Oracle VP Jason Williamson on Power and Privilege

Today’s guest is Jason Williamson, Vice President of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for research. Jason and Dr Debby have a lot in common – they both went to UVA, they’re both basketball players, they both love analytics in sports, and they have a passion for elevating historically underrepresented communities.  They talk about all of that on the show today, plus how a misison trip led Jason to understand his privilege – and his responsibility to influence.

Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to If You Only Knew, brought to you by The Diversity Movement, where Dr Debby Stroman talks race and diversity in sports with some of the most influential leaders at the intersection of athletics and racial equity.

Today’s guest is Jason Williamson, Vice President of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for research. Jason and Dr Debby have a lot in common – they both went to UVA, they’re both basketball players, they both love analytics in sports, and they have a passion for elevating historically underrepresented communities.  They talk about all of that on the show today, plus how Jason’s interaction with Romani culture gave him an understanding of his privilege and responsibility.

Here’s your host, UNC professor, entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, and advocate, Dr Debby Stroman.

Dr Debby Stroman: Welcome to If You Only Knew with Dr. Debby Stroman. I’m very, very blessed and honored to be with a dear friend, Jason Williamson, the vice president for startups and research at Oracle. Jason, thank you so much for joining me today. Let’s talk about where it all got started for you. What brought you to sports at a young age? Any role models in your family or your neighborhood?

Jason Williamson: Yeah. Thanks, Dr. Stro. It’s always good to spend time with you and I’m grateful for the relationship and grateful for the opportunity to, to chat with you a little bit today. For me, it’s funny. I think my like, draw into sports is not unlike a lot of people.

You know, I, my first memories were being the younger sibling, right? And playing basketball in the backyard with my older brother who was six years older than me and his friends. And it’s funny, because it’s kind of what shaped me in my like, short basketball journey. Because you know, when you’re the younger brother, if you want to play at all, you’re going to have to be super scrappy.

So, I learned to get rebalanced. So, if there was a loose ball, that was going to be my ball, you know? And so, so from the earliest ages, it was, you know, banging around in the basketball court– because this was in Atlanta. That’s where I spent my first chunk of my years, was there. And, you know, from then on, it was whatever season was in play.

Like a lot of people’s stories, you know, playing baseball and basketball were probably my two primary, primary goals. I was too skinny to play football, but that was, that was my, my first steps.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, that is our connection, indeed. It is through sports and certainly we both share a love for the University of Virginia and helping young people develop in terms of business.

But, you know, thinking about your sporting career, did you have any sport highlights or things that you just shake your head over that would require a do over?

Jason Williamson: Yeah, it’s funny. You know, the other sport that I really loved was baseball. And, and I, it gives me another memory of tennis because my father was a really integral part of, of teaching me, you know? Like, we would throw the ball in the backyard or he taught me how to play tennis.

And he, my, my dad was, he went to a very small, which probably today, it would be like a, a D3 or NIAI school, but he was the kind of athlete that like, “Hey, I’ve never seen that sport before,” and then he’s on the varsity team at the college.  He just knew sports that way. But I remember, my “shake my head” formative– the first story that comes to mind, you know, outside of stuff in high school or college intermurals or whatever it was.

I remember being up at bat and it was three balls and no strikes. And my dad told me to “Take the pitch.” I didn’t know that “Take the pitch” means “Don’t swing.” And so, I’m like, “All right, then. I’m taking it,” because he was our coach for my, my little league team. And so, I swung that bat. And it was my first triple.

And so, it was funny. I shake my head because like, I didn’t do what the coach said, my dad was like, “Oh no,” but you know, we, we, it was an RBI triple and he’s like, you know, he’s a very kind man. He was like, “Why didn’t you do what I said?” And I’m like, “I thought I did. Triples are good, right?” So, anyway, that’s, that’s one of my first like, “head shakers.” it’s really important to understand the words, what words mean in the industry you’re in.

Dr Debby Stroman: No, that is very true. And certainly when we talk about where we are in this country today, with all the different issues and concerns is language shows up in a very, very important way. It can make the difference between a, a handshake and a hug, or someone, you know, walking away.

