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Interview with will.i.am from the World Economic Forum 2017

Following are excerpts from an interview with CNBC's Tania Bryer and will.i.am at the World Economic Forum 2017.


TB: Will, thank you so much for joining me here on CNBC. This is your third Davos?

W: Yes, it is.

TB: Yes. How are you finding it, and why do you feel it's an important platform for you to come here?

W: It's an important platform because of the work that I do in the inner city, and for me to find more programmes for the kids that I bring new skillsets to, the forgotten. So I come from a very bad neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and our school system is horrible. So about six years ago, I started an afterschool programme, teaching kids robotics and computer science. So every year, I like to travel and find more things for our kids to get in and around. Mentors for them, to push them and encourage them towards, you know, dedicating themselves in the STEM curriculum, so coming to, you know, events like this when you're immersed in a little mountain where you have a whole bunch of different folks from, you know, the private sector, corporations, governments, NGOs, you get to network, and I need it-, my kids need me to do this.

TB: Will, you, of course, were a recipient of the Crystal Award for your work with your foundation, and you have just been saying that of course the platform here is very good for that. But there's been a lot of criticism about Davos, about WEF being too elitist, and of course one of the big topics is inequality. Do you feel that that criticism is unfair?

W: It's fair, but it's not fair, it's both. The reason why it's a fair criticism, it just so happens that the people on the mountain are the 1%. But then there's a lot of folks on the mountain that do their part. Bill Gates does his part. So that's the reason why it's not fair. And there's a lot of companies, corporations that, they do their part. Salesforce does their part. So although there's folks that come to the mountain that don't do their part, and that's the reason why I feel, you know, to have everyone on the mountain sharing the things they do, folks that come with an open mind on wanting to play more of a role in solving problems as well as making money-, so like I said, it's both.

TB: And of course, the topic of inequality is huge, Will. What is your take on it? Your foundation works to bridge that gap..?

W: My foundation works to encourage and empower the forgotten. So to bridge the gap, that's something that, if I was trying to do that, I think that looks like an impossible mission, because you have the other side that wants the gap to get bigger. But if my efforts are to, you know, equip, you know, kids in the inner cities with skillsets that put them in the position to create jobs, not just fill jobs, and be a part of the conversation tomorrow, the conversation around solving problems, then I'm playing my part, and it's something that I'm-, you know, I know I can accomplish that. If my mission is to find two or three kids out of, you know, gathering 60, then I'm doing my part. I started with 60 kids, every single one of those kids graduated last year with a 3.5 average, grade point average. They're all going-, 70% of those kids are going to school for computer science, robotics and engineering, and that was six years ago when I started with 60 kids. Now I have 500+ kids, and I want to scale the work to other areas that resemble the conditions of my neighborhood.

TB: Talking about your neighborhood, Will, and I know from our previous interviews and conversations together, you know, you've come from Boyle Heights, you've talked a lot about how influential your mother was in getting the education for you. Do you think that's really what motivated you? Was it your childhood experiences, do you think?

It really was going to Brentwood Science Magnet, going to a science magnet school at 7 years old, being bussed to and from my old ghetto, two hours a day. So that's like, living in London, sending your 7-year-old kid on a train to Paris to go to school. Like living in Brixton, sending your kid to Paris. 7 years old. I asked my mum, 'Like, what were you thinking sending a 7-year-old to school two hours away from home, and you didn't even have a car to pick me up if something would have happened.' And her response was, 'With the drugs and the gangs in the neighborhood, you're safer going there.' And going to school, learning oceanography, physics, science, computers, at 7 years old, until I was 18, changed my life, and I thank my mum for making that sacrifice, and it's the reason why I can stomach being away from home. It's January the 18th-, is it the 18th today?

W: It is, yes it is.

And I've already been in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, LA, London, San Francisco, Davos, in those 18 days starting 2017.

Oh you're kidding, just in 2017?

Yes.

Will, but just tell me about the 7-year-old boy that was on the bus for that amount of time. What were you feeling back then? You know, what were your hopes and aspirations? I know that, you know, there you are, you were saying that, you know, your mother made that decision for you, but you know, as a young boy, what did that feel like?

