A few weeks ago, I headed to the 2nd annual AfroTech conference in San Francisco, a conference dedicated to highlighting Black excellence in technology.
I decided that there would be few opportunities I would have to be in a room full of Black people in the tech world and wanted to see what all of the buzz was about.
Overall, it was a well-organized event. I was told the 1st year had 600 attendees and that this year it exploded to over 2,000 creating some growing pains, but nothing that was unreasonable. With three different tracks, one focusing on entrepreneurship, a second on marketing and a third on engineering, there was opportunity for everyone to break out into segments that were catered to what they were focused on. I spent most of my time over the two days in the entrepreneurship track which had speakers giving some really candid (curse words included) details on what the grind of growing a start-up looks like. Everything from best strategies to gain investment for your business, when/if a business should take an investment, turning an idea into a product, how to build a team, and common pitfalls to watch out for when building a business were covered.
Many of the topics aren’t anything that you wouldn’t find from many other tech or simply small business conferences or wouldn’t be able to find from a Google search. But this came from a Black lens, which created a more nuanced conversation about each of the topics and this also allowed for audience members to share some of their challenges and get feedback from seasoned panelists and speakers that looked like them.
The best part of the entire event for me was both days ending with the pitch competitions. The contest allowed ten businesses to pitch their business to the entire conference audience and three panel judges, with the chance to win mentorship and a $10,000 investment. Day one saw ten start-ups give 5-minute presentations in the semi-finals. I appreciate the art of pitch contests and deeply respect how hard it is to nail your presentation and tell a story about your business that’s engaging but not gimmicky, and detailed yet brief. Four teams made the finals, including my favourite which was Swivel Beauty (I’ve seen the first hand struggles of Black women trying to find good, reliable, on-time hair stylists, so I’m definitely biased here as I think there’s still a massive business opportunity to be tackled here), but a credit repair software platform took home the crown. A great summary of the contest is here, but overall a lot of very deserving teams and some cool businesses.
Best tip I got: Use your own advantages to create opportunities. Example used was Uber having a feature to assist deaf drivers. Little did Uber know that by addressing the needs of one group, they were unknowingly assisting another group which turned out to be immigrant drivers. Immigrant drivers would turn on this feature to avoid the discomfort of having to speak to customers when they were not confident in their English.
I left Afrotech with some added motivation and inspiration. A room full of Black excellence in a space that has seen far too few faces of colour is refreshing and helped me make some new friends and possible future business partners that I can reach out to in those moments when it can feel lonely in the tech world. I’d definitely recommend some other Black Canadian techies to consider the trek to California next year.