Why technology, startup, entrepreneur, social media conference organizers cannot fix the lack diversity problem at their events.

October 22, 2010 — 19 Comments

Last week at this time I was in Las Vegas attending Blogworld Expo 2010. For Blogworld it was their fourth year and my second time attending. I had a great time meeting new friends and catching up with old ones while learning a few tips here and there. Blogworld markets itself as the world’s largest social media conference with over 3,000 attendees. Note, if you’re wondering about SXSW, SXSW is NOT a social media conference it’s an interactive tech conference with some social media sessions. During lunch on opening day at Blogworld I was sitting with a few friends and I looked around the room and noticed the lack of diversity. It’s something I’m sadly familiar with as I’ve been in the tech/web industry since 1994 but sometimes it’s just to depressing not to say anything about. Therefore without sounding like an angry mad black nerd I tweeted the following. “Standing out at @blogworld like a drop of oil in a cup of milk #bwe10 #justsayin

Standing out at @blogworld like a drop of oil in a cup milk #bwe10 #justsayinThu Oct 14 19:24:12 via Twitter for iPhone

Sorry, Blogworld Expo organizers (Rick, Dan, Deb, Chuck, Hadji and Chris) it was nothing targeted to you or the conference saying you did a bad job trying to diversity the event or that I felt unconformable. I was just stating the obvious but if you felt otherwise I apologize. After the tweet, a few individuals saw it and said they noticed the same thing and others started checking to see if I was ok, I was. Rick and I talked and had a brief conversation about how he has tried in the past two years to add more diversity to Blogworld and a few other options for next years event. Some of my white friends who didn’t even see the tweet mentioned how they even noticed the lack of diversity at the conference. But still that doesn’t mean there wasn’t no diversity at the event. Here’s a photo from the #kloutup with some of the Blogworld attendees.


photo by: amanichannel

While lately in the Silicon Valley there’s been some heated conversation around the lack of women in tech, I dare to say there’s much bigger problem in the web/tech industry and that is the lack of diversity in tech. But you won’t see that on to many main stream tech blogs outside of Blackweb 2.0 because there’s very few tech diversity writers and writing about diversity doesn’t pay the bills. J

There’s also a big diversity problem when it comes to entrepreneurship, innovation and launching web/tech startups. In a report earlier this year it stated that only 1% of Internet startups being founded where black and around 1% of black founded startups were getting funded. Add those numbers to the fact that most African-Americans are online are reading gossip blogs, making rap & booty videos and lead the nation in sending SMS there’s a big online culture problem that’s not getting better anytime soon. Also when it comes to who are the VC’s and investors in the web/tech space, let’s just say if there’s only 1% of internet startups who are minorities there’s an even smaller number who have capital to invest in future startups therefore we’re going to continue to see the same demographic that we’re currently seeing in the VC investor space.

sFund ....

Screenshot of the sFund announcement made on October 21, 2010.

The sFund is a new $250 million Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers initiative to invest in entrepreneurs inventing social applications and services — Amazon.com, Facebook, and Zynga, the leading companies defining today’s social and online environment; entertainment and media leaders Comcast and Liberty Media, and Allen & Company LLC, who have committed to invest in the sFund and serve as strategic partners

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that but as the report states, if you’re not white, you better come with your A game and a great team if you’re thinking about asking for VC or an angle investments from anyone in Palo Alto.

Venture Capital Human Capital Report (Part 1)

There’s also the whole, let’s add a rapper who likes technology to our conference and therefore we have the diversity situation solved. I’m not saying rappers, such as Chamillionaire, MC Hammer or Jermaine Dupri don’t belong at tech conferences or are not qualified because they are. But to only add artist that’s well known instead of doing research to find other willing and qualified monitory speakers in the tech/web space is a problem and some see it as disrespectful. Regardless as Chamillionaire stated in this post he should be participating in tech events for his career and the future of the music industry. But dear conference organizers, music artist do not represent the majority of who’s making ways in technology. Would you add Britney Spears to a women in tech panel just because she has a Twitter account? #justsayin Hmm, well don’t answer that.

