What I Learned at Blavity’s AfroTech
I finally made it to Blavity’s AfroTech conference in Silicon Valley last month thanks to Product Hunt & AngelList sponsoring me. Here’s what I learned while I was there:
1. Feeling included leads to high levels of self-belief and inspiration.
Feeling like an outsider in the industry has been a common theme in my career. It’s what has led me to obsess over making the industry more representative of wider society and of course feel more inclusive.
AfroTech represents something like a pilgrimage for me as a techie. It was the first time I felt at home at an industry event. I wish I could say that of every tech conference I participate in. (I hope we reach that point in the next few years).
I met so many inspiring people at AfroTech, some I knew from social media and some who I stumbled upon for the first time. I was inspired by their careers — machine learning engineers working on voice assistants, hardware founders solving complex health problems. The list goes on. I was filled with hope by what the black community is contributing to make the whole world a better place.
There are times in my working life when colleagues’ actions and remarks towards me and my culture made me feel embarrassed for being who I am: a black woman. Attending AfroTech was a reminder that blackness is greatness.
TLDR: Being black in the tech industry can sometimes feel like being a token. Events like this provide an opportunity to restore my self-belief and connect with talented people who challenge the narrative.
2. A company’s inclusion efforts are noticed and amplified by the groups they are aimed at.
Since I joined the Product Hunt team in October 2017, Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover and I have had many, many conversations about how to make our community more welcoming and helpful for underrepresented makers.
To that end we’ve run dozens of experiments and campaigns to support makers from different backgrounds. I was really happy to meet members of the Product Hunt community at AfroTech who commented on the noticeable change in Product Hunt’s approach to diversity and inclusion.
At one point a maker said, “I’ve really noticed you’ve stepped up the efforts over there and this means so much to us. My friends and I say — if a company like Product Hunt cares it will show the other startups that they need to care, too.”
TDLR: If your team is not optimizing for inclusion in everything you do for your community and customers, you should be.
3. Understanding privilege is hard.
As someone who spends a lot of time teaching techies about privilege and how to become aware of it in order to be more inclusive, attending AfroTech flipped the table.
I had such a positive experience being surrounded by relatable, positive people who I simply felt got me, that for the first time I think I understood what it must be like to be the privileged status quo in this industry.
If someone had told me that they didn’t enjoy AfroTech, I would find it hard to believe because I had such an amazing experience meeting new people, making new connections and participating in enlightening discussions.
It’s now easier for me to fathom why so many straight, white men struggle to understand the horror stories underrepresented techies share about their experiences at offsites, networking events or even in the office. We are operating side by side on a totally different playing field.
TLDR: I will always go the extra mile to empathize with a techie’s life experiences, especially if they are of a different identity to me.
4. The pipeline problem is a myth.
This is something I knew before AfroTech but which was confirmed in my time there. Through my inclusion work I frequently meet VCs, founders and tech leaders who tell me they are “struggling” to hire black techies. I often attend conferences where the point is raised, “I cannot find underrepresented talent.”
There is a dominant narrative in our industry that black talent doesn’t exist. That narrative is a myth. AfroTech has almost doubled its attendees each year. This year 4,000 attendees were on site. This number doesn’t include the thousands of other black techies all around the world who couldn’t make it.
If you are in a hiring position and telling yourself you can’t find black talent, you are taking the wrong approach. Educate yourself on structural oppression and dive deep into every element of your recruitment processes and culture. Understand why Ivy League universities are underrepresented by black talent. Understand the dangers of hiring based on culture fit. Approach these questions like you’re going on a journey of a lifetime not looking for a shortcut to a quick fix or solution.
TLDR: If you’re struggling to recruit black people you must review your recruitment strategies and ask yourself what it is about your culture that doesn’t optimize for the inclusion of those who are underrepresented in your team.
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