of the Middle East, or chubby nerds scaring passersby in San Francisco with their silent toys. And there are plenty of skeptics about how far this technology may go — many think deploying a large network of drones over developing countries is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. But for those like Jonathan Ledgard, a director at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, people have only begun to scratch the surface of this potentially world-changing technology. “Drones could do for transportation in Africa what mobile phones have done for banking,” he says.

The life-saving potential of this technology has been tested by Doctors Without Borders, which used drones to fight tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea.

Despite their difference in beliefs, both sides agree that the lack of infrastructure for transportation is one of the main factors holding back sub-Saharan economies. According to a study by the University of Sydney, only 34 percent of rural Africans live within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared to 65 percent in other developing regions, like Southeast Asia. Even in nations like Nigeria and South Africa, where the economies are growing close to the double digits annually, the lack of infrastructure is getting in the way of farmers being able to sell their produce and e-commerce ventures distributing their goods.

Drones could be part of the solution. At least that’s what people like Ledgard and his group of scientists say. They’ve spent the last few years developing and testing carrier drones for civilian purposes, and they’ll also be the ones in charge of filling Rwanda’s drone hub with solar-powered flying machines. (The design will be the work of the world-renowned architect Norman Foster, who has already envisioned a series of clay-made domes overlooking a lake, where the port will be built.) “Drones offer us such a great opportunity for development,” says Eric Rutayisire, founder of CHARIS, Rwanda’s first drone-making company.

But what about locals? While drones are likely to become cheaper and more accessible in the years to come, these machines currently cost thousands of dollars, putting them outside the reach of most folks here. And while some Western companies may heavily market their drones in this area, “we need to be wary of people promising quick fixes,” says Kristin B. Sandvik, director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

What most tech optimists also forget to mention is that Africa already has a history of drone use: The devices were used by colonial powers to bomb rebellions in the late 20th century. More recently, they’ve been used by the United Nations in Congo, and a couple of them fell near Goma, hurting civilians and burning down fields of crops. It’s hard, too, to make sure the power of drones is not abused when the laws and regulations are being created on the fly — some of the countries that could benefit from this technology have governments that are arguably undemocratic.

Yet fear is a bad advisor, says Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana. He recently signed a new agreement with the San Francisco-based company Zipline, whose aerial vehicles — aka vampire drones — will be able to deliver blood to more than 22 transfusion facilities throughout the country. The life-saving potential of this technology has been tested by Doctors Without Borders, which used drones to fight tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea. And if the Rwandan experiment works, it won’t be long before other countries in the region decide to follow suit. For Rutayisire, the prospect of aerially connecting hospitals, tech hubs and markets across the continent is simply too exciting not to try. “With so much potential,” he says, “it’s hard to not be optimistic.”

What Came From the ‘Beautifullest Place on Earth’

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Originally surrounded by orchards, Red House, in the leafy London suburb of Bexleyheath, was built in the 1860s to reflect William Morris’ love of simple, medieval Gothic architecture and decorated as a testament to his rage against the industrial machine. It was also described as “the beautifullest place on Earth” by an artist friend who helped bring Morris’ vision to life.

Born in Walthamstow, Morris hated ornate Victorian decor and used his first marital home to show how art could be stripped back to the basics to celebrate medieval creativity. The stunning result — a uniquely designed functional home filled with handcrafted and wooden Gothic furniture, handwoven tapestries and hand-painted walls — was considered simplistic in the 1860s. But it spurred a design movement that continues to inspire artists to this day.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

Morris, who hated mass-produced materialism and believed machines devalued craftsmen, had a golden rule for interiors: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” — a lyrical way of saying that form should follow function. But once his friend and architect Philip Webb designed this Gothic-arched, asymmetrical home, Morris struggled to find furnishings that lived up to his motto. So he called in reinforcements, and many attribute the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement to when he “invited his friends and their wives to decorate the interior themselves,” says Helen Elletson, manager of the William Morris Society. Morris and others, including Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted walls, tiles and glass, sewed tapestries and crafted furniture for Red House. 

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Red House, in Bexleyheath, England.