Personally I’ve been what some have considered lucky to speak at over 60 meetups and conferences. In 2010 I’ve had my first two closing keynote talks and one more upcoming closing keynote panel. I have three more speaking events and I’m done for a long time. So, to the person who told @keyinfluencer they’re tired of seeing James Andrews and myself as the two black guys speaking the most at tech events, you don’t have to worry about me after November 18 as the Internet Summit is my last event.

With that being said here are my thoughts along with some feedback from others to why technology, entrepreneur, and social media conference organizers cannot fix the lack diversity problem. Note, I’m going to use the word “some” and “most” a few times because despite my experience the comments below do not apply to all races and/or minorities just what I’ve seen personally or heard from others.

  • There is a bigger culture problem offline
  • Racism exist and it’s not going anywhere or will be fixed any time soon.
  • The digital divide in terms of race, privilege, location and access is growing
  • “Most” African-Americans in the tech/web space don’t want to pay more than $100 if that to attend a conference
  • Minorities feel uncomfortable at events that are not directly targeted to or the focus
  • Minorities like to hold and host their own events where they have more control
  • African-Americans don’t fly as much as other races
  • If conference organizers add minorities to events just because of their race and not because of their work/value then others will be upset and it’s not fair to the attendees
  • Attitudes – I’ll leave it at that
  • Conference organizers don’t know who to ask or where to look for minority speakers
  • Minorities are not trying hard enough (including myself) to help educate others about entrepreneurship, social networks, web/tech startups and online technology
  • Overheard: “It’s a White’s man Internet, we’re just tweeting in it”

I think I had more but I’m getting depressed just thinking about it.

In 2009 while attending FOWA I had a chance to interview with Chris Messina who’s been a voice over the years noticing the lack of diversity at internet conferences and web startups. Chris provides some advice for both minorities and event organizers to overcome this problem.

If you have other solutions, please let me know in the comments

Wayne Sutton

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Wayne Sutton is a serial entrepreneur and general partner at BUILDUP.vc. Wayne has over 14 years experience in technology, design and business development. Wayne was recently recognized as one of the Silicon Valley 100 coolest people in tech, one of the 52 hottest new stars in Silicon Valley, one of the 46 Most Important African-Americans In Technology by Business Insider and one of the Top 100 most influential black people on social media in 2014.

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19 responses to Why technology, startup, entrepreneur, social media conference organizers cannot fix the lack diversity problem at their events.

  1. Good post Wayne. As the issue of female participation (speaking & attending) has been the hot topic lately, those of us who are Black women have been wondering the same thing as it comes to our race.

    It is the responsibility of the organizers to ensure their attendees hear and have access to the best possible presenters, and it is the responsibility of Blacks, Latins, Asians, women, the physically disabled and any other non-white men to pursue speaking engagements. It is a shared responsibility. Many will say, we can’t even get a foot in the door, and to them I say, start your own and don’t be dependent on anyone choosing you. As you know, BlogHer, Blogalicious, Latism and Blogging While Brown are examples of women and minorities taking their messages to their respective audiences because they couldn’t/wouldn’t be heard at mainstream conferences.

    • So true and thanks for the comment.

    • You know Shannon, I love the people who are throwing their weight behind conferences like those you mentioned. And I agree with not waiting until someone else invites you to be heard when you can simply build your own platform to stand up and shout from.

      But what bugs me is the “because they couldn’t/wouldn’t be heard at mainstream conferences” bit. Not sure how we’re ever going to get past the narrow-minded focus if the solution is to create a greater gap. I’ve been trying to find ways to bridge the gap and blend the communities that I currently have to straddle between “mainstream” conferences and “womens” conferences recently because I just don’t see that keeping them separate is actually helping us move forward. But that’s me speaking from the “geeky, tech-oriented, social media obsessed woman” camp. I don’t know if it applies to other under-represented demographics.

      Do you think that creating conferences that focus on ‘our respective audiences’ is the better solution? or do you think we ought to be storming the gates and helping the “mainstream” (dude, who is in that club?) to understand that if you want more women and ethnic minorities to show up for your event or to pitch your VCs or to buy your products? You need to start giving us something that appeals to us, too?

    • Are you saying that because the writers are mostly African-American?