So, you mentioned your father. So, were there any other particular people in your life that made a difference for you? Mentors? Whether that’s teachers? Whether it’s athletics? Whether it’s academics? Anything.

Jason Williamson: Sure. Yeah. So, so obviously my father, as I mentioned was an influence for me. I think my older brother who is six, seven years older than me, he was, he was,  definitely like an unintentional role model for good and bad. It’s interesting. You know, if you’ve ever been the younger sibling, how like, influential the older is of the younger, even if they’re not doing things that they, they need to do, you know? And so, I think for me, I looked up to him as, as an example for, for good stuff and for maybe not so good stuff.

I mean, it’s really what influenced me to join the Marines. It’s what influenced me to like this sport, not that sport, you know? That, that was important. And then, coming up I think my high school basketball coach, he was really influential to me too. So, this was in Richmond. At this point when I was in high school, I was in Richmond, Virginia.

And, I was, went to a big public high school, you know, a couple thousand kids and my basketball skills were like, good enough to be on a public school, high school basketball team, but I was not going to be a starter. And so, I just was like a super hustler. And one of the things I really appreciated about my coach there, who was actually also an assistant at Virginia Union.

So, that was really kind of cool to get, get kind of exposed that at a young age, was that he really appreciated and rewarded the notion of hustle. And so, a lot of, I think, high school basketball coaches really paid attention to, you know, the players that could school, or the players that were going to– like, the top five, maybe six, or the loudest parents.

And I just appreciated him for that. And his wife was really a part of the team too. And so, I just really remember being impressed with how much she was integrated in with  celebrating everybody on the team. And, you know, “You replicate what you celebrate.”

And so, you know, it was that idea of just being hustle and like, I wasn’t a starter,  but it didn’t matter. And you know, it was great. It was great. So, I think coach Mike was a really big influence for me on like, how to lead well. I, you know, we didn’t have a ton of wins, but those weren’t, that wasn’t really super important, you know?

You know what I mean? It’s like, sports is fragile and fickle. And so a win can come as quickly as a loss. I mean, we see that with how we’ve– you know, that’s what I love about coach Bennet and his response. And, you know, what’d he say the other day of the loss. He’s like, you know, “Losses don’t define you and just like a win doesn’t define you.” and so, like, my, my takeaway from my high school basketball experience from coach was that, you know, it’s great.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, there’s no doubt you’ve dropped a lot of pearls of wisdom in that about the importance of hustle. You know, we have to hustle. We have to show up. I always like to say, “The best ability is availability,” and that comes from being a hustler.

Jason Williamson: That’s right.

Dr Debby Stroman: Showing up when other people aren’t necessarily going to show up.

Jason Williamson: That’s right.

Dr Debby Stroman: So, let’s talk business, let’s talk business. Tell me about your role at Oracle and what gives you the most joy with your work life?

Jason Williamson: Ooh, good. Good question about joy. And words mean things, and I love that word too, by the way. So, we can, we can tease that one out. So, I look after a couple of things at Oracle.

As you mentioned, Oracle for startups. And so, what we have built over the past four years is a– really a global ecosystem to help really young to not-so-young startup companies that are in the early stage get a few things. One, is get access to technology to help position them for solid growth, but at a way that’s going to be cost-conscious. And then the second thing is really– what Oracle’s good at is enterprise integration. So like, we have 430,000 customers around the world for the past 40 plus years. And so, startups are really interested in getting access to those companies so that they can sell their stuff.

Right? Because startups need to get revenue and keep their costs low. So, it’s the entire ecosystem that’s built around that. From mentorship, to access, to marketing, to promotion, promoting them on social, to actually walking in the door with them at a client that they might’ve had a hard time getting access to.

But we’ve had that relationship for a long time. The second part of that, which I’m really excited about, and we’re going to see more of this year is integrating more with the universities. So, we’re hiring up right now to have people spend time with professors and with entrepreneurship clubs that kind of orbit the school, to help foster the same kinds of things, but maybe at a much, much earlier stage.

And then the other side of Oracle for research is, are kind of efforts to engage with professors who are doing real world research that require lots of compute and storage to help them do discovery. So, and again, it’s, it’s an engineering effort, not a sales effort, so we don’t like, charge stuff.

