This past February, I flew out to Miami for a very unique technology conference. What made this conference unique in my mind was its focus on Black Tech. What’s that you ask? Well many, if not all of you, have heard of the disparities that exist in the technology space surrounding people of color and their access to opportunities in the tech industry. Some prominent tech companies have gone so far as to state that the reason for the lack of diversity is a “pipeline problem”. Well clearly, they have never attended a Black Tech Week conference.
Black Tech Week is an annual conference that was established in 2014 by Code Fever and its founders Felecia Hatcher Pearson & Derick Pearson. The stated mission is to increase the number of startup founders, technology executives and engineers of color.
Since their launch, the conference has grown in size and popularity and speakers have included Chinedu Echeruo – Founder & CEO of Hopstop; which was acquired by Apple, Rony Abovitz – Magic Leap CEO, Israel Idonije – Founder of AsktheDoctor.com and Leslie Miley – former Director of Engineering at Slack and a well-known diversity advocate in the tech scene. While there are always recognized names and speakers in attendance, what is more exciting are the speakers you don’t know, who are all doing very interesting and exciting things ranging from virtual reality to tech driven social justice companies. They are engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, athletes, former models and more.
This year, the Black Tech Week founders did something different again; they launched Black Tech Weekend and announced that the week-long celebration known as Black Tech Week would be moving to October. So twice a year, companies seeking diverse talent, entrepreneurs looking to form new partnerships and startups interested in learning how to gain access to capital, talent, etc. have a place where all that is possible. The value of this event isn’t lost on organizations like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, who have supported Black Tech Week since its launch and most recently upped the ante by announcing additional support in the amount of $1.2 million. Other supporters include Simkins Family Foundation, Ford and OneUnited Bank, to name a few.
When I walked into the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC Miami) on Thursday, February 23, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew I would meet some people, have a few conversations and hear some prominent people in tech speak, but instead, I was blown away by the energy and electricity that charged the room. I met people like Brandon Harris, CEO of civic tech company Votus; Nnena Ukuku, Co-Founder of Venture Gained Legal and saw some familiar faces like Marlon Nichols, General Partner of Cross Culture Ventures, Richard Kerby, Vice President at Venrock and Angela Benton, Founder & CEO of NewME Accelerator. Attendees got the chance to interact with Angela Benton and Sarah Kunst, Founder & CEO of ProDay as they spoke about launching their respective businesses, raising capital and what investors look for in a startup. Everyone was enthralled by Michael Seibel’s message, as he spoke about his experience as a founder, successfully selling two companies and now as CEO and partner at Y Combinator. His blunt honesty about the challenges of being a tech entrepreneur, from developing a product to getting funded, was refreshing and well received by attendees.
The second day of the conference was equally impacting with speakers representing our diverse culture, African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American, all outstanding Black leaders in their fields all focused on the theme of access to capital. Another highlight of the day was the venue, the Little Haiti Cultural Complex located in Little Haiti, Miami. The space had everything needed to make the conference stand out and added to the cultural significance of the event. Admittedly, the last day was my favorite, largely because of the nature of the activities. The organizers put together a group outing called The Black Heritage Experience & Innovation Hub Tour, run by Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism (CHAT). The tour began at EcoTech Visions, Miami’s first green incubator and maker space, where entrepreneurs can create, plan and launch innovative and green manufacturing businesses in South Florida.
From there we traveled to Overtown, a neighborhood of Miami full of rich history, due to the contributions of its very diverse Black residents. This was no quick “drive through” style tour. CHAT wants to ensure that local businesses get the benefit of tourist dollars, so we all got off the bus, walked around, met a few business owners, saw historic buildings, learned about some of the residents who contributed to the cultural fabric of Miami, such as Dana Albert Dorsey, one of the first African-American millionaires of the South and Purvis Young. Dorsey lived during an era of segregation, which made his accomplishments even more significant. He built homes in Overtown, donated to Black schools and built the first Black owned hotel in Miami. Young was an outstanding self-taught artist, whose works have been collected by Jane Fonda, Damon Wayans, Dan Aykroyd & Jim Belushi and is also in the collections of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, American Folk Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the High Museum of Art.
We continued our tour to Wynwood, a neighborhood now known for its art and technology district. Almost every building in Wynwood doubled as a canvas full of beautifully painted art. Unfortunately, the current beauty came at the cost of gentrification, which is also befalling Overtown. The bright spot is that through the existence of Black Tech Week, more people are learning about the technology opportunities that exist in Miami and the organizers have plans to expand their programming to Overtown so local entrepreneurs will have a space to work from and residents will have a place to learn new technology skills and prepare themselves for the future.
Black Tech Weekend was more than a technology conference. It was a cultural experience. The gathering of minds, sharing of thoughts and exchange of ideas among a diverse group of Black people still has me on cloud nine. I’m already preparing for Black Tech Week in October. Hopefully, you will join me, because Black Tech Matters.
For more information visit www.blacktechweek.com. Blacktech Week is a week-long cultural celebration that highlights cutting-edge technologies and entrepreneurial innovation.