CasSelle, Malcolm and Ellington, E. David
Malcolm CasSelle and E. David Ellington
Best known as the founders of NetNoir Online, a service that bills itself as “The Cybergateway to Afrocentric Culture,” E. David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle have created perhaps the highest-profile minority new media enterprise. By establishing a black-oriented site on the net, the two entrepreneurs have provided a versatile new forum for the discovery and discussion of African American culture. Yet the online service is only the beginning of what they hope will be a plethora of new media endeavors. “There will be plenty of other Afrocentric sites or black sites” on the internet, Ellington insisted in an interview with Con temporary Black Biography . “And I have no problem with that. The issue is, there has to be a leading site, and we think we’re in a position to create that brand name. And we’re determined to do that.”
Ellington was born in the Harlem section of New York City. His parents divorced when he was seven, and he was raised primarily by his mother, who worked in social services at an affiliate of the Urban League and elsewhere. His father died when he was 15. It was around this time that Ellington began to see his career path. While living in Connecticut he took sailing lessons from a black man whom he described as “a guy on a boat who had an M.B.A. and a J.D., and I thought that was the killer combination. I needed to get that. And sure enough, that was my motivation for deciding to go for it.”
Ellington’s education would not be a straight line to law, however. He earned his undergraduate degree at Adelphi University, then acquired a master’s at the historically black college Howard, studying African politics. He also interned in the government, working for the House Subcommittee on Africa and in the office of a congressional representative. “It was great and exciting,” he noted of those experiences, adding that he realized,” the only way to be involved in politics is on the financing side. I decided the best way to be effective in politics was to go to the private sector, make a chunk of money, and come back.” With this knowledge in hand, he took a job with the telemarketing arm of Public Interest Communications, an organization championing progressive political, social, and environmental causes.
Ellington had intended to move to Africa during these years, but this plan never came to fruition. Instead, after applying to law school, he took the $1,500 his stepfather had willed him and used it to travel to Europe. While there he found out he’d been accepted to Georgetown University’s law school; he chose to have his enrollment deferred so that he could earn some money before enrolling. Several months after his return from Europe, he decided to travel to Japan. Ellington spent four months there, teaching English and studying Karate. Instead of going straight back to the States, however, he returned by way of Asia.
At a Glance…
Malcolm CasSelle, born March 22, 1970, in Allen town, PA; parents were in the food business. Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); attended MIT Japan Program; master’s degree in computer science, Stanford University.
Worked for Schroders Securities and NTT Software Labs, Tokyo, Japan; worked for Apple computer, Ine; as market researcher and programmer; served as director of digital publishing and marketing for Blast Publishing and Morph’$ Outpost on the Digital Frontier; launched NetNoir Inc. with E. David Ellington, 1995, and served as chief technology officer.
E. David Ellington, born July 10, 1960, in New York, NY; mother was a social worker. Education: Bachelor’s degree, Adelphi University, c. 1981; master’s degree, Howard University, c 1983; law degree, Georgetown University.
Served on House Subcommittee on Africa and worked in the office of a U.S. congressman, early 1980s; traveled in Europe, Japan, China, and India, among other locales, 1980s; worked for telemarketing department of Public Interest Communications; worked as law clerk for McK-enna & Cuneo, Los Angeles; practiced at law firms specializing in entertainment law; established the Law Offices of E. David Ellington, Los Angeles, early 1990s; chaired international law section of Beverly Hills Bar Association; launched new media company NetNoir Inc. with Malcolm CasSelle, 1995, and served as chief executive officer.
Addresses: Office— NetNoir Inc., 564 Mission St, Unit 4, San Francisco, CA 94105.
After graduating from law school Ellington began studying Japanese in a concentrated language program at Cornell, then moved to California. He intended to focus on Pacific Rim trade issues in his law practice, but he soon took another detour. He worked at two firms specializing in entertainment law—with an emphasis on music—and then opened his own Los Angeles offices. There he focused on international entertainment law, but he also handled a fair share of cases relating to multimedia and new technology.
