Black Tech Conferences Offer a Lifeline in a Predominantly White Industry

The Plug took a look at more than 15 annual Black tech conferences to understand if and how these niche conferences are shaping inclusive cultures within the tech industry.

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Sep 28 2018, 2:00pm

Image: Black Women Talk Tech/Facebook

The atmosphere is reminiscent of a Black college homecoming. Graphic tees splattered with affirmations like “Black Billionaire in the Making” are in abundance, music thumps throughout the venue, and attendees shuffling between expo halls and panel discussions keep time on Apple watches. The VIP rooms are filled with the who’s who of black tech and headliners.Bozoma Saint John, the former marketing executive at Apple and Uber, begins her opening keynote with a walk out to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”

This is the black tech conference—a safe space where black technologists, students, entrepreneurs, and investors come to play. It’s a family reunion of sorts; the kind where all of your #BlackTwitter cousins meet in real life to nerd out on cryptocurrency, augmented reality, crowdfunding, and workshops boast titles that range from “cultural nuance in creative problem solving” to “black women and entrepreneurship, what the data shows.”

According to a 2014 analysis by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, fewer than 8 percent of high-tech jobs are held by African Americans compared to 68.5 percent for white Americans—a number that has remained largely unchanged for over a decade. Black tech conferences, both old and new, have been working to close that gap by connecting large tech employers to talent and creating an environment for exposure and professional development for underserved technology enthusiasts.

From $65 for a one-day admission to up to $2,500 if you include overnight accommodations and travel, the Black tech conference is designed to help Black people connect in spaces where they’ve traditionally been shut out.

We took a look at more than 15 annual Black tech conferences and spoke with both organizers and attendees to understand if and how these niche conferences are shaping inclusive cultures within the tech industry.

Courtney McCluney, a post-doc fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, attended AfroTech Detroit last month, her first Black tech conference. The one-day convening is an extension of the San Francisco-based AfroTech conference, launched in 2016 by Black millennial news site Blavity, which boasts nearly 4,000 attendees and a roster of sponsors that include Google, Deloitte, Quicken, Facebook, and Amazon.

As part of her research, McCluney hoped to glean an understanding of how Black women entrepreneurs are navigating resource-constrained environments in a city like Detroit working to remake itself. Speakers and panelists included local hometown success stories like Melissa Butler, founder and CEO of The Lip Bar, who began distributing her line of lipsticks and glosses in 144 Target stores this spring.

McCluney gave a nod to the collaborative environment presented at AfroTech which she said is a key step for Detroit to build a unified ecosystem that can help move its entrepreneurship and tech presence forward and empower Black entrepreneurs in the community.

Image: Temiloluwa Adeniyi

From the discussions and offhand conversations with entrepreneurs at the conference, McCluney says her takeaway was in witnessing how the business ideas of Black women in Detroit may not garner the same returns that are valued in other tech spaces (mainly financial returns). “Instead, these women want to support and uplift their communities. That is a conversation that is not happening in the [mainstream] entrepreneurship space but is necessary to support aspiring Black tech entrepreneurs,” she said.

For some Black tech conference attendees, activating their own businesses and getting access to mentors, advisors, and potential investors is more than enough motive to get them to cough up the fee for admission.

Matt Poole, a recent Morehouse College graduate and former diversity recruiter for Microsoft, attended Atlanta Black Tech Week’s four-day conference this year with hopes of getting feedback on his developing startup, When&Where. “My main purpose [for attending the conference] was exposure and to get in front of people who could help me grow in some way,” said Poole. He was hoping to solicit new users to beta test his app, but in lieu of sponsoring a booth at the conference, Poole stuck to striking up conversations with fellow attendees and encouraging them to sign up.

Black tech conferences offer community and connectivity closer to home.

But he’d picked a brand new conference that attracted tech enthusiasts who were just starting out. As a seasoned startup employee and new founder, this wasn’t a mature environment for his business. He hadn’t acquired as many sign-ups as he’d hoped but did mention he was able to pop into one of the hosted office hours where pre-idea stage attendees were able to get quick consulting, access to an app development shop, and legal advice.

For Black entrepreneurs who would otherwise not have access to larger tech conferences in larger cities, some Black tech conferences offer community and connectivity closer to home.

Dawn Dickson, the founder of intelligent vending machine company PopCom in Columbus, Ohio, said that she didn’t learn the word “venture capital” until the Black Enterprise Small Business Conference came through her town in 2013. She’d sat in on a workshop at the conference that introduced her to the basics of venture capital and thus began her journey toward building the venture-backed company she runs today.