This is all free. So, if somebody is doing virology research or they’re doing research around food deserts or whatever. So, we’re interested in helping accelerate discovery and that’s really, really exciting. So, I think the biggest joy for me probably is two things.

One, is that moment that a super early stage company can get connected to other startups that are maybe outside of their geography and open up doors for them, whether it’s access to funding or access to customers. It’s just like when that light goes off and it’s around. I mean, you can see that I’m a relational kind of guy. So like, when relational dots come together is probably when I get the most joy on that.

And then, the other thing that I just love is, you know, when we get to tell their story. So like, when somebody has a success story, because you know, they sold into this client  and then we get to publish a case study or we get to talk about it on wall street journal or something, like, I love that. They don’t mind it either, but I think that’s when I get the most joy is when those two things kind of come together.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, I’ll tell you, you’re doing very, very well. And I certainly appreciate how you have assisted with my basketball analytics summit and the Center of Sport Business and Analytics in so many different ways. And of course, you were in the hotbed of university life. You know, having all these major universities right here in the triangle, so.

Jason Williamson: It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Dr Debby Stroman:  Awesome. Awesome. Now, inclusion and equity–

Jason Williamson: Yeah.

Dr Debby Stroman: Mean a lot to you and you actually walk the talk. So how and why did this advocacy start?

Jason Williamson: It’s funny. I think it’s well before all of this, like, spring awakening, I think. I don’t know what else to call it, you know, from last year. And, and I, I remember we were having some podcasts recently– you know, it was about a year and a half ago on kind of these topics.

And while I think the good that’s come about from the bad has been awareness, right? Like, what’s meant for evil is turned into too good. Like, I think we can view it that way, but I think even before all that stuff, our team has been focused on building a group both with startups and within like, my team around appreciating the fact that diversity breeds better thought and better results.

You know, I remember a study from a few years ago from McKinsey that did research that said like, companies that have women in leadership make more money. So, I’m like, if anything, like if you want more money, then get, get a diversity of view from a gender perspective. Right? And so, I think a big motivation for me too, from just like differences, was our own personal story.

Which is probably a whole ‘nother podcast, but my oldest daughter who you’ve met, Dr. Stro, and have inspired, is she’s 20, 20 now. She’s a second year student at UVA. Proud, you know, I’ll tell anybody who hears, you know, she’s one of the, she’s the only female manager for, for coach Bennett, but she has a permanently disabling birth defect.

And so, I think Susan and I going– stepping through what it’s like to see and live with a difference and especially a difference you didn’t choose, kind of opened our eyes to a couple of things. One, there’s a, there’s a level of like, I don’t know, grace and beauty that comes with struggle and adversity.

And while we would change some of her struggle, we cannot. And what we did was ended up really appreciating and understanding the things that we got to learn through what she was learning. So then it’s like all of a sudden, when you look at groups of people that are diverse, that have gone through struggle, or are struggling, you know, and then we can bucket these things in different stuff.

You realize that you gain a lot by including that. Perspectives, appreciations, ability to adapt, just so many things. So, I think early on, it was just a part of our family and our ethos. And so, I think that bled into how, like, I lead my team, you know? It’s funny, somebody was asking me, you know, this is a little bit longer answer than you wanted.

It was like, there was some intentionality to it. But part of it is if your values are baked in already, then it is a result of kind of what you already are. So, that doesn’t mean that people can’t kind of go be intentional about diversity. Obviously, we need to change that, but for us it was just, it was a one level down. Does that make sense?

Dr Debby Stroman: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’m thinking about how you’re in places where I’m not, where I couldn’t be, in terms of your being a white man. A white man with  position of power. And so how you navigate spaces where you’re with–

Jason Williamson: –Yeah.

Dr Debby Stroman: People who look like you.

Jason Williamson: Sure.

Dr Debby Stroman: And yet you stand in your truth. You stand in your authenticity. You’re not going to back up. Tell me about those experiences.

Jason Williamson: Yeah, I think, and I can’t say it without kind of connecting the dots to my values.  A lot of people ask me, like, “How’d you get into this business?” Or, “How did you get to where you are?” and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. And it really comes to me from an experience I had when I was 15.

