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We are the ones we’ve been waiting for: The first AfroTech Conference

Attendees at the 2016 AfroTech conference
Andre Pennycooke

Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, had just finished jumping rope in red leather pumps when she walked over and plugged the handles into two plastic orbs, which lit up to loud applause. It was an invention she and her firm had developed for Syrian refugee girls who weren’t allowed to play outside because they might ‘tempt’ the boys of the camp. The act of jumping created energy in the rope handles, which powered the lamps. “We seek to democratize energy and provide access for all people,” Matthews asserted. “We believe the next Einstein is going to be someone who hasn’t had a chance to sit at the table.”

I had the pleasure of attending the first-ever AfroTech Conference in San Francisco, run by Blavity. It brought together some 600+ (!) black faces from all over – someone as far as Antigua made the trip – and provided some much needed inspiration, community and encouragement. Blavity described it as, “a conference to connect founders, techies and employees with the fastest-growing tech startups,but it was so much more than that. It was a chance to connect and be inspired in a world that has told us we do not belong.

Attendees at the 2016 AfroTech Conference
Andre Pennycooke

How Blavity became a voice for black millennials

Morgan DeBaun started Blavity in July 2014 after growing tired of the mainstream media not speaking to her or about issues she and her friends faced. Blavity is now one of the fastest growing media outlets on the web today, reaching 7 million hits per month. The site has its share of listicles (it’s for millennials, after all), but with a racial justice bend such as 15 times athletes joined Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and 19 things black girls don’t hear often enough. Coverage of movements like #BlackLivesMatter was happening in real time but DeBaun noticed that it wouldn’t surface on news sites until much later. Keeping her finger on the pulse of black Twitter, DeBaun harnessed it and millennials of color to write content to propel the site. Blavity has recently undergone a redesign and has secured funding, but for a majority of its lifespan it was operating on advertising, events, and clothing merchandise. Their team consists of four founders and eight team members and a network of 40 contributors. However, DeBaun has set her sights on more than just text on screens. She told TechCrunch last year, “Blavity is ultimately a tech lifestyle brand. We create content and experiences on and offline targeting underrepresented millennials.”

Importance of safe spaces

One of the more important things that members of a marginalized group need is a space for rejuvenation and a respite from oppressive systems, no matter how brief. Dealing with microaggressions and institutional oppression gets tiring. Safe spaces are a place where one can be around people who identify similarly and who can provide empathy and understanding, without fear of judgement.

It was amazing to witness a sea of brown and black faces working in tech as creatives and entrepreneurs when there are constantly reports written about the barriers around the tech world and leaders of the industry who state that they “cannot find qualified candidates” in these communities. There haven’t been many opportunities for black people in tech to come together, celebrate each other’s successes and build one another up, and the energy in the rooms was palpable. The hustle of the attendees made me feel uncomfortable, unprepared and inspired, all at once. Not only were there so many people making moves, but they were also humble and willing to share what they had learned on their journey. Collaboration and building relationships is key. There can be no growth or new ideas if people constantly keep to themselves.

A conference attendee trying on an Oculus headset. Oculus was many of the sponsors Blavity secured for the event.
Andre Pennycooke

Communities are not monolithic

The sheer magnitude of this event stunned me – and didn’t. We all were hungry to meet other people who looked like us who were also trying to navigate a difficult industry. The most amazing thing about the event was hearing all the different pathways one can take to achieve their goals. Some of us went to college, some didn’t. Someone had raised $7 million in funding, some of us were still working within a larger parent company. Lightning talks, which served as the keynote and conclusion to the conference, highlighted the many divergent voices and experiences: Zim Ugochukwu, CEO of Travel Noire; Cedric Rogers, CEO of LookLive; 
Jason Mayden, a Stanford d.school fellow and designer at Accel; and Jessica O. Matthews, CEO and founder of Uncharted Play. Ugochukwu spoke frankly about the path she took to build her company. She was fired with no savings, didn’t want to go after venture capitalists and valued her time over money, all things that go against the ‘blueprint’ for founders of a tech company. She ended her talk with the question, “Will you go your own way?” Even if the mainstream cuts you out or you are denied access because you don’t fit the ‘typical’ moulding, there are so many roads to success and for growth.

The sheer number of people attending proves there’s no excuse for exclusion.
Andre Pennycooke

A common thread throughout the conference was staying true to oneself and the things that ultimately serve you. Sometimes that means walking away from a company with a household name and a large paycheck. It’s easy to fence-peek and be jealous of other people’s successes, but that’s what makes each of our stories stronger.

Notable quotes

It’s hard to encapsulate the energy of the event but there were a lot of quotes that stood out to me. They range from mental health, the tech world in general, making your own way and more:

“Diversity is not charity, it’s a business opportunity. We are here to help tech with its blind spots. They need us.” Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Play

“You must have visions of what you want your life to look like that aren’t just material-based.” – Quinta Brunson, Buzzfeed

“[If you want to build something of your own] The best kind of people to have on your team are those who know how hard it will be and how much work there will be, but join you anyways.” – Ben Sielbermann, CEO of Pinterest

“Hustle isn’t always sustainable. Take care of your well-being.” – Zim Ugochukwu, CEO of Travel Noire

On having her firm’s headquarters uptown in Harlem: “Seeing the world around you helps you to build more inclusive product. Seeing seven kinds of people living seven different lives helps you to understand and think about people who don’t share your perspective.” – Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Play

“Nothing is worth your happiness. Realize that you cannot be everything to everyone.” – Quinta Brunson, Buzzfeed

“Steve Jobs once said that ‘the world is made up by people no smarter than ourselves’. We are an asset. It’s possible to move and change the world around you.” – Cedric Rogers, CEO of LookLive

Blavity has graciously uploaded videos of some of the panels and lightning talks online. You can find them here.