Founders of Portland-based Simple X aim to connect black professionals by Matthew Kish
Trailblazers DJ David Jackson remembers the meeting: Wilson Kubwayo and Yoseph Ukbazghi wanted his advice about starting a networking group for black professionals.
“They were trying to find ways to gather black business professionals, specifically black professionals,” said Jackson, who also goes by the stage name DJ O.G. One.
Jackson thought it was a great idea.
“There were a number of business networking events around the city,” he said, “but nothing that targeted black professionals.”
Jackson agreed to keynote Kubwayo and Ukbazghi’s first event, which was produced last December by their business: Simple X.
Next week, Simple X will celebrate its one-year anniversary with a networking event at Daimler’s North American headquarters. Kubwayo and Ukbazghi expect roughly 200 black professionals and allies will attend. Libra Forde, chief operating officer for Self-Enhancement Inc., and Tracy Mack-Askew, a program director for Daimler, will be the featured speakers.
The event will include an hour of networking, followed by a one-hour conversation with Forde and Mack-Askew moderated by Kubwayo and Ukbazghi. The conversation will likely include a mix of straight-forward career advice and philosophical thoughts.
“Our goal is a simple, yet curated, experience where you can connect with other like-minded professionals, create ideas and collaboration and cultivate the leader or entrepreneur in you,” Kubwayo said.
Next week’s event will be Simple X’s fifth. The previous four, featuring civic and business leaders such as Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, Fire Chief Sara Boone and economist Stephen Green, sold out.
The audience has steadily gotten bigger.
“It’s taken off,” Jackson said. “I’m not surprised about that.”
A friendship formed at a South Dakota high school
Kubwayo and Ukbazghi (pronounced OOK bazz gee) met at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They took remarkably different paths to get there.
Kubwayo lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania between ages 2 and 12. His family moved to Tucson, Arizona, when he was in sixth grade. They later moved to South Dakota.
Ukbazghi grew up in South Dakota.
While their paths differed, their values overlapped. Both played active roles in their high school, joining various clubs and leadership groups, including student council. They even played the same position on the soccer team.
Kubwayo and Ukbazghi unintentionally ended up in the same city after graduation. Kubwayo holds an MBA from the University of Sioux Falls and works for the startup USAHello. Ukbazghi earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Portland State and works for the Intel contractor ASML.
They decided to launch Simple X because they were looking for better networking opportunities. Kubwayo regularly attends events as part of his job. He wanted to make the experience more accessible.
“I see how I’ve grown through those experiences meeting people and the aspect of social capital,” he said. “And unfortunately not everybody has that opportunity. And so we’re trying to create that for individuals.”
For now, the work is unpaid.
“We’re young, we don’t have a lot of responsibilities outside of work,” Ukbazghi said. “We want to make our time useful.”
For now, Simple X is focused on networking events. Each is two hours and includes an hour of networking over food and drinks, followed by a panel discussion. The speaking portion has shifted from a Ted-talk format to more of a fireside chat with Kubwayo and Ukbazghi interviewing guests. Both have natural storytelling abilities. Wilson has done motivational speaking. Ukbazghi’s dad is a pastor.
“When I was growing up I would be a part of his ministry,” Ukbazghi said.
The audience has tended to be early- to mid-career, with a roughly 50/50 gender split and attendees from a variety of industries, a reflection of the effort to make the events inclusive.
Kubwayo and Ukbazghi want to connect with additional corporate partners. They’re eager to speak with companies that have a space large enough to host 150 to 200 people.
Daimler got involved after Kubwayo and Ukbazghi contacted Support Employees of the African Diaspora, an affinity group at the truck-marker.
“SEAD loved their vision and their take on bringing the community together on topics that speak to black professionals in Portland, Oregon and the surrounding area,” said April Allen, the company’s new head of diversity and inclusion, in an email. “Part of SEAD’s vision is to partner with community-based businesses and organizations that look to solve the problem that Portland has with hiring and retaining black professionals. SimpleX is trying to solve the problem by ensuring black professionals have community and professional development opportunities like all other major U.S. cities. The lack of a visible black professional community that you find elsewhere is one major reason that hiring and retaining black professionals is challenging in Portland.”
Allen said Daimler views the event as critical to its recruiting efforts.
“From my experience, this is definitely one way to help black employees feel more included and welcomed here in Portland, which also means there is a higher likelihood they will stay employed with DTNA in Portland.”
Software company New Relic also has hosted a Simple X event.
Kubwayo and Ukbazghi want to continue hosting events quarterly next year, but they don’t have any 2020 dates confirmed. They are in talks with several corporate sponsors. Kubwayo and Ukbazghi also want to launch a series of podcast-style shows. They have nine episodes recorded, but they want to improve the quality of the shows before releasing them.
“We want to make sure we put out great product,” Kubwayo said.
DJ O.G. One expects the duo will continue to succeed. He’ll be there next Thursday, providing sound and music.
“Wilson and Yoseph are just incredible young men,” he said.