Wayne Sutton– founder of the Icon Project and co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Change Catalyst- talked with Johnas Street on Twitter spaces as part of the Icon . A self-described renaissance man, Johnas has a career that spans industries including music, sports, film, and technology. His first role was a record deal he signed when he was 15-years-old– a dream of his to fulfill.
However, Johnas knew that his dreams went beyond the music industry. “Then another dream of mine was to play ball in college and get a degree. So after my record deal ended, I went and did that. I went and played ball in college and graduated with academic and athletic all American.”
Music was not quite finished with him yet though. “Then my teammates made a bet. They found out that I could sing. So they said, “Hey, if we win our division championship, then you need to go audition for American Idol. So we won our division championship. So I went and auditioned for American Idol and I got on that show. So I was an American Idol finalist as well.”
It was during his time on American Idol that Johnas first met a good friend of his by the name of Vella Debois– a writer and producer based out in Atlanta. Vella Debois told Johnas, “Hey, man, when you graduate college, come out to Atlanta. We’ll do some music.” So after I graduated college, I went to Atlanta, I started recording some music.”
Music though wasn’t the only venture that caught Johnas during this time. “Hey, man, I never tried acting. So let me just try this out.” I kid you not, I literally auditioned my first time ever, and I booked a role alongside Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up.”
For Johnas, the highlight of the filming was that it took place in Mississippi. “It was like perfect. It was like a dream. It was like surreal man.”
His success on Get On Up led him to his appearance on Being Mary Jane. His time on the show afforded him an awakening. “But it was at that set, on that set that I realized that I didn’t want this to be the only thing that I was known for, just entertainment. Because I had the academics, I graduated 3.8 in college.
“Right. I was like, man, I know I can do more than this. I want to be known for more than this. So I said, after this movie, after this TV show, I’m going to take a break from entertainment for a while and I’m going to go back to the Bay Area and I’m going to find a job at one of the biggest tech companies…I didn’t know who was it was going to or how I was going to make it happen. But I knew it was going to happen.”
That drive eventually landed him a gig working for IBM. Which was when he and Wayne Sutton first met.
Wayne is not shy about hiding his own personal struggles. He dealt with imposter syndrome throughout his career, as well as depression and maintaining levels of confidence. He asked Johnas the question, “How did you maintain your confidence?”
Johnas responded, “I honestly believe it was the way I was brought up, the way I was raised. I’m from a very small town in Mississippi. We grew up very, very poor, but down south we had, my mama had 10 kids. So we grew up in a big family. That’s just how it is in the south.My mother had 10, my grandmother had 20, her sister had 18. So it was like you grew up in this big family, small town, everybody’s your cousin in the same town. But we was, I’m talking about dirt poor, but we didn’t even know it because there was so much love. You know what I’m saying? It was so much love, man. I didn’t realize how poor we were until I got older and just realize how poor we were. I believe that those humble beginnings really allowed me to say, ‘Man, if I can make it out of this, then there’s nothing that can hold me down.’ You know what I’m saying?
“Then hearing the stories of my momma telling us about how KKK marched on their land. How they grew up in Jim Crow South. I remember the story she told me about going to get ice cream at the local grocery store, but having to go through the back door! But the thing about it, but here’s the crazy thing, here’s the sad part about it. They were happy. They really wanted that ice cream. They walked the railroad tracks from the house to the store to get ice cream, and they knew they had to go in the back door.
“So I’m like, my mama went through all that and my ancestors went through all this. I got to go hard. You know what I’m saying?”
Wayne revealed some of his own personal experiences growing up with a large family in North Carolina. “Wow. But I was just thinking about your upbringing, and my family and my upbringing, but I grew up in the south, North Carolina too. My parents, I think, tried to hide the struggle from me some. You know what I mean?”
“You know how the parents, they want their kids to have a better life. They don’t want their kids to work hard, you struggle. I think my parents tried to hide the struggle from me some. Which is fine, but I totally get that. But that’s a great story about what black people and all oppressed. A lot of oppressed people, but black people endure back then and they still did it with joy.”