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Morris was influenced by the renowned art critic John Ruskin, who believed men should find pleasure in their work, and that by dividing designers from craftsmen, “the free, creative and fulfilling work of the medieval artisan was destroyed,” writes Elizabeth Wilhide in William Morris: Decor & Design. He was also inspired by Ruskin’s love of the natural world — Morris is well known for fluid, floral designs — as well as Augustus Pugin, who pioneered Gothic Revival style. But Morris stands apart from those who influenced him, says Rowan Bain, curator at the William Morris Gallery, because “he had a practical output.” He practiced what he preached, enhancing the theoretical education he’d gained at Oxford by becoming a painter, weaver, typographer, illustrator and designer of stained glass, tiles and furniture.  

A fervent socialist, Morris “hated the Industrial Revolution and everything it stood for,” says Elletson, referring to his disdain for the period’s poor factory conditions and what he saw as ugly products. That, combined with his belief that others might enjoy handcrafted furnishings like the ones created for Red House, led Morris and his colleagues to launch Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. They billed themselves as “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals,” offering tasteful alternatives to the mass-produced items churned out by sweatshops.

The firm thrived — its designs still sell — creating wallpapers, rugs and tapestries that rejoiced in the natural world, as well as medieval-style stained glass and furniture made in a simple Gothic style. And while Morris wouldn’t have known the term arts and crafts, he served as the movement’s inspiration, providing early glimpses of simple forms, an appreciation for various woods and other materials, a celebration of traditional craftsmanship and natural motifs. His designs would inspire generations of great artists, including Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley, who launched the American Craftsman style. 

But Morris’ greatest artistic impact came long after his 1896 death, as arts and design schools opened toward the end of the century, giving rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement dedicated to functional interior beauty. In fact, many also consider Morris the founding father of Modernism — planting the roots that led right through to Bauhaus, Bain explains. There are parallels, she says, “with the stripping things back” so you can see how furnishings are made, as well as a faithfulness to materials. Even though modern processes like 3-D printing fascinate, says Bain, “there’s still something very appealing about having something you can see people have made and crafted themselves.” 

Some of the original 1860s furniture survives in Red House, but most of the walls have been painted white, hiding the vibrant, medieval scenes created by Morris and his friends. But Morris’ furniture, wallpaper and textile designs, and those he inspired, have sprung up in homes all over the world — colorful symbols of a timeless, artistic era of endeavor.

Mad Libs: The Real Reason Women Were Accused of Witchcraft

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Maybe they really were witches.

Or maybe New Englanders started pointing fingers at their neighbors for a more convenient reason … money. Many of the women accused of being witches were impoverished, but there was another, surprisingly large group of suspects: property owners. Women who had inherited land from their fathers or husbands, and who didn’t have to give it up, were often the targets of witch hunts. Conveniently, if the women were found guilty, other people could take their land.

Pretty suspicious … and I’m not talking about the women. 

Video by Charlotte Buchen and Matthew Reyes.

Why Peace Talks With the Taliban Are Designed to Fail

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Neil Krishan Aggarwal is a cultural psychiatrist and the author of two books: Mental Health in the War on Terror (2015) and The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate (2016).

For the second time in nine months, the Afghan peace talks have stumbled because of differing expectations between the Taliban and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group formed by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States. On March 5, the Taliban released a statement spurning the talks; it complained that its authorities had “not been kept informed about negotiations” and that “unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile, misleading negotiations will not bear any results.” The same day, The New York Times reported that an Afghan official close to President Ashraf Ghani dismissed this statement as “just public bargaining.” After all, the official said, Taliban representatives initially opposed the first round of talks, in May 2015, but showed up anyway. 

Unfortunately, the Taliban’s “public bargaining” is not empty rhetoric, and to discredit its statements demonstrates either willful ignorance or brazen callousness toward the Afghan war’s human toll. Its participation in the first round of talks did not herald good faith efforts toward peace. Afterward, the Taliban seized Kunduz, the first city to fall after the 2001 U.S.-led NATO invasion. And the United Nations reported more than 11,000 Taliban-related civilian casualties in 2015, more than the previous record, set in 2014. 

Instead, all of us should understand the Taliban’s worldview on its own terms, and for this, there is plenty of fodder: Since 1998, the Taliban has used the Internet to disseminate messages in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu. There is no mystery about the Taliban’s goal to implement Islamic law throughout Afghanistan. After the first round of talks, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government supposedly agreed to negotiate the status of the constitution and the role of women’s education. However, the Taliban followed up with a statement suggesting such negotiations could lead to “un-Islamic and illegitimate agreements” that would tangle up the peace process. It alleged that Afghanistan’s Constitution was coerced, “drafted under the shadow of B-52 bombers of the foreign invaders.” And regarding women’s education, the Taliban wrote that it was committed to women’s rights, in so far as those rights are “bestowed upon them in the sacred religion of Islam.”