Through a mutual friend, Ellington met Malcolm CasSelle, a brilliant computer science graduate student at Stanford who had worked in Japan. Raised on a Pennsylvania farm, CasSelle—whose family sold fresh foods around the state—developed a passion in childhood for building with Legos and TinkerToys; he discovered the joy of computers in high school. “I wrote programs and played with the computer constantly,” he told CBB, adding that he’d helped do the layout for his school’s yearbook. “Eventually I got my own Apple II computer and got much deeper into programming.” Though CasSelle “hated to study,” he earned good grades as an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and entered its Japan Program. “I left for Japan three days after graduating,” he recalled.
In Tokyo CasSelle worked at Schroders Securities and NTT Software Labs; on his return to the U.S. he took a job with Apple Computer. After earning his master’s at Stanford he occupied the position of director of digital publishing and marketing for Blast Publishing, among other new media posts. It was he who introduced Ellington to the wonders of cyberspace. “I’d always been interested in technology,” the latter noted,” but only things I thought were cool, and passing fads and fancies.” CasSelle remembers finding Ellington “intelligent, well-travelled, and serious,” with “a deep personal history and strong points of view.” He stated to CBB,” David and I immediately bonded and became like brothers.”
“When Malcolm and I went to new-media seminars and conferences,” Ellington related in Essence,” I saw the business and cultural opportunity and convinced Malcolm that was the best next thing to do. “Together, they decided to undertake a black-oriented online site. Ellington wrote an overview in 1994, and they began plotting their business strategy. They gathered funding from various sources, notably the Greenhouse Program of America Online (AQL), one of the nation’s most popular providers of online content.
The Greenhouse fund was specifically designed to assist trepreneurs in cyberspace. Ellington told Essence that two days after executive Ted Leonsis announced the creation of the fund, Ellington made an appointment with him. Leonsis and his associates “thought NetNoir was a brilliant idea. They provided us with seed capital, in-kind support, and distribution. “With the assistance of business planner Marcelino Ford-Livene and finance expert Gregory Mays, the intrepid pair set about assembling what Ellington described to CBB as “a full-blown, top-shelf service.”
In 1995 the San Francisco-based NetNoir Online became available on AOL; users could enter the keyword “NetNoir” and explore a wide range of news, information, and message areas, or electronic bulletin boards. Divided into music, sports, education, and business departments, the service channeled content from V7BE magazine, Motown Records, and the clothing company Blue Marlin, among other concerns. A “fact sheet” released by NetNoir claimed,” The core customer will be college-educated, urban or suburban, hip, between 18-40, and male and female.” Other materials noted that purchasers of Afrocentric merchandise were predominantly white males.
With the enthusiastic participation of well-known figures like journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and athlete Carl Lewis, NetNoir rapidly demonstrated that it would not be following anyone else’s lead. In July, Hunter-Gault managed to set up an online interview with Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “It was a blackculture that was the first to do this,” Ellington hastened to remind The Progressive . “If that’s not forward-looking, I don’t know what is.”
Ellington—much of whose time during the service’s first year was spent raising money, while CasSelle served as “chief technology officer,” as the company’s press materials put it—posted a letter to users each month. Surveying the electronic mail he’d received, he noted in his July letter that “65 percent of the mail was purely congratulatory” and that the 30 percent that “pointed out some of our shortcomings” was still upbeat and encouraging. “The final 5 percent (approx.) sought our destruction,” he remarked wryly, deeming this “a surprisingly low percentage.”
Some of the approving words were more public; Los Angeles Times writer David Colker enthused in his “Cyburbia” column about the quality of the prose he’d seen on NetNoir, adding that if the service “continues on this path and explores topics in more depth, it will surely be a model for how cyberspace can wrest itself out of adolescence, grow up and get a far richer life. “Fortune magazine named NetNoir, Inc. one of its “25 Cool Companies” of the year.
