Mighty Dream Day 1 focuses on diversity, equity
Pharrell Williams and Google, TikTok leaders among speakers
Grammy winning music superstar Pharrell Williams put on his business hat Tuesday in Norfolk, welcoming attendees to his Mighty Dream forum, which he likened to an event like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “but for marginalized communities.”
The three-day forum kicked off with spoken-word poetry and a mighty boom of drums and crash of cymbals played by the Norfolk State University Spartan Legion marching band. Ryan Shadrick Wilson, founder and CEO of Boardwalk Collective and a member of Williams’ Yellow education foundation, promised a new kind of business conference — “important but pretty fun” — and Williams himself, clad in a Spartan-green double-breasted suit jacket and jeans, threw out a challenge to fellow businesspeople in the Hampton Roads region.
“I know it’s sort of kumbaya-ish, but this shouldn’t be the only forum dedicated to [diversity, equity and inclusion],” said Williams, a Virginia Beach native whose primary residence is in Miami. “Norfolk is the host, but this is about the whole 757.”
Among the first day’s speakers were Google Inc. Chief Diversity Officer Melonie Parker, Columbia University neurology professor Dr. Olajide Williams and Todd Triplett, TikTok creative lead for the east region of North America.
Parker, who was greeted with cheers when she said she was a Hampton University alumna, said she considers herself “the chief steward of inclusive culture” at Google, which increased its emphasis on diversity and equity following George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in May 2020. The tech giant has doubled its number of Black employees, increased the number of Black executives and provided more mentoring and funding to Black entrepreneurs over the past two-and-a-half years, she said.
In a conversation about health equity, Dr. Olajide Williams, who co-founded Hip Hop Public Health, a nonprofit initiative to teach people about their health, said that Black representation in the medical, financial and educational fields is crucial to overcoming barriers built by structural racism. “The elephant in the room is racism,” Williams said. “First we have to acknowledge it, and then we have to dismantle it, and that’s a whole different conversation.”
Triplett added that self-education, imagination and hope were also key to achieving change.
Williams said during a news conference Tuesday morning that the name “Mighty Dream” comes from a Langston Hughes poem and that the forum — a sequel to his October 2021 Elephant in the Room event at NSU — was renamed to avoid political associations with elephants, the traditional symbol of the Republican Party.
He said he wanted to get away from politics, but acknowledged that diversity, equity and inclusion — and providing his home community with more business opportunities — was still impacted by politics.
“Hopefully, we set an example,” Williams said. “The gatekeeping has to stop. It just doesn’t help anybody. We’re all human beings.”
In response to a question about the shutdown of Norfolk nightclubs frequented by young Black people following a spate of gun violence, Williams said, “I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair. If [city officials] really cared … [they would say], ‘We’re going to talk to these people and help them and educate them.’ This will work, and this is what the area needs.”
Williams said he plans for Mighty Dream to return next year, but didn’t answer a question about the future of his popular Something in the Water music festival, which debuted in Virginia Beach in 2019 and moved to Washington, D.C., after Williams criticized Virginia Beach as “toxic” following the 2021 police killing of his cousin.