“Still did it with joy!” affirmed Johnas. “My momma told me and she said, Son,’ she said, ‘growing up, coming up, raising y’all, I didn’t have time to think about thriving. I only could think about surviving.’
She’s like, ‘I did that so when y’all get old enough and know enough, old enough and know enough, you can then start to create generational wealth.’ You know what I’m saying? That’s the path that I’m on now.”
Wayne continued, “But we’ve been making it. I feel like I’m in survival mode as an entrepreneur, but I totally just want to be in that thriving mode. I’m there with you. I feel like the conversation in the last year with everything that’s happened for Black people, they talk about generational wealth, talk about financial freedom. I feel like it’s more deep-rooted in our culture now than it’s ever been before.”
“Yeah, it is. It is. We’re still fighting against so much, man. We’re still fighting against so much inequities. So much systemic. You know what I’m saying? It’s the system. If you can take all the racism away, take everybody, okay, today there’s no more racism. Still the system is racist. The values that it was built on are racist, you know what I’m saying? Therefore, things have to change and I’m a big component. I love to fight for reparations. So I believe we deserve our reparations.”
“We deserve all the checks. All the checks, all the reparations,” Wayne concurred.
“‘Cut the check.’ That’s what MLK said, he said, ‘”Cut the check.”’
The conversation pivoted back to Johnas and his career. Wayne asked, “You’re at Intel. I saw on LinkedIn you did some time at Roku. Now where you at? Cadence Design?”
“Have you had any mentors or coaches along the way that really helped guide you?”
Johnas responded, “Yeah. At Intel, I had two phenomenal women that really gave me a lot of wisdom since I was new in the game and that’s Danielle Brown and Barbara Why. They really looked out for me. Kind of just gave me guidance in connecting with people. You know what I’m saying? So I owe a lot to them. They really changed my life, like 100%.”
“Yeah. Both of them are great humans. Had a chance to meet with them. We had a chance to interview Barbara Why at a previous Tech Inclusion. Had a couple of meetings with Danielle when she was at Google, but great humans.”
Wayne asked if there was any “unique nuggets” of wisdom that Barbara and Danielle gave Johnas that only they could give.
“They told me that I control my career. I control my career, so I have to be vigilant and I need to know what it is that I want to do for my career. I need to have this idea in my head and you kind of manifest it and speak it. Speak it to people, tell people what you want to do. Because they say a closed mouth don’t get fed.
“I can be walking down the halls in Intel, and if no one knows who I am, or knows what I want to do, then I would never be able to actually go make that happen. You know what I’m saying? So there’s going to be some aspect of your career where you can’t do it all on your own. So that’s why you have to build those relationships and network.”
“So they relay that to me. It kind of allowed me to tap into my life experiences and I call this a portfolio of life. So your portfolio and your investments, they need to be diverse. So for me, I think about this thing, I think about my life as a portfolio of life. How diverse is my life? What type of experiences in my life and how can I grow from those experiences? So I pulled from my entertainment and being on stage in front of 1000s of people when I’m opening for Usher-”
“Whoa, you opened up for Usher?”
“Yeah. So when I had my deal-”
“Sort of dropped that,” Wayne interrupted playfully. “All that other stuff, but you all dropped that. Yeah, I just opened up for Usher. Okay, go ahead.”
“So back back when I had my deal, I was 15, I was leasing with his band. I don’t know if you remember these things called teen summits.”
“Yeah, I do,” Wayne confirmed. “I’m about that age. I remember teen summit.”
“It was Usher, Usher performed that day and spoke to the audience or whatever. But just pulling from all those experiences, man. My manager was Maurice Starr, he was manager producer of New Kids on the Block and New Edition. So I was really put in that spotlight at an early age too. I had to really dig deep and understand what self-awareness is.