For two decades the Taliban has fought relentlessly to implement its interpretation of Islamic law throughout Afghanistan. We saw what that looked like between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban ruled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan: Islamic law, to the Taliban, means subjugating women and minorities. There is no reason to believe its interpretation has changed. 

We should not let our desire to end this war of attrition lead the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to negotiate away the very rights and liberties that have been hard won in the first place. Each QCG member knows the high stakes involved. Afghanistan’s government must demonstrate its ability to govern beyond the capital, Kabul. China remains suspicious about the Uighur Muslims training with the Taliban. Pakistan no longer controls the Taliban officials who splintered into competing factions after the reported demise of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and supreme leader. And the U.S. needs an exit. Already, the Afghan conflict is the longest war in U.S. history, and has cost more than $700 billion and 2,300 lives. 

Member nations of the QCG are tired. But we need to understand whether the Taliban is acting as a good faith negotiating partner or just biding its time until the war-weary QCG members accept defeat. Rather than initiate talks without preconditions — as the QCG has done — we should do the opposite: Before talks begin, we must demand that the Taliban explain its positions in writing — which shouldn’t be difficult, given its propensity for issuing statements. Does the Taliban consider the peace process illegitimate, and any potential agreement as “un-Islamic”? What rights — whether based on Islamic law or secular republican traditions — would women, religious minorities, Shia Muslims and non-Pashtun Sunnis have in any future with the Taliban? If the Taliban were included in any power-sharing agreement, would it respect international laws and treaties? How will the Taliban faction negotiating with the QCG enforce peace upon other factions?

We should also question the QCG’s concessions. Why have QCG members dismissed Taliban statements as public bargaining? Why have QCG members equivocated in taking the Taliban’s worldview seriously? Two rounds of unsuccessful talks have exposed the bitter truth that QCG members may only be acting in their own best interests — not those of Afghan civilians or the international community.

The Venture Capitalist Who’s Part of a Very Different 1 Percent

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If the stereotype of a venture capitalist is something like this — white guy, slick suit, fat wallet — Monique Woodard definitely stands out from the pack. Today from her desk in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from the Financial District, she’s rocking bold red lips and blue jeans. She’s a sunny California transplant, after all.

Yet casual she is not. At 500 Startups, she pulls the purse strings for one of Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capital firms and startup accelerators, which has some $200 million in assets under management. As the team’s first Black venture partner, she’s a long-overdue “home run” for the firm, says Charles Belle, founder of the nonprofit Startup Policy Lab; Woodard, who’s in her late thirties, is on track to become an even-keeled “force” in this scene, he says. At the same time, Woodard is holding down the fort at Black Founders, the group she founded in 2011 to support Black entrepreneurs in tech. More than 97 percent of venture capital funding goes to white, male founders, according to the latest stats from New York–based digitalundivided, which examined about 60,000 startups for its study. Woodard has personally taken countless budding Black and Latino entrepreneurs under her wing and watched them grow in a context where they might otherwise “be repeatedly shot down,” she says.

Today, a cup of caffeine at her desk, she’s in the zone, flipping through pitch decks and jamming out to the ultimate “entrepreneur’s soundtrack” — that includes motivational tidbits from Biggie, Scarface, Nas, Kanye and Drake, all meant to give you a kick in the backside when you need it most. “The key to staying on top of things is treat everything like it’s your first project, nomsayin,” Jay-Z spits out from her Beats headphones. There are plenty of go-getter gems to be found in hip-hop, Woodard says, and Jay-Z knows what he’s talking about: “You stay humble and you stay grinding.”

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Woodard answers e-mails while sitting on a couch at 500 Startups.

Source Alex Washburn/OZY

Words to live by, especially if you’re like Woodard, who grew up on a small, quiet farm in Ocala, Florida, and made the cross-country move to Silicon Valley, California, eight years ago without knowing anyone there. In the early days, she dabbled in building companies, including a project called Speak Chic — a mobile app that teaches you how to correctly pronounce fashion brands. Now, she’s a “total geek” for consumers, e-commerce and cities. As one of San Francisco’s first Innovation Fellows, she’s even got experience in the civic-tech sector in her back pocket. She can easily hold a conversation about government procurement and then chat about fashion and mobile startups, all in the same breath.