”You don’t have to be black to participate,” Ellington told USA Today; he observed in The Progressive that although some non-blacks using the discussion boards have been disruptive, he’s made an effort to discourage insular thinking among regular users of the service. “From time to time I have to go on-line and say, ‘Hey, ya’ll cool out for a while,” heexplained. “If your interests are genuine, and you want to support and celebrate Afrocentric culture, then come on in here. If you want to debate affirmative action, I want you to be here.” CasSelle, in an interview with CityBeat, elaborated: “Our goal is to be inclusive, not exclusive. We are creating a place for anyone of any race to come in and enjoy Afrocentric culture.”
Even so, Ellington declared toCBB, the message bulletin boards and other services are merely “another tool and another option for users to take advantage of. If they don’t choose to, then I don’t worry about it. I get upset if there’s an opportunity for us to do something and we don’t provide the mechanism or the tool to do it.” He added that he wanted NetNoir Online to remain politically neutral rather than advance his agenda; his primary goal is that it collect information and reflect the insights of users. “I want our service to grow organically and not just be my vision exclusively. How could it be? There’s no one voice for all of black America or the entire Afrocentric community.”
NetNoir Online, however innovative, is only the first public venture for NetNoir New Media. While the story of NetNoir in 1995 was the funding of its “mission” by minority investors and AOL, Ellington announced in his first 1996 President’s Letter that its story in the new year would be “the execution of its mission on the World Wide Web—the ultimate distribution platform. “He promised more participation in chat rooms by NetNoir staff, including a weekly “Founder’s Chat,” and more news, as per users’ requests. But Ellington hastened to remind CBBthat the company had other fish to fry. “Our whole service is called NetNoir New Media Services, and through it we consult and do other projects,” which may include CD-ROMs and designing and hosting web sites. “I think there’s a great deal of opportunity for us, being a minority vendor, with many companies out here in Silicon Valley.”
Asked by CityBeat what advice he had for black youth, CasSelle replied,” Education, education, education. Be inquisitive and focus your ambition. I didn’t know exactly where I was going even a year ago, but I did have a sense of how to put my skills to work. And somehow the opportunity found me.” The opportunities have been such, in fact, that they’ve left him thus far without much of a social life. “I live by myself in a warehouse,” he informed CBB . “I don’t have time for a girlfriend, but I love meeting new people.” Ellington’s personal saga is similar; he noted that he had “a very serious girlfriend,” and while his intense work schedule “is straining on my relationship, she’s also in new media, so that helps.”
CasSelle waxed prophetic in describing the impact of new media on African American culture, and on American society in general: “Afrocentric culture is deeply profound and affects everyone who comes in contact with it,” he proclaimed. “The internet, as a low-cast, multimedia channel for communication, provides an opportunity for many people to rapidly experience our culture. This opportunity can cause a shift in our thinking and perspective on humanity. We are in the middle of a re-evolution.” In Essence he expressed satisfaction with the dialogue he’d seen online, reporting,” When I go into the service I’m excited to see the quality of discussion in our chat rooms and on ourmessage boards, and to see how people have embraced our service. Response to NetNoir has been very positive.”
Ellington, too, keeps his eye on the horizon—and on the bottom line. “I had no idea it would cost this much money to run a company on a regular basis,” he divulged to CBB . “You run out of money very quickly, so you have to keep figuring out ways to either raise money or increase revenues. My job is to maintain standards, providing a full-blown, top-shelf service. That’s all I really want to focus on; I think that’s the best I can do.”
CityBeat, August 3, 1995.
Essence, November 1995, p. 42.
Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1995, pp. E2-E3.
Progressive, September 1995, p. 13.
USA Today, May 18, 1995, p. 7D.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a CBB interview with Malcolm CasSelle and E. David Ellington in January of 1996 and by materials provided by NetNoir Inc. and obtained from NetNoir Online.
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