Wall Street Journal: Tech Guru With a Social Vision

March 30th, 2010

Wall Street Journal

Tech Guru With a Social Vision

MARCH 30, 2010

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Omar Wasow knew that the transition from Internet executive to graduate student at the age of 35 would be a dramatic one, and so in a symbolic break from his old life, he lopped off the two feet of dreadlocks he had been growing since he was a teenager.

That was 2005, when Mr. Wasow was the executive director of BlackPlanet.com, a social networking site that he founded seven years earlier and turned into the most popular African-American Web site at the time. Previously, he had developed Web sites for the New Yorker and Consumer Reports magazines.

His hair, good looks and penchant for Italian suits helped him stand out in the New York’s Silicon Alley from the late 1990s until he left in 2005. He appeared frequently on television as a technology pundit, most famously on the Oprah Winfrey Show when he taught the talk-show host how to use the Internet in 2000. That same year, People magazine named him the “Sexiest Internet Executive.” Mr. Wasow’s business acumen and ability to translate complex ideas to a general audience earned him quasi-celebrity status and an annual six-figure income.

So it surprised many in the technology world when he decided to resign his leadership position at Community Connect Inc., BlackPlanet’s parent company (which was later sold for $38 million in 2008), and move to Cambridge, Mass., to pursue a Ph.D. in African-American studies and government at Harvard University.

His transformation began on the drive to the airport after delivering a speech at a technology conference. “I realized that just giving speeches wasn’t enough,” Mr. Wasow says. “I wanted to write prose, not just PowerPoint. I wanted to be held accountable for my ideas, not just applauded. I wanted to develop a level of mastery over some body of knowledge rather than just be a mile-wide and an inch-deep.”

Until his mid-30s, Mr. Wasow, whose father, uncle and grandfather were all professors, had rebelled against the idea of teaching and instead aimed to be a socially conscious entrepreneur.

His heroes were businesspeople with a mission, like filmmaker Spike Lee and Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. The university was a fate to be avoided, Mr. Wasow recalls. “I knew that academics were disconnected to real-world problems,” he says. “It was this rebellious nature of, ‘I’m not in the ivory tower; I’m an activist and an entrepreneur.'”

Eventually, though, Mr. Wasow found the problems he was most concerned with—the academic-achievement gap between black and white children and the disproportionately high incarceration rate for black men—couldn’t be adequately addressed through his role as a businessman and public speaker. “The questions he wanted to answer required real research,” says Keith Darden, Mr. Wasow’s undergraduate roommate at Stanford, now a professor of political science at Yale University.

Still, going back to school was a frightening prospect. He worried that leaving his well-paid job running BlackPlanet would mean a “vow of poverty.” He hadn’t taken calculus in over a decade. The former wunderkind also didn’t look forward to being the oldest pupil in class. The biggest obstacle, though, would be finishing his bachelor’s degree. He had several incompletes when he left Stanford University and had to hand in five term papers to make up for them before he could matriculate at Harvard.

“The decision to go to grad school became a very powerful motivation to clean up this mess that I had left” at Stanford, he says.

Now in his fifth year as a doctoral candidate finishing his dissertation, Mr. Wasow, 39, has integrated into the world of academia. He has a 3.8 GPA and has received fellowships to fund his academic research from the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies. He earns money from consulting and speaking engagements, and still occasionally appears on television and radio to discuss the impact of new devices, like the iPad—and increasingly, race and politics.

Even if he lands a professorship at an elite research university, Mr. Wasow expects his income to be halved from his Internet days, but he says he isn’t in it for the money.

“Very few people…have penetrating insights and then share them in an articulate, accessible, thoughtful manner, and Omar is one of those people,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., Mr. Wasow’s adviser and mentor at Harvard. “His future is as bright as any graduate student I’ve ever met. He could be a public intellectual on the level of Cornel West.”