She wakes up every morning exhausted, but she plans to make the most of her first year at 500 Startups, making countless deals with companies in the critical early stages, when “Black and Latino founders need the most support,” she says. And she’s in the ideal place to do it — one bursting with pitch-giving, deal-making energy, where people keep barging into the conference room. “Meeting space is in high demand here,” Woodard says. Two months into her new gig, she’s got several young companies, from financial tech to media to Nigerian beauty e-commerce, under her thumb. That’s probably why friend and colleague Nnena Ukuku calls her the “Mother Teresa of Black Founders.”

The venture capital industry moves at a snail’s pace in terms of change — and that’s not what you would expect from investors who aim to “innovate” or “disrupt” or whatever the kids are calling it these days. “In Silicon Valley, being Black and in tech makes you part of a very different 1 percent,” Woodard says. To her and many others, it’s more like a boy’s club in which only 1.5 percent of some 2,000 investors are African-American, according to a rough survey from San Francisco–based venture capitalist Richard Kirby. Yet the combined purchasing power of Blacks and Latinos is $2.5 trillion and growing. Indeed, the waters are steadily shifting, and venture capital firms are looking to diversify everything from their portfolios to their partners in order to remain competitive, says Woodard: “A fund that only funds other white men” likely isn’t going to stay afloat — and you don’t need a crystal ball for that.

However, there’s a more pressing issue lurking behind the oft-closed curtains of venture capital here. It’s that diversity initiatives shouldn’t be the responsibility of any one person like Woodard but, rather, a full-team effort. One day, Woodard will no longer be the token person of color signing the checks or sitting at the diversity table. After all, no one wants the pressure of taking on the role of diversity police. “I hope that in 20 years, we’re not sitting here having this same conversation,” says Woodard. In part because the last thing that crossed her mind before she left the house this morning was “don’t fuck it up.”

Meet the Spring-Cleaning, Anti-Clutter Pros

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“My huge desk was completely out of control,” Dana Humphrey says, referring to the paperwork piling up around her a few years ago. So the New York marketing consultant did what an increasing number of folks are doing: She turned to a professional to help get her sorted out. 

Western homes are awash in everything from receipts to Home Shopping Network “treasures,” and the increasing realization that we’re reaching for too much, too often — some clinically so — has given rise to a new career of professional organizing. These declutterers replace mayhem with order, organizing everything from photos to pantries and even tackling suicide cleanup (OK, only a few do the latter). TV shows about getting organized and dealing with hoarding have boosted awareness that help exists, and national associations have been created in the U.S., the U.K, Australia, Japan and Holland — to name just a few — all reflecting that consumerism and its resultant clutter are becoming global concerns.

The best declutterers aren’t merely well organized, they’re also great listeners who like helping others. 

The problem seems to be everywhere, because “it’s never been so easy to acquire stuff at an affordable price,” says Cory Chalmers, president and CEO of Steri-Clean. Thanks to Amazon, garage sales and QVC, everywhere we turn there are “salespeople telling us … how much we need something and how we can’t live without it,” Chalmers says. And this “buy now” culture is hitting at a time when daily life is requiring more from us in both our personal and professional lives, says Ellen Delap, a certified professional organizer based in Houston — meaning we all have more stuff but less time to sort it out.

Enter groups such as the National Association of Professional Organizers, which offers training and accreditation for those looking to clean up like a pro. Though NAPO has been around for years, it has seen membership numbers increase by 1,000 annually for each of the past three years, with about half of its members joining since 2012. The organizers themselves say their businesses have been growing of late thanks to greater awareness and rising need. Lesley Spellman, of Manchester, England–based the Clutter Fairy, says her business has increased by 20 percent annually; she’s also involved with Britain’s national organization, the Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers, which has seen its membership nearly double in the past five years to 160 members today.

The rising profession is drawing folks from all walks of life and proving lucrative for former stay-at-home moms and former lawyers alike. Experts say the best declutterers aren’t merely well organized, they’re also great listeners who like helping others. This lends well to former nurses, paramedics and teachers, and while the associations say many of their members have university degrees, it is a loosely regulated profession that requires no schooling. “This particular industry has nothing to do with education,” Chalmers says, noting how personality and an ability to build client trust are key.

Many who contact declutterers are going through painful transitions, from divorce and illness to a death in the family. The organizing project is “an emotional and physical journey people go through, and we need to be able to support them through that,” Spellman emphasizes. An entrepreneurial spirit also helps, as marketing can be tricky for those just getting started. Social media and gaining momentum by word-of-mouth are key, with the first year of business proving the most difficult. Year three, professionals report, tends to be the turning point when many expand and take on employees. 

