It’s been a little over a week since I returned from Wakanda. No, not the fictional nation in the Marvel Comics series, but a real one. If you are familiar with Marvel's Black Panther, Wakanda is a fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa and is depicted as one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. Now picture being in Oakland, CA which is known for its rich Black history, surrounded by 10,000 of the brightest minds in tech and innovation. Sounds magical, right? Well it was, and it’s a conference that every Black person in tech should attend.
When I first joined the tech industry almost a year ago, I found myself in a bit of culture shock because of the lack of diversity. For someone who attended the largest historically Black college in the nation, I was used to seeing people who look like me on a regular occurrence. And although Durham, NC (where I reside) has no racial majority and is a progressive city, my new industry proved not to be. In my role as the Events and Community Outreach Manager at StrongKey, I am often attending, exhibiting, and sponsoring events that have a majority white and male audience. My company is an amazing culture fit for me, but I knew that if I was going to thrive in this space, I had to find my tribe…and so I ventured to AfroTech.
AfroTech is an annual tech conference that hosts 10,000 Black techies in Oakland, CA. This conference brings out the Facebooks, Googles, and Microsofts of the world, and has successfully created a space for those who self-identify as geeks to connect, learn, and grow with their peers. Over the course of the two-day conference I was able to attend sessions, meet thought leaders, and gain exposure to the vastness of the tech field as well as the diversity within the Black talent pool. In a world that likes to group all “people of color” together, it was nice to be in a space that was catered solely to the African diaspora where we could discuss our unique experiences. There is a strong sense of identity that you gain as a professional, particularly as a minority, when you’re able to experience a space (even for just a few days) that validates who you are.
The conference boasted sessions like Unconventional Pathways to Creative Tech Roles presented by Apple, Working in Corporate Tech with Bank of America, Innovation in Marketing with Beats by Dre, and Scaling Customer Support with Handshake. There was also a bit of culture mixed in with Public Service Through Tech presented by Code for America as well as a panel with the Black Panther Party (founded in Oakland). The sessions were amazing, but the real value in this conference (and any conference for that matter) was the connections. From the moment I stepped out of my Lyft, every person I passed greeted me with a smile and genuine curiosity as to what brought me to AfroTech. As someone in a non-technical role in the tech industry, it is worth noting that there was also a place for me within this conference.
No matter what part of the tech spectrum your company falls on, here are a few trends I was able to pick up on during AfroTech that are worth sharing:
- The Leaky Tech Talent Pipeline Needs to Be Fixed—For the majority of tech companies, less than 5% of the digital workforce identify as Black. We know that the tech talent pipeline starts as early as pre-k and carries on into higher education and then into the workforce whether it be through recruitment or entrepreneurship. A part of being good corporate citizens is being intentional about recruitment efforts, but also paying it forward by supporting workforce development programs through local public schools and nonprofits. This is why spaces such as AfroTech are so important.
- Retention is Just as Important as Attraction—Getting the talent through the door is just the first step. Imagine having colleagues whom you have no shared cultural experiences with and how lonely that could feel. People often joke that you spend more time with your colleagues than your spouse and with 40+ hours a week for several decades, there’s some truth to that. This is why companies such as Amazon and Adobe have created Black Employee Networks. These networks help recruit, retain, and advance the careers of Black employees. If a company is too small to create a network, say a startup, this support could also be lent by offering to cover the cost of professional membership for that employee into an association for Black people in tech. This could (and should) also be applied to women in tech, LGBTQ+ in tech, etc.
- Allow Your Employees to Show up as Their Authentic Selves—Fostering an inclusive environment actually helps the bottom line. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Additionally, diverse companies had a 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did. Allowing your employees to show up as their authentic selves is not only good for company culture, but it’s good for business.
- Create Space for Professional Development—If you’re in the startup world, you know that things move rapidly when you’re trying to get a company off the ground and can pivot within an instant. As exciting as that is, it can be hard to rationalize taking 2–3 days to completely unplug and attend a conference to grow as a professional. Here’s the thing, burnout is real and it’s costing $125–190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the US (not to mention what it’s costing companies in lost productivity). Participating in a professional development opportunity can be extremely energizing, help reconnect you with your company’s mission, and allow you to step back from the work long enough to gain new perspective. I am fortunate enough to work for a company that values professional development and encouraged me to attend AfroTech.
- Business and Pleasure Can Certainly Mix—One of the best perks of being in tech is the relaxed work environment. If I want to wear a hoodie and sneakers one day I can. If I want to wear a dress and cardigan the next, I can do that as well. We’ve got the quintessential beer on tap, random chair massages, and weekly team lunches. While these things don’t replace company values and strong leadership, they certainly make coming to work more pleasant. Tech companies not only took over the Oakland Convention Center for AfroTech, but they took over art galleries, restaurants, and bars with activations. After a day of enriching sessions and content, it was priceless to attend company-hosted happy hours, partake in a hand-crafted cocktail, and connect with students from top universities, marketing peers, entrepreneurs, and even old college friends who make the journey to Wakan—er, I mean AfroTech.
The conference is now in its fourth year and has grown exponentially from 650 to 10,000 attendees in a short amount of time. With that type of growth, it’s evident that this space was much desired, that the talent is out there, and most importantly, there is space for all of us to thrive. Until next year, Wakanda Forever.