It felt like going to sleep on the bus. To say-, I mean, if I was to go back and say, 'You know what it felt like,' I'd be B.S.ing you, I don't know, I was 7 years old, sleeping on a bus, going to school. But I remember the first day I realized we were poor. There was a canned food drive-, and philanthropy changed my life, and it's the reason why I do so much philanthropy now, now that I'm successful with my career. There was a canned food drive, the school said, 'come to school with canned food so we can give it to the poor,' so I went back home and I said, 'Mom, we have to collect canned foods to give to the poor people,' so my mom laughed at me, 'Boy, you ain't going to school with no food.' And then that Thanksgiving, all the kids, couple of kids from my neighborhood came with a box of food. We were the poor kids. They gave that food, the whole school, we won that, that prize, and I remember what it felt like. Like, because when you're poor you don't know you're poor, everyone's poor in your neighborhood. But to see the outreach of the kids from the rich neighborhood bringing my family boxes of food made me realize, 'Wow, we're poor.' You know? And it's a wakeup call, when you have to go to school and the rest of your kids know that you're the poor kid, and it's not a good feeling, but it shaped me to the person that I am today, and it's the reason why I try to do as much as I can to the forgotten, these that are left behind.

TB: And when you got your global success with Black Eyed Peas, Will, what did that feel like to you?

W: I didn't' realize what it felt until some-, the person that I started the Black Eyed Pea with, his name is Allan Pineda, aka apl.de.ap, from the Philippines, and he always used to, like, you know, he said, 'Your neighborhood's great,' I'm like, 'My neighborhood's not good bro, I'm poor.' He was like, 'Well this is nothing compared to where I come from in the Philippines.' I was like, 'Well what do you mean? What's it like in the Philippines?' He was like, 'I pump water out of the ground. I wash my clothes in the river, by the rock. I farm rice on a bison.' So I'm thinking he's lying, until we go back to the Philippines and the President is there, this is 2004, 2005, Where is the Love? We step off the plane, the President and the folks greeted him, and we go to his village and it was everything he said, and I realized how lucky we are and how blessed we are to have music as a career, and the two of us really dedicated to changing our neighborhoods. So we made a lot of money with the Black Eyed Peas, and this is when I realized, 'Woah, I have a special soul mate named apl,' and we dreamt an amazing dream together. Because when we go back to the Philippines with I Got a Feeling and it's the biggest thing in the world, and I'm thinking, he was like, 'Yo, I got a new house,' I was like, 'Ah, shucks, I can't wait to see that house in the Philippines,' and I'm thinking he lived in a big old house in Manila, so then we're driving, I'm like, 'Yo bro, it's like the same route that we went to your old province,' he was like, 'Yeah, what are you talking about,' so I was like, 'There was nothing but huts there, what are you talking about?' I said, 'I thought you were going to move to a better neighborhood. He was like, 'Why would I do that? I want to make my neighborhood better.' So I go to his house, I'm in the province, and there's a huge house next to all the other houses, and there's a school there, and he was like, 'Yo, I want to educate the folks in my province, why am I going to leave? This is where I was born and raised.' And I was like, 'I'm so happy that I'm in a group with you. I'm so happy that you're my partner in this thing called the Black Eyed Peas. Because you could get lost in the celebrity, and lost in this B.S, and you know, anything I could do to help you with your neighborhood, with the stuff that I'm doing to my neighborhood-,' two poor folks different extremes of poor, that our dreams were music. And he's here today at Davos, he came to check out-, I was like, 'Look, you need to be a part of this community, bro. Like, the work that you're doing in the Philippines, with education in the province, you need as many partners as you can, and I know there's a lot of people on the mountain that would want to help you out.'

TB: Will, along with your music success, of course you're known for your wearables and your tech company that you have, and producing, I believe, buttons. Can you tell us all about that?

W: So the company that I started is called i.am+, we've created a pretty awesome voice operating system, an AI, a conversational engine and audio products are the best way to experience our platform. So our headphones now are sold in every single Apple store and we're about to release our platform shortly. Kendall Jenner is a part of the company, as well as Naomi Campbell, and I tried to find folks that could play a role in i.am+ plus the way that I played a role in Beats. A lot of people didn't know that I was an equity holder in Beats, one of the early members, since the beginning, and when we sold to HTC first, I started i.am+ and then when we sold it to Apple, the team got bigger, we raised more money and brought more people on, like Naomi and Kendall, and you know, it's looking pretty great for us.

TB: What about-, you spoke about AI there. Where are we going with all this technology? I think another panel you'll be talking about here, Will, at WEF, also is security of our internet. How can we police it? We're seeing so much going on now, hacking, there was of course, the Apple vs the FBI. What can we do about that?

W: Well, we make it seem like this version of connectivity has been forever. So it's still in its infancy, and things will get smarter, and until then, we-, the creators are to innovate and bring to market awesome things for us to save time. That's what I'm focused on. I try not to get distracted and/or discouraged on the things that we want to bring to market.

TB: And what about cyber security? What are your thoughts on that? Because it's so important, of course we're making great advances in technology, but the security is key, as we're seeing, as well.