So, when I was 15 years old, I had this great opportunity to do a three month mission trip. You know how, like, people do mission trips with their church kind of thing? So, it was like that, but it wasn’t with my church. It was with more of national organization kind of under the Christian umbrella, but it was in the ’80s. And I was behind the iron curtain.

So, it was a really cool time to be in Eastern Black Europe. And so, we would do, you know, we would work with like underground, illegal churches. We would smuggle like, church materials into the Soviet side, which sounds so bizarre today, but like, in those days that was illegal. But I have this distinct memory of sitting.

I was sitting in a, in a square at a, in a really big city in Eastern Europe and eating my lunch, and in this part of the world, — they’re people of color, they’re not from Eastern Europe, they’re migrants, but they’ve got like, they’re like third, fourth class people.

And I just really remember like, “Man, these people are where they are because of the moral deficiency of the leadership.” It’s not because of lack of resources, it’s not because of job opportunities. It’s like, there’s this, like, this moral issue with, with the top percent. And so, I felt like my call was to influence influencers so that you know, that can change from there. Right?

And so, that’s kind of, understanding that piece of me is helpful to understand the really, the first part of your question is like, how do you navigate being a white dude in a position of influence? And like, what does that mean? And so I think for me, it is tying it back to, like, and it sounds kind of goofy, but like, I think I like created a mission statement.

Maybe not audibly, but like, back in those days. So, it really shapes for me, like when I’m in the classroom, right? I’m in the classroom teaching at UVA, like, these are future influencers. Like, how can I help them understand that making moral decisions, diversity is important, you know, looking at everyone, like all these things and that, you know, teaching them to be that way all the way to my business. Right? Like, okay. How do we make hard decisions? Like, how do we do we face hard decisions even though they’re hard and uncomfortable to make? Like, we got to confront these things.

And so like, if I do them, then my team will do them. So, we will pursue these groups, we will pursue these decisions, we will make hard choices. But for me, it tied back to, like, if I waste the opportunity I have to influence. Then I, in my sense, have wasted an opportunity given to me. And I don’t want that. Does that makes sense.

Dr Debby Stroman:  Absolutely. And that is so important. The connection between what I like to call “Brain work versus heart work.”

Jason Williamson: Yeah.

Dr Debby Stroman: A lot of this is “heart work,” you know, we can teach a skill. We can tell somebody to do XYZ, but if it’s not inside of you, it won’t stick.

Jason Williamson: I totally agree. Because it’s like, yeah. I mean, I think about like– we run in very similar circles, right? Like, so I’m working and love the work at central, you know? So NC Central’s got their school of business and I love it. And it’s. It’s not– I’m not there because I’m like, I feel guilty for being a white man. Right? Because I don’t. Like, I got created this way and there’s a purpose in it and there’s a responsibility tied to it.

And everyone has a purpose and responsibility tied to how they’re created. And so for me, like okay, there is an opportunity to, to correct some systemic issues in Durham. That’s awesome. . There’s also opportunity to develop and pour into young Black men and women at NC Central. Like, those two things are– why wouldn’t I want to just do that anyway?

Dr Debby Stroman: Oftentimes, we have white people who don’t recognize that you have relative advantage and you should love it. Love it enough so that you want others to have it.

Jason Williamson: Right.

Dr Debby Stroman: Right? You, you won’t stay in this work long. You won’t be authentic if you’re in it to go save someone. Right? So, I want to be a savior.

Jason Williamson: Right.

Dr Debby Stroman: Because there’s more than enough and–

Jason Williamson: It’s out of the gratefulness of the position rather than guilt of status.

Dr Debby Stroman: That’s right.

Jason Williamson: Right? Because you’ll never fix the guilt part if you, if you sit on that. Right? And so, yeah, right? Like, there’s this–  it’s just, it’s interesting. I just didn’t, you know, we could talk about this for a very long time.

Dr Debby Stroman: Let’s talk about numbers. Let’s talk about analytics. You know? Having my basketball analytics. Oracle does a lot with numbers and analytics. You know, having that objective look is very, very important coupled with context.

Jason Williamson: Yes.

Dr Debby Stroman: So, talk about analytics and how you use that and whether it’s identifying people or processes, talk about the numbers for you.

