First off, I’d like to start by saying, WOW! For anyone who was at AfroTech, you know exactly what that wow is for. I am incredibly humbled to have been part of an event that has seen exponential growth in the number of attendees year over year. To see that this 4th year iteration went from an event of just 650 people its first year, to 10,000+ people in the space of a few years, really highlights the importance of community and representation. Not only was I blown away by the sheer number of attendees, but to see that members of our technology community looked, sounded, and had shared experiences with me not only made me feel embraced by the technology community after nine years in it; seeing this everywhere I went at the conference also gave me hope and inspiration to continue to thrive. In my post, I will share my takeaway of the three most inspiring days of this year for me, and why I will return (hopefully as a speaker) to next year’s AfroTech Conference.
What can I say? Day 1 for me was as self-explanatory as it must have been for anyone who arrived on Thursday. We were all welcomed to the Oakland convention center and watched as streets were blocked off and the AfroTech team assembled the stage and outdoor activity areas for folks arriving. Upon entering the convention center, it began to dawn on me that this event would be enormous! The amount of outdoor space I had noted earlier, coupled with the early lines (that took me an hour to get through), made me realize that I was stepping into something that would starve my introverted self, but feed my extroverted parts (yippee, I sarcastically and nervously thought). As I stood in line waiting to check in as an attendee, I began to listen to folks around me talking about their expectation of the conference and what they were excited to gain, and surprisingly, I quickly realized that this was not just my first time, but the first for most of those around me. Taking comfort in this, I began to observe my surroundings, engage in chatter and saw that the lines were rapidly filling up with many strong, different, and beautiful Black men and women. As a Nigerian raised man and veteran fortunate enough to spend time back home during a deployment, I have never felt so immediately at ease with where I was and the people I was around than at AfroTech. Not only did I look around and see folks who looked like me, but I began to let my walls down to receive my surroundings and the people in it, and for the first time (outside of work—because Projectline is fantastically the best) I not only felt safe, but protected.
After getting my badge, I walked around the venue (which then seemed massive) to familiarize myself with the environment (true to my Army ways) and began making my way back to the outdoor area. I left the conference the first day feeling awed and excited.
Oh boy, oh man, oh boy was I excited to get to this conference! So excited that I left my hotel (20 minutes away) at 8 AM! Upon arriving, I was blown away by the mass of people who were in line to register, as well as folks who had already registered for the conference. I began to realize that this massive venue would quickly fill up with the multitudes of people I was surrounded by. Not only were the lines a mile long, but the convention center was already filled. As I made my way through the wave of people to the main stage, we were welcomed with an array of hip hop songs that I thought only lived on my playlist. As someone who has attended many events, conferences, panels, fishbowls and fireside chats, this was a first for me. I made my way to my seat, and began to interact with those around me, learning names, roles, companies, and flight plans (as one generally does when they are at an event to network).
Over the next few hours, my time was quickly filled with deep, meaningful introductions, conversations and sessions that were completely filled to capacity (so much so, we had to stand outside to listen). I was fortunate to attend a session entitled “Our Story Is Your Story: A Discussion on Unconventional Pathways to Creative Tech Roles” presented by Apple. As someone who has found himself in unconventional roles to fulfill a journey to where I am today and beyond, I was intrigued to hear what senior folks at Apple had to say about this. As I listened to Arem Duplessis, Stacey-Marie Ishmael, and Wyatt Mitchell talk about their career paths and the succession to their roles, I began to see myself in their story. Not just because their paths reminded me of mine, but because these were people who looked like me, sounded like me, and had a shared experience I could relate to. As employers we often think hiring for diversity is the answer to it all and we forget to hear and celebrate the stories of the folks we’ve hired in those positions. These stories are not only the secret sauce to diversity and inclusion, but are the easiest way to attract talent that wants to be hired! As the session closed, I made my way over to Wyatt for a conversation, and can tell you that in five minutes of talking to this man, I was given advice I will treasure for the rest of my life “Trust who you are, trust that you are smart, and in whatever you do remember that you got yourself where you are today …You. Are. Smart.” This message is so important for our Black community. Often we are bombarded with news and images that show us the opposite and we have a difficult time reminding ourselves that we are smart, we are strong, and we can trust ourselves.
You know, if this was any other event by the third day my introverted self would be crying for some alone time. But this was not any other event, this was AfroTech, and what I now refer to as Wakanda village in Oakland. So up I went, ready for the day and inspired by the sessions and after-hours parties of the day before.
It was Day 3 of AfroTech and the final day to interact and mingle with speakers. I attended every single session I could and, inspired by each one, I made sure to connect with the speakers! Not only was each session insightful and moving, but also informative and refreshing. As the event came to a close, I began to feel sad. I didn’t want this to end!
So, what happened you ask? Well, I began creating a plan to stop workplace discrimination and not only solve, but end the problems associated with diversity and inclusion. The end.
Alright, alright, I’m joking! Ish. I did create a plan centered around diversity and inclusion that I will be sharing with my coworkers and then our community. However, I started to truly reflect on the conversations I had with folks over those three days, and began to find a common thread and my takeaways from AfroTech 2019:
- Representation not only solves for diversity and inclusion, but lends a great deal to people’s well-being and feelings of safety about what they do.
- You cannot be expected to produce great work if you do not feel safe at work: as many of us know, when the human body feels unsafe or threatened, it retreats into its primal responses of fight or flight. As a leader of people, how can we possibly expect our folks to produce great work feeling one or the other?
- Inclusion needs diversity to truly succeed.
- Our story is your story.
With this in mind, I would like to challenge you all to not only carry the spirit of AfroTech everywhere you go, but strive to ensure that you truly understand what diversity means to the people it affects the most.
Thank you all for reading and see you at AfroTech 2020! Want to keep this conversation going in the meantime? Connect with me on LinkedIn.