W: Well, there's a lot of mis-discussions on-, some people think cyber security is an oxymoron, that you can't truly have that, especially on the version of the internet that we have today, and then some people feel that-, I met a company yesterday that have some pretty cool solutions towards that, and things that my company is looking at. Anyone with solutions is great, but like I said, we are in-, it's still in its infancy, this has not been life forever. I think this version of connectivity with phones, out there in the world, is ten years old, as far as the iPhone goes. Of course there's been other PDAs in the past, but nothing like what we have today, where people are running their businesses off their phones, documenting with selfie sticks-, only because a guy had a selfie stick in the audience. New behaviors. Sorry about that.

TB: But where is it going to take us? You know, where is the future of tech? I mean, you're involved in it, you have companies within it. Where do you think it's going to take us? Is it going to-, you know, what's next? What's the big next tech?

W: I heard a sentence two days ago, and I always knew it, and that was 'data is currency' and if you're a big company, that just sucks up and aggregates everyone's data on an app that's free then yes, data is currency. But the only people that are left out of being empowered by data are the people that are actually making it, like we make data every day, and it ain't like it's benefiting me, or other people like me, or people like you and communities that you live in. Data's only benefitting companies. And so I think the big change is going to come when people own and keep their own data, and other data doppelgangers that are like them create new types of clusters, and those clusters and communities are better off keeping and doing with their data what benefits the community and the individual. We haven't seen that yet. We just see big companies get mega huge, really fast, and worth ultra-billions of dollars for the sake of a free app. I think that will change soon, and that's what's exciting for me, and it's the things that we're working on as far as giving people a personal AI. Right now, the intelligence on your phone doesn't really know you, right? So those are the things that we want to work on, that we're working on, and I can't wait to show the world it.

TB: And what would you like that to be? What's the personal AI? What is your goal, Will, what would you ideally want? How would that work?

W: Well, without getting into it now, I would have to just show you how it works, I wouldn't talk about how it works. So when we're about to launch, you know you're my favorite person-,

TB: Oh, thank you.

W: I will definitely be showing you it.

TB: Okay, so we look forward to that, and I personally look forward to that launch, Will, as well. Now, of course last year here the theme was the Fourth Industrial Revolution, talking about technology, and this year it's about responsible and responsive leadership. What makes a responsible leader for you, in your eyes?

W: A responsible leader is someone who is open minded, respectful, flexible, but firm, inspiring, encouraging, strict but still has love. Someone who has tolerance, but at the same time, protects tradition. Someone who is family orientated, someone who has the ability to turn strangers into friends, and friends into family. Someone who-, that tries to protect the home, and builds bridges. Someone who is looking out for the collective and not themselves. That's a responsible leader.

TB: That's a responsible leader. And building bridges, Will, now, I hope I'll still remain your favorite person, but talking of bridges and walls I had to ask-,

W: Woah, woah, woah, you did that one.

TB: What's your feeling, you did publicly vote for Hillary, so I just want to ask you in general what your feelings are now.

W: Me no speak English.

TB: Ah, you see, okay, in Spanish then, tell me, we can translate it. Just your, just your general feeling.

W: So I have-, like I said, I have 500 plus kids who a lot of their parents-, I come from an all Mexican neighborhood, we were the only black family-, one of the only black families in the neighborhood. So a lot of the kids at my school are afraid that their parents will be sent back to Mexico, and they've done so much to keep themselves out of the streets, and so for those privileged folks, they don't know what that means. Because they'll respond and say, 'Well, they're not supposed to be in the streets.' Well, what would they be doing? It's not like we're making sure they have good education, and a shot at a future. So for them to not do that default, that puts them in harm's way, and other people in harm's way, to survive, and take a leap of faith and learn robotics and computer science, and do the uncool thing, and risk being bullied, because no one in their age group are doing robotics and computer science, and then also have to worry and fear their parents getting sent back to Mexico. That's a lot for a 13-year-old, 14-year-old, 15-year-old, to worry about, especially while they're in their neighborhood ducking bullets. So if there's any time where it's more important for me to focus on my community, it's now. If there's any time that I come to Davos with urgency to create alliances and build bridges to protect those for the next four years, eight years, 20 years, it's now. If there's any time that we should bond together and use our smartphones to get the right news and just take them-, be a little bit more patient and not just think the first thing you see is the truth, it's right now. If there's any time here we're supposed to, you know, have an open heart, it's right now. Especially right now. We're supposed to bond, we're supposed to-, I know that sounds real kumbaya and cliché, to say love is what we need right now, but it truly is. If this time was like any time, it would feel like the 50s, because the 60s hasn't happened yet. The songs on the radio aren't about what's going on, the things-, we're all in these little bubbles, and the bubbles that we're in is responsible for the fake news. We need to pop those bubbles that we created ourselves, and create little clusters and networks of likeminded-, things that we want to see our society move towards. Because if we just leave it to the bubble, and the algorithm, it's going to look like what we have right now, and that, we should all be concerned with that. So with that, I say we focus on the left behinds, the privileged, using their privilege to, you know, bring upon a better life for those that are struggling. There's a lot of struggling out there. In the ghettos, in the provinces, in the slums. Even in the nice neighborhoods, it ain't like people are there, you know, living comfy when now we have supercomputers that's threatening everything. We need creators to create and dream up new jobs. Unfortunately the old jobs, some of them might not come back, but I know we switched from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to responsible leadership, but those two are hand in hand. Because it takes the leaders to encourage the dreamers to create new jobs that's really going to bring about an amazing Fourth Industrial Revolution, because it could be a bad one, so-,