Jason Williamson: Yeah. So. I mean, again, there’s another podcast there for us, Debby. So. Analytics for us, it’s really interesting. There’s a couple of buckets. One, it’s super important for the startups who we work with. So, that’s like really exciting for us, you know? We’re in fact, this year, we’re really starting to, to invest resources on my team with, for data scientists so that we can hand them over to our startups who are starting to develop machine-learning and AI and things like that.

You know, because you look at the tools that are available, like Oracle or pick, pick one, Google, whatever. Like, you still need expertise to train these machines to do the things that they need to do, right? And, and I, you know, technology, the people parts not keeping up with the tech part, right? Like, we’re creating all of these really awesome capabilities within Oracle or pick a vendor.

But we’re not spitting out the people fast enough to be able to do these things. And the beauty of that too is– that could be within the four, you know, I say four walls. It can be within our country, you know? So like, that’s a good thing. Like, we’ve got job opportunities to create and things like that. So, so it’s really important to us.

And so, we’re actually experimenting with that internship program this summer, where we’re going to bring on CS and data science students. And not only put them through a rotation to train them on our technology, but we’re going to actually loan them to our startup community. So a startup will, for free, get a certified Oracle engineer, who also is a data science or computer scientist.

And then they get to use them for free. It’s great for the student because they’re like, “Hey, I get to work for big Oracle and a startup.” And so, like, those are some things that are really exciting for us. Also, I think too, you’re seeing more come out of Oracle from a sports perspective.

So, we just did a deal with formula one. So, the red bull car is also ours with the Oracle sponsorship. Excited about that. We’re– this is stuff you and I were talking about recently at UVA. We just have gotten really deep in with the Sounders. And so like, looking at things about like, how do I recruit? How do I hire? Where do my caps need to be? Not just plays on the field.

I’m really excited for some things that we’re working on at the University of Virginia. I don’t want to speak too early yet, but around some open data platforms with sports that I think will lead the country. And, and making information accessible to anybody who wants to like, mess with it.

So, I’m really excited about that.  And so, sports  analytics, and this is kind of maybe a segue to another question, is more than just like, balls and strikes and errors. Right? You start looking at injuries, you start looking at like, how do I recruit? How do I pay? How do I win? Why am I winning like this or losing? You know, so.

Dr Debby Stroman: No, this is great. You just sound–

Jason Williamson:  Really cool topic, right?

Dr Debby Stroman: There’s so much to do and think about. You know, I’m thinking about researchers at Princeton, Dr. Benjamin, I’m thinking about the researcher at MIT who’s, who’s connected the dots in the sense that you can have the numbers, you can have the analytics, but you have to have “avoid operator error” in particular, understanding that we still have inequities, even though you bring in the technology.

Jason Williamson: Yes, right.

Dr Debby Stroman: If the person is not programming properly, or if everybody in the room looks the same, then you’ll end up with bad output.

Jason Williamson:  Right.

Dr Debby Stroman: And so, for example, the researcher at MIT who’s received international recognition is — she did a project around face recognition.

Jason Williamson: Yeah.

Dr Debby Stroman: And being a darker skin woman, the software didn’t recognize her. And so, being, bringing this diversity, bringing inclusion into these spaces is so, so important as we continue to advance with numbers and technology.

Jason Williamson: It totally is. And I think that’s what’s cool about what you’re doing, is that it’s opening the doors to more people to get access to it. Because it’s like, we need both top and bottom happening. So, like, what we look at like, your friend, coach Staley and also Wahoo winning. And her success at South Carolina is giving her an opportunity to be a voice. It’s, that’s the top, down. Like, we need those kinds of things happening. And not just for black women in coaching, but also, you know, women, women in sports, which is by the way, it was really cool to see like, ratings were all time this year, for NCAA women.

And, but that has to be coupled with like a young person saying, “Well, what can I do about it?” You know, like, “I’m not a basketball player. I can’t play for Don Staley, but like, what can I do?” And so, the work that’s you’re doing is super important because then we’re like bringing top to bottom and that’s what has to happen.

And, and that’s, what’s cool about sports analytics, is that sports brings countries together–

Dr Debby Stroman: Yes.