“Self-awareness and understanding, man, this industry taught me a lot about life in that there’s going to be ups and downs. I think that’s what kind of has prepared me for growing up. I grew up early at 15, so really I’m thankful for that. I told my mama the other day, I told her that that music, college, and basketball saved my life. Those three things saved my life, for sure.”
Wayne said, “Yeah. Wow. Thanks for sharing that. That’s real with the feedback from Barbara and Danielle about letting people know who you are. I always forget it my own self, but I always try to remember that you are in charge of your own story, you’re in charge of your own happiness. If you don’t tell you a story, other people will, but some other people won’t.”
Wayne continued, “In your career, on your job, what’s the most fun and impactful things you feel like you accomplished so far?”
“I mean, I’ve created this … It hasn’t taken off yet and I still have hope that it will take off, or it will happen. When I first started working at Intel, I put a song together called ‘I Choose You.’ I put a video together for it. I had this idea of I use Intel and Microsoft products, and I create the song called, “I Choose You”, where you’re choosing PC over Mac or whatever. You know what I’m saying? I put a whole video for it together and everything. I pitched it as an ad idea and it hasn’t taken. But I thought this was pretty cool.
My dream is to work with you on making it a real ad, what should I do to maximize my chances?pic.twitter.com/DVVZyNKSJL
— Johnas Street | Adweek Rising ‘21 (@Johnas_Street) April 27, 2021
“It’s kind of cheesy. You know what I’m saying? Obviously, I did it myself. So if it actually ever happened, if it was ever made for real, then they could actually redo it. You know what I’m saying? But the song part, the song is straight. The song is the good part of it.”
“Yeah,” Wayne said. “Awesome. Awesome. When was this? This had to be like what? Three or four years ago?”
“Yeah. I’ll show you the video.”
“Yeah. You early, man, you was early. You’re just early. They wasn’t ready yet, that’s all all it was.”
“Exactly,” Johnas agreed.
“Yeah. So on another note on your career, it feels you have a lot of self-awareness, like you just said from your music and sports career. But when did you realize that you were kind of in control of your identity? Who you are as a human? When did you realize that you was developing that level of self-awareness? That you recall it that I’m self-aware of how I think and what I’m projecting to the world?”
“You know what, it’s funny, you brought that up,” said Johnas. “When I was sitting on set of Being Mary Jane, and I realized then and there, I looked around the table at the folks that were on the show with me, all of the actors and actresses. I said, “I don’t really remember seeing you guys, or seeing y’all in many things.” I was like, this can’t be sustainable.
“I feel like that’s a misconception when it comes to the entertainment industry. That just because you’re on TV, everyone’s successful, you know what I’m saying? I want to debunk that myth because that’s not this, that’s not that. At that moment, I was booking shows, booking movies, and TVs, and that was something I really loved to do, and I stopped it.
“I said, boom, I can’t do this right now because I was like, mentally and financially and spiritually, I’m not where I want to be. You know what I’m saying? So that self awareness kicked in there and I knew I wanted to eventually have a family and have kids. So I said, you know what, I’m going to the place that’s controlling all this stuff. That’s Silicon Valley, you know what I’m saying? The smartest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Wayne echoed that. “That’s awesome. Yeah. I I moved to Mountain View for four months during the summer of 2011 and 2012, officially moved to San Francisco and agreed it was the best decision I made in my life to move to the Bay Area. Trying to work on establishing a career for myself in tech.
“But mentally, it wasn’t until I got out here that it was like, yeah. I felt like I was just moving. Just making decisions. It’s like you are driving a boat over the water without no training, never drove a boat, never drove a boat before. You’re out here on this boat. You’re in the middle of the ocean and you’re not sinking. You’re not crashing into other boats. You’re not drowning, but you’re just out here.”
“Right,” exhorted Johnas.
“It wasn’t until I went through some depression, some hard stuff, I feel like everything flipped. I needed to learn how to drive the boat for real.Get control of my life. That moment came from being out here. That’s great. I like how you tell your story, you was in this room and you’re just like, yeah, I need to make some moves.”