But there is a dark side: People going through painful changes can be difficult to deal with, and helping hoarders — often done in tandem with mental health professionals — can be trying. And while many declutterers earn a decent living (upward of $70,000 a year), some earn as little as $30,000. 

Humphrey found a professional who rose to the challenge, and she now employs a system to ensure her apartment doesn’t get overrun again: If something new comes in, something old gets tossed. “If you could see my apartment five years ago versus today,” she says, “you would think a different person lived here.”

The Environmentalist Monk Who Inspired Pope Francis

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Browsing through a New York City bookstore in early 1941, influential editor Robert Giroux bumped into Thomas Merton, an old college pal from his days on The Columbia Review. Merton told Giroux that The New Yorker wanted him to write a piece about Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he had “made a retreat.”

“This revelation stunned me,” Giroux recounted, because Merton had never been particularly religious. When Columbia professor Mark Van Doren heard that Merton had joined the monastery, he feared the young man’s literary career was over. “He’s leaving the world,” Van Doren remarked. “I don’t believe we’ll ever hear another word from him.”

We are in the world and part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves.…

But he needn’t have worried. Merton went on to become a prolific poet and author, famous in the 1950s for his probing thoughts on social justice and pacifism. The Catholic monk traveled the globe, exploring Zen Buddhism in Sri Lanka and even meeting with the Dalai Llama in India. Despite adopting the cowl, it turned out that Merton didn’t leave the world at all — and was in fact very worldly with his environmental views long before others.

Merton’s most enduring work, a 1948 autobiography entitled The Seven Storey Mountain, won critical acclaim for making contemplative life enticing. But today his writings are being reexamined for their forward-thinking look at  climate change. Last September, his work even got a papal plug: Pope Francis, in urging U.S. lawmakers to join other nations in solving global warming, described Merton as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time.” 

Merton was a monk for two decades before channeling his inner tree-hugger. It was the early 1960s, with Vietnam, the Cold War and civil rights very much on everyone’s mind. But climate change, a term yet to be coined, was not.

In reading Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, which told the stirring story of how pesticide abuse was killing off birds and poisoning soil, Merton was mortified. The same book was later credited by Jimmy Carter and Al Gore for ushering in our modern conservation consciousness. “Someone will say: you worry about birds: why not worry about people?” Merton wrote in his journal. “I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves.…”

It proved “an epiphanic event,” writes Monica Weis, author of The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton, and the cloistered clergy member responded by doing what he did best — writing — first with a congratulatory letter to Carson, and second through poetry. “I have become light/Bird and wind/My leaves sing/I am earth, earth,” he wrote. 

Merton’s first public discussion of nonviolence to the environment was fairly controversial in a faith where mass — not frolicking in the woods — is seen as the highest form of worship. But Weis argues that Merton’s love of nature started earlier. Born in France to an American Quaker artist mother and a landscape-painting father from New Zealand, Merton grew up agnostic, once telling a Catholic couple that all religions “lead to God, only in different ways.” Though he later converted and discovered his priestly calling as a 24-year-old doctoral student, he maintained an inherent compassion for alternative ways of thinking. 

A firm opponent of nuclear warfare, Merton believed the use of outsize weaponry to exterminate garden pests stemmed from the same sin as the outsize decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki — even if the side effects hurt innocent bystanders, or ourselves. “To make this seem ‘reasonable’ we go to some lengths to produce arguments that our steps are really ‘harmless,’ ” he concluded. Merton’s fusion of devout conservatism and environmentalism may seem odd, given the long-standing political debate over climate change, but the supposed conflict of faith and reason is misleading, suggests Sophia Newman, a former environmental fellow at the International Thomas Merton Society. “The right wing elsewhere is not [denying global warming], and neither are religious people, really,” she says. “It’s a uniquely American phenomenon.”

In 1965, Merton wrote “this is wonderful!” in his journal, making note that a guest to the monastery mentioned new eco-friendly protections in the Hebrides. “In some ways, he may seem naive,” Thomas Merton Center Director Paul Pearson says, and yet “from the walls of an enclosed monastery, he had this amazing awareness of what was going on.”

In an essay that same year — five years before the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and three years before his own death — Merton wrote: “The silence of the forest is my bride,” and yet, “There is also the non-ecology, the destructive unbalance, poisoned … by fallout, by exploitation.”