Jason Williamson: –Sports transcends political boundaries. Like, we both live near, near Chapel Hill. Like, you can’t find a more diverse political group of people than somebody at UNC. But you want to talk about Carolina basketball, you could, you could have a Hillary fan and a Trump fan sit in the same room and have a great time together, you know? And so we need to like, understand that about this, and realize that what the analytics side gets gets to bring in STEM skills to weave these together. Yeah. It’s cool.

Dr Debby Stroman: It’s the bridge. It’s the bridge. Now, it’s social justice. Social justice is receiving much more attention. Do you have any particular athletes or coaches that you respect for their activism?

Jason Williamson: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s been– it’s and again, the reason I’m going to, you’re going to laugh at me and not be surprised. And I’m going to mention Coach Bennett because the thing that I liked about what he has done in this area is it wasn’t like hopping on a train and come on with a new value, right? Like if you look at what Bennett cares about and his pillars, it’s, you know, you see it on the shirts as unity. And a lot of basketball players would wear unity. But a lot of people don’t know about UVA basketball. It’s like, that’s been a pillar for him since he got there, unity.

And thankfulness and passionm. And like, you know all these things. And so, one of the things I’ve appreciated about coach Bennett in that vein is that he’s been willing to engage in those conversations, he’s been willing to let his players engage, and letting his players voice their own thing.

But again, the values were already there. They weren’t like, just adopted because, oh my gosh, it’s in the media now. Right? And so, I’ve appreciated that about him. I think I’ve appreciated what Malcolm Jenkins has done. Like, you know, you’ve seen the film that was produced by Never Whisper Justice, and it’s streaming free on peacock right now, which is called Black Boys.

And malcolm has been able to be, I mean, he’s a successful athlete, but he’s also super smart. And he used his voice in a way that wasn’t– I’ve heard it said that, and this is a fine line, is, “Don’t trade your influence to make a point.” And I don’t feel like he ever traded his influence to make a point.

Because a lot of times we feel very passionate about our topics and we lose our voice to make a point that may be right, but you’ve lost the opportunity to draw people closer. You know? I heard it said by a youth pastor of mine that said like where people are as an adult spiritually, like wherever they are, like in relation to their faith system is usually because somebody deeply loved them or deeply hurt them.

And the people who deeply hurt them might have been “right.” Right? And so, so I think Malcolm, like, I just had this memory, like when he was holding up the signs in the, in the locker room. He wasn’t like, saying ugly things, he wasn’t creating division, he, he was speaking in a different way that made people kind of pause. So, I thought that was pretty cool. So, those are my two examples.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, I would say it’s an example of calling people in versus calling people out.

Jason Williamson: There you go.

Dr Debby Stroman: That’s what you need to do.

Jason Williamson:  There you go.

Dr Debby Stroman: So, Mr. Williamson, when it’s all over and you’re sitting in your rocking chair watching your favorite team play, reflect back on your career–

Jason Williamson: Yeah.

Dr Debby Stroman: What do you want people to remember you for?

Jason Williamson: I think for me, my desire would be that people remembered me for loving his family first. So like the dude was able to do a decent job at his career, but he did it in a way that he loved his wife and loved his kids and was most proud of them, because I think that’s like, my first calling, and then conducted his career in a way that aligned with how he said it was supposed to be.

So, he said his values were this and his walk matched it. So, whether or not I have 50 exits on an IPO, unimportant. Whether or not I’m like, you know, CEO of this company, unimportant. It’s more important to me that like, I conducted my life that matched the way that I preached it.

Dr Debby Stroman: Thank you. Thank you. It’s alignment.

Jason Williamson: Yes.

Dr Debby Stroman:  And I appreciate our friendship and certainly–

Jason Williamson: Yeah, thank you.

Dr Debby Stroman: –I believe in definitely walking the talk.

Jason Williamson: Well, I appreciate the time today and it’s always awesome to, to be with you and hopefully, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll get to do it for real pretty soon.

Dr Debby Stroman: Yes. Thank you, Jason Williamson. If You Only Knew with Dr. Debby Stroman.

Full Episode Transcript

If You Only Knew…with Dr. Debby Stroman is edited and produced by Earfluence, and brought to you by The Diversity Movement.

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