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I can vividly recall being in high school circa 2002 and, while I wasn't a Steve Urkel kind of guy, every year I was taking a handful of advanced courses and running in circles that were as different as night and day. In fact, I was frequently the only black student in at least three out of my four core classes. Mind you, I was an athlete and on homecoming court, but I still had some quirkiness that I downplayed in certain surroundings. Fast-forward nearly fifteen years and the face of what it means to be black in America has drastically changed. The duality that has always been part of the African-American experience is now being explored and embraced. These days, it is cool to be a multifaceted person that loves learning, trap music, travel, and the occasional Sunday brunch.
What may be most interesting, however, is the current focus on blacks in the technological industry, a field that was only for the nerdy white kids two decades ago.
In 2016, Blavity, a technology and media company that embraces a more diverse black experience, hosted the first-ever AfroTech conference. As a meeting of influencers in the tech and startup communities, it focuses on creating more avenues for black success stories in entrepreneurship or fields connected to technology. Moreover, it is a movement that has begun to make the face of tech/startup culture more representative of the world we live in. The real question is, "What people, companies and organizations are pioneering this cultural shift by putting their monies where their mouths are as it relates to promoting diversity in the field of technology?" We've got answers.
Blavity | Founded in July 2014, Blavity has been working tirelessly to develop a more inclusive definition of what it means to be of African descent, both domestically and internationally. The investment of time and resources Blavity has made in AfroTech is a testament to its dedication to open up conversations about being black in America, a conversation that once was closed to those of us who would rather tinker with motherboards, code software, and develop elevator pitches than hoop and discuss reality TV. The cool thing about the blackness that Blavity presents is that it touches on multiple points on the spectrum of blackness, catering to the duality that black folks are born into. Blavity realized that its mere existence in the field of technological media was filling a gap and that shouldn't be the case. Therefore, as opposed to just writing about the void, it created something sustainable that would fill it. From a solid infrastructure to partnerships with some of the biggest companies in the world, Blavity is proving that creating change can be as simple as starting.
Facebook | While Facebook isn't black-owned, it did change the face of social media and many are unfamiliar with its recent efforts to make tech a more diverse field. Facebook's Global Director of Diversity, Maxine Williams, believes that, "Diversity helps us build better products, make better decisions and better serve our community." And the company's investment in events like AfroTech (or even having a position like a Global Director of Diversity) is its way of putting dollars behind their words. Between implementing the Diverse Slate Program, Managing Unconscious Bias classes and Facebook University, the company is closing the gap, slowly but surely. While the company is still overwhelmingly white, it has seen an uptick in underrepresented minority hires across racial and gender lines last year.
Moovn | Most American millennials who live in major metropolitan areas have a ride-hailing app (or two or three) on their devices. While the two largest ride-hailing apps serve as sponsors for the AfroTech conference, there is a newer black-owned ride-hailing service, Moovn, that is making waves. Though Uber and Lyft still have a considerable share of the market, the fact that self-taught(!) coder Godwin Gabriel was able to build and launch an app that has taken a share of the global market from behemoths of the app industry is evidence of the ingenuity of blacks in the tech field that America has overlooked for so long.
We Read Too | My whole life, I have been told that, in order to keep knowledge from black people, you put it in books. In other words, black people do not read. As is evident by the name, We Read Too, created in 2014 by Kaya Thomas, is here to dispel that falsehood. The app focuses on making it easier for black people to find books by black authors about black culture and lifestyles. While R.L. Stein's writing was fine, I was looking for books by Walter Dean Myers, too. I wanted to look at the pages and see representations that looked like me and my siblings and my parents. We Read Too provides that and more.
Entrepreneurs | Though it would take another article to highlight every entrepreneur who plays a role in Afrotech (both the conference and the movement), their collective impact is invaluable. The conference, though tech-centered, also has a strong startup component. You don't have to be a coder, an engineer, or a programmer to participate at Afrotech. You could just have a dream and know that, at some point, that dream is going to have to meet dollars to make sense. From sessions on how to develop the perfect pitch for a venture capitalist to general legal advice on protecting your brainchild, black entrepreneurs who want to see new black entrepreneurs succeed roll up their sleeves and immerse themselves in making Afrotech more than just a techie conference.
Making intentional efforts to diversify the field of technology, both internally and externally, speaks to the commitment that these companies have to the field. On a larger scale, it is indicative of a desire across progressive America to even out the playing field. I remember watching Family Matters growing up and, when I saw the robot Steve built, I disassociated his ingenuity from his blackness. I hope that the new era AfroTech ushers in changes so that when my kids are watching reruns of shows I thought were cool, they won't have the same limited stereotypical expectations of blackness that I did.
On 4:44, JAY-Z said, "We gon' start a society within a society / That's major, just like the Negro League / There was a time America wouldn't let us ball / Those times are now back, just now called Afro-tech." In short, whereas blacks were once kept out of the metaphorical and literal "Major Leagues," excellence in innovation within any field—be it athletics, the arts, business, or technology—will bring America knocking at our doorsteps to recruit our best and brightest. Whether we are talking about Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama, or Zim Ugochukwu, black people who take risks to be firsts to make a leap of faith are revolutionaries. AfroTech is the celebration of that revolutionary mindset and it celebrates by continuing to break down barriers.
Black history can never be forgotten, but the future of our Black America is something to be shed light on. Black culture's ownership of its leverage and economic impact in sports, film/television, fashion, and music is being unapologetically claimed. Get ready for the #NewBlackRenaissance.