“We got to,” Johnas agreed.
Their conversation then segued to mental health and self-care. Wayne said, “We talked about a lot of self care these days, a lot of people talk about. I feel like self care really started kicking in about three years ago, especially for black people. But you talked about– we talk about– self care a lot now online and so forth. How do you practice self-care? What does that look like for you?”
“Where we live now,” Johnas said, “we get to walk trails. So there’s this 1.5 mile trail that I walk with my wife and my three kids. We just did it yesterday. It’s like night and day between the kids doing that, or just sitting around and doing nothing. Getting out and being active is definitely a part of our self care. Still playing basketball as much as I can.”
When asked about what team he was rooting for, Johnas responded, “I will say this, for this particular what’s going on right now, I would love to see Suns and Hawks. Just because I just want to see two different teams that’s never really got much recognition in the game. I feel like this is their opportunity to take advantage of it. So I’d love to see those two teams play. One, because Devin Booker spent his last two years in high school in Mississippi. Then two, because Atlanta is like my second home.”
“I was hearing this the other day with Melinda,” Wayne said, “of I’m not sure when. I know it’s going to happen. I think it has happened, but I’m not sure.”
“The black coaches?” Johnas asked.
“The black coaches were in the final four,” Wayne said. “We got three black coaches. I feel like it’s a trend now. I feel like it’s a trend. You start seeing all these black coaches hired in the NBA. It’s like, okay.”
“Right,” Johnas confirmed. “I guess that goes without saying, I’d definitely love to see one of them. In this case, at least one black coach could potentially win this year. So we’ll see.”
“Yeah. I mean, if it’s Nate or what is it? Monty?”
“Monty. I’m pulling for Monty, man.”
“Yeah. Monty been through a lot. Monty been through a lot.”
“He’s been through a lot, man. We talk about mental health and whatnot, man, he’s been through it.”
“Yeah. Listen, Monty lost his wife and yeah. A couple of years ago, it was just sad. So I’m like really be happy for him.”
“Exactly,” Johnas said.
Wayne then opened up for the conversation for questions.
Johnas asked Wayne, “So what’s next for you? With The Icon Project, man?”
“Oh, so it’s a lot. What’s next is that we’re planning a virtual summit and I got to show you the details on that, July the 28, 29th. So that’s happening. The Icon Project is something that I want it to be like, I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I won’t it to be like my life’s work. I want to address mental health, address professional development for black and brown men in tech. We have a mutual aid fund that I’m fund raising for. I raised some money so far. I want the awareness to get out for people who think like, oh, therapy cost a lot. For those who may not be able to afford it, to be able to say, ‘Go to Icon Project for the application and your therapy could get covered.’
“So want to raise awareness for that. So there’s a virtual event coming up, constantly fund raising, awareness. Doing these talks, because I just want to help advocate and tell stories of black and brown men in tech.
“We out here. We going through a lot, it’s been a lot of trauma the last couple of years and try to be there for one another.”
“Absolutely,” Johnas agreed. “You’re doing great work, man. I’m really super thankful that I am blessed that I was able to meet you all those years ago, man. We’re still connected to this day, you know?”
“Yeah. Totally, totally. It’s one of the things also is there’s people, you don’t talk to them often, but you know they’re there.”
“Right,” confirmed Johnas.
“Then when you see them on Twitter, you’re like, okay, they doing all right. They doing all right. They’re good. Cool.”
Wayne closed out the conversation by saying to Johnas, “So appreciate you and much success in your career, your family, your health, your mental health. This is not the last time I’m going to be checking in, and more frequently also.”
“Johnas said, “Absolutely. I look forward to coming on again, man. I look forward to seeing this speaking series grow and so it can reach a wide audience and really advocate for this mental health.”
— Wayne Sutton (@waynesutton) July 1, 2021