Dickson has done her rounds as both a speaker and presenter at Black tech conferences and advises that entrepreneurs focus on the conferences that will offer much mor ethan inspirational messages. “Some [Black tech conferences] are community-oriented with people telling their stories. Others, like Black Wall Street [in Durham] or Black Tech Week [in Miami] have hands-on workshops where you can actually work with experts that help you work on your business,” said Dickson.

Image: AfroTech/Facebook

In addition to delivering value to attendees, Black tech conference organizers have the task of helping corporate recruiters to meet their goals and expose them to Black tech talent in the context of a safe space. A global analysis conducted by LinkedIn reveals that 78 percent of corporate recruiting will be driven by diversity hiring and improving corporate culture this year.

Kelli Jones launched Disrupt Indy last year with her co-founder, Jeff Williams, in Indianapolis, Indiana to help companies think locally and inclusively when hiring diverse talent.

While Indianapolis isn’t the first city that comes to mind when thinking about major tech hubs, the 2013 sale of local software startup ExactTarget to Salesforce for $2.5 billion dollars helped to set the city on a trajectory of a well-resourced startup and investment culture—a boon Jones says has struggled to onboard women, people of color, and LGBTQ talent into its pipeline.

Sessions at DisruptIndy include “how to make your company more inclusive” to how to “find diverse talent right in your city without looking outside.” “These companies actually want to change and do what’s necessary to make this shift. They don’t know where to go to access [diverse] talent,” Jones told me.

"Conferences like this allow tech jobs to be better presented to diverse communities"

At DisruptIndy, career expos are sponsored by and attended by local companies like PERQ. The online shopping software company met with 25 potential candidates during the recent conference in search of filling a data analyst role. One candidate, a Black male and recent college grad, will be interviewed for the position this week. “Conferences like this allow tech jobs to be better presented to diverse communities,” Muhammad Yasin, PERQ’s vice president of marketing, told me as he recanted his personal story growing up in Section 8 housing and never imagining he’d have a job like the one he has today.

Other conferences are positioning themselves to create a first-time entrepreneurial and tech culture for Black communities.

City leaders in Philadelphia reached out to Aniyia Williams, co-founder of Black and Brown Founders, to launch the Project NorthStar conference this October. The conference is slated to offer programming which connects the city’s majority Black and Latinx communities to the emerging technology and business communities. “We’re combining common and aligned goals to provide a platform for people to learn about entrepreneurship and what it takes to get a job [in this industry],” Williams said.

The agenda includes discussions on the future of work, how to land jobs in tech with the City of Philadelphia, and other local companies, and how formerly incarcerated citizens can connect to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Novel, niche conferences for African American tech professionals aren’t entirely new. Associations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) for Black computer and information scientists have served Black technologists and students since the mid-1970s on numerous college campuses and through their regional and national professional development conferences.

Muhammad Yasin at DisruptIndy. Image: Instagram

National conference reports reveal that NSBE has been attracting over 10,000 attendees each year. Kevin Peynado, NSBE’s conference chair, said that the conference is designed based on the feedback each region receives from their members and deal with practical, tangible things like resume development, preparing for an interview, and how to network within the field.

But the modern Black tech conference differs from legacy organization conferences in two distinct ways: legacy conferences have traditionally pushed for employment and connections to large, well-established companies (think Boeing and IBM), whereas the modern Black tech conference emphasizes entrepreneurship and getting into jobs at startups with companies like Lyft, Spotify, Facebook, and other brands that emerged in the last 10 years.

Spearheaded by Black millennials, the newly minted Black tech conferences seek to be the meeting ground for Black talent to meet HR recruiters and connect founders to technical and financial resources by way of networking, exposure and empowerment. The content and the culture for creating a safe space has yet to be quantified in formal datasets but is part of a growing trend that is worth watching.

Most of all, the Black tech conference, is reshaping how a generation of innovators finds and feels connected to the broader technology conversation which has traditionally been dominated by a pervasive white male “bro culture.”

For up-and-coming entrepreneurs like Poole, attending Black tech conferences in the future alongside other industry-specific conferences for his startup is a no-brainer. “The Black tech community is definitely growing across the country and I want to be part of that, so that’s where my mind is always at,” said Poole who plans to buy his plane ticket to join his friends at AfroTech in San Francisco this fall.

“I chose a black tech conference because of how I regard community. The stronger we are as a group translates to the overall well being of the ecosystem. We’re all better together.”

This piece is part of a series of stories produced in partnership with The Plug.