On March 7th, I was informed that I had been given a chance to attend an all-expense paid trip to the SXSW conference. When my academic advisor told me about this opportunity, I was instantly curious. I’d like to think of myself as a well-versed college student. I’m usually the up-to date on everything from Trump’s latest Twitter rant to the most recent episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Unfortunately, I had never heard of the South by Southwest Conference. Upon much research and reflection, I came to the conclusion of two things.
Firstly, South by Southwest is a tremendous deal. Thousands of people from all over the world come to Austin, Texas to delve into a deep dialogue about all things tech.
Second, It wasn’t the most diverse conference, to say the least.
As a young, male HBCU student I’m always cognizant of my blackness. In every space I go to, I’m always reflecting on the questions of,
“Do I belong here?” and “Am I wanted?”
Nonetheless, I boarded the bus with an open mind ready to get the most I could out of the SXSW Experience. I went to the conference expense free because of sponsorship by HBCU at SXSW. The HBCU@SXSW initiative gathered 100 students from historically Black colleges and universities and immersed us into the SXSW experience. They paid for our travel, lodging, and even meals. On Friday, March 10th, myself and the other 100 students were welcomed by the HBCU at SXSW administrators and company sponsors. We heard a motivational speech from the HBCU@SXSW founder, heard from AOL co-founder Steve Case and were welcomed with open arms.
That evening we attended the MVMT50 Reception. This reception recognized the top ten national African-American innovators of 2016. The event consisted of complimentary beverages, snacks, and a DJ. Good energy exuded from people of black excellence as we filled the room with socializing, dancing and mixing. I appreciated this event because it felt genuine and comfortable. Sadly this was the last time I felt that way during my duration of my SXSW experience.
On Saturday, I went to a breakfast with the rest of my HBCU constituents. The breakfast was with representatives from company sponsors. I had the pleasure of meeting two recruiters and a VP of Sales at Pandora. I spoke to them as well as other company sponsors, and they all seemed to have one common thread within them, they all had a passion for diversity and inclusion. On the one hand, I appreciated the effort these employers took to look for diverse talent on another I questioned the authenticity of the effort. Were these recruiters deeply interested in finding qualified “diverse” candidates for their company? Or was this merely a check off of their “diversity” effort checklist? The rest of the itinerary for our day consisted of events such as: “Coding While Black,” “Building Inclusive Innovative Ecosystems” and a Google dinner.
While I appreciate the effort and intention of the HBCU@SXSW initiative, I feel like the execution should be reevaluated. The initiative did a great job on the diversity aspect of the experience but missed the ball on the inclusive side. Diversity is bringing people to the table; inclusion is ensuring that everyone can actually eat. In my honest assessment of the situation, I didn’t feel properly included into the entire SXSW experience and wanted to do something about it.
Every chance I could, I ventured away from the group in hopes of getting a real taste of SXSW. That evening I left the HBCU group and ventured off. Luckily I got to see my idol, Tim Ferriss who was doing a book signing at the Convention Center and I went to a Gatorade Pop Up shop which was by far one of the coolest things I had ever done, I went and visited the Dell Experience in the Sunset Room and had a blast. Every event I went to in my free time was fantastic, but one thing was clear to me:
“I’m one of the few black men here.”
I pondered why I had never heard of SXSW. I asked myself,
Why weren’t more black people here? Why weren’t they speaking? Why weren’t they represented?
During my free time at the SXSW events I went to, I never felt excluded or prejudged, but I did feel a sense of responsibility. I felt that I was responsible for raising awareness to the black community about SXSW. I felt that I needed to hold recruiters accountable when they would speak to HBCU students without doing real diversity and inclusive work. We all know the statistics of how people of color, women, and Latinos aren’t represented in tech. If you don’t check out Ronald Barba’s piece on tech diversity entitled, Blacks and Latinos Make Up 4 to 5 Percent of Tech Workforce. We can’t afford to not take opportunities like SXSW seriously as minorities. My intention with this piece is to bring awareness about my experience in hopes that future SXSW conferences are different.
I want to see more people of color, women, and minorities at SXSW. I want recruiters to actually want to connect with HBCU students with the aspiration of hiring them. I want more minorities to be speakers at SXSW, not just at “diversity” panels but all panels. I know plan to attend SXSW 2018; I hope that my time there will be more rich and diverse than my last.