TB: Would you ever consider going into politics yourself, Will?

W: No. No. I don't want to go into politics. I'd rather just do what I'm doing.

TB: And what you're doing, and just finally, of course you have a collaboration, an exciting project with Black Eyed Peas, I believe, coming up this year. You have the Voice in the UK, you have all your tech innovations coming up, as well, and your foundation. Anything else you'd like to do, to add to that list? Do you have time for anything else?

W: Oh, also, when I said it's been 18 days and I've already been in that many countries, somebody was like, 'Well what were you doing in all those countries?' Well I really have, like, four jobs, four full time jobs, and that, every day I wake up it's a blessed opportunity, because I remember the day-, I was 19 years old, and my mom says, 'William, I think I'm going to finally get a job now.' I'm like, 'What? Why?' because the whole time growing up, my mom was on welfare. I would go to the County building and get her check, and sit in the line and get free cheese and milk. So that was normal. So when my mom said that, I was like, 'Well where are you going to work at, ma?' She was like, 'I'm going to work up by the park, to keep the kids off the street,' and so when I wake up, every day, and I see my reality, I think of the sacrifices my mom made, by-, it seemed as if she was putting me in harm's way, but really it was a blessing, and now I have these blessings, so I'm blessed to be able to have a philanthropic charity where we teach kids robotics, and have a company with 150 people, we have offices in Israel, Bangalore India, and Singapore, and all the engineers that have chosen to work at i.am+, even though, like, there's been a couple of misses, which is oaky, because I'm not afraid to fail in public, I just look at it as I'm learning, and we still retain awesome talent. We have awesome investors. And music, changed my life, that's another job. And being on TV, that's another job, too. So that's four full time jobs, because-,

TB: Not bad.

TV, being in the UK, I mean, that's the biggest show-, one of the biggest shows-, actually, the biggest show in the UK. I'm sorry, it's a pretty nice humble show. I just got slapped by my mom for saying that, 'You've got no business bragging like that.' So the show is pretty nice, it does pretty well. So in theory, I should live in the UK, I do TV there, but every time I finish TV I go back home, to i.am+ and figure out between my entrepreneurial activities, and making music, and I've chosen to do music less, to build this business with my partners, and it's great. My mom, she sent me an awesome little text message yesterday, just to remind me how blessed we are.

TB: Well Will, thank you so much for sharing that today, and we so appreciate, because we know how busy you are, and we can see from all the jobs that you do that you are so busy, and we really appreciate the time that you've spent with us today here at CNBC.

W: Oh no, for me, thank you for allowing me to have this seat and be on TV talking about my story. So many other people on the mountain that are more than qualified than I am, so that's, once again a blessed opportunity to be here telling my story. So the folks that we serve in the community, you know, hopefully folks that want to help out on the mission, you can go to iamangelfoudnation.org to learn about the programmes that we give our kids, and the dream, and if you want to be a part of that dream, and making that dream a reality to change these kids' lives, we need all the help we can get. Everything else we'll do on our own. The entrepreneurial stuff, that's a fight, but we need help on that side.

TB: And you want more Bill.i.ams and not will.i.Ams, as in Bill Gates…

W: I said I want kids in the inner city to be like Bill Gates. To not just be Stevie Wonders, but be Steve Jobs. Not to be like Michael Jordans, but to aim to be Michael Dell. Because we have enough Will.i.Ams, Stevie Wonders, LeBron James and Michael Jordans, and no one in the inner city is dreaming down this path. They don't wake up every day, default, 'man, I can't wait to get my Steve Jobs on,' that's not-, you know what I mean? That's not-, they're 5'1 like, 'I'm about to be Michael Jordan.' Er, not really, shorty. You know what I mean? Which is great, it's great, it's just there's more opportunities.

Well Will, once again, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. Ladies and gentlemen, Will.i.Am.