        • Yes. Diversity happens within a larger group. So in the larger group of tech conferences, which are mostly white and male, diversity occurs when there are groups who are not white and not male. Also, neither race or gender are monolithic so there’s more diversity within specific racial and gender groups.

          Allow me to more directly answer your question: it’s not *just* about ethnic makeup, but it is about making sure that the web is represented by the people who are on it. Men, women, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, straight, gay — you name it. So it’s up to all of us.

          • Cjmodruson, Tampa FL December 11, 2010 at 6:52 am

            I wish I there were time to send alittle help to Susan Burcham & Ben Requena, Anderson’s guests for this segment tonight.
            I restored 2 Christmas music alba from 1958 that Susan Burcham & Ben Requena might like to use for their counter-protest, to help drown out the haters.
            They are now in the public domain.
            They are:
            -”Sing We Now of Christmas” Harry Simeone on 20th Century Fox Records, 1958.
            -”CHRISTMAS Sing-Along with Mitch” Mitch Miller on Columbia Records, 1958, CL 1205.
            I computer-cleaned the both LPs onto CD afew years ago, in 4 parts – 1 for each LP side – for a total of 75 minutes.
            I also have all the printed lyrics, ready to send, so their congregation could play music and easily sing along . . .
            Together, they would easily cover the noise of hate with traditional Carols of the Season, replete with all appropriate Bible-verse transitions of Love, Hope, and Salvation.

    • This is not a semantic issue. We are talking about 11% of the total population being less that 1% of attendees and speakers at the conference. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s stating the obvious. And let me share an antedote with you on the importance of how one’s own culture plays in determining “any’ interest. When you examine African American’s influence in creating America’s “only true art Forms” you see it’s, Jazz, Gospel, Blues, and Hip Hop and yes, early Rock-n-roll music. Meaning…all other forms of music from Classical, Opera, Bagpipe came from some where else. Point being..when ever African American are exposed to different industries….we often expand on it in new and different ways that benefit all of us as Americans. All it takes it people like you to open your ears.

  2. Wayne, good post. As a conference organizer this is something we struggle with and I’m glad to see it discussed. In terms of content, obviously the more diverse your content is, the better. Not just from a race/sex standpoint, but also having speakers from diverse backgrounds and expertise.

    We’ve tried to address this in several ways, but have yet to find a magic formula:
    1. ignoring race/sex for all speakers and just try to find the best speakers you can – This was our method for years until we looked up at one particular conference to see nothing but white dudes. We knew right away this wasn’t the answer and we better at least pay attention to what we were doing

    2. telling PR firms that represent major brands that we have a preference for minority speakers when available – we’ve had 0 success with this

    3. spending a good bit of time researching potential speakers who fit the profile and connecting with them directly – this seems like the logical solution, but we have not had the success you would hope. Perhaps it that these easy-to-find speakers are overwhelmed with requests

    At the end of the day, I don’t think there is a silver bullet. Its a process of trying to be as open as possible to all people and to be aware that we as conference organizers should be doing more, and to work towards that goal.

    Lastly, wayne sutton not speaking anymore?? I’ll believe it when i see it

  3. The two things I would point out:
    1. most of the reasons you cite are endemic to the minorities, NOT the conference or the internet.
    2. the other part of that, is less a minority issue and more an economic one.- unless your company sent you, I dare say most of the attendees were above a certain income line yes?

  4. “So, to the person who told @keyinfluencer they’re tired of seeing James Andrews and myself as the two black guys speaking the most at tech events, you don’t have to worry about me after November 18 as the Internet Summit is my last event.”

    Wow. While that’s sad to hear, I completely understand the reasoning behind it. While I think it’s important for conferences and tech events to try and include more racial and gender diversity, I agree with where Shannon is coming from. A lot of us aren’t waiting to get chosen or picked or trying to break through; we’re creating our own spaces and places. As much as I would love for us all to be at the same table, the outreach from the “mainstream” community is simply not there. And many of us are busy building our own empires and not waiting to be invited to the table.

  5. “So, to the person who told @keyinfluencer they’re tired of seeing James Andrews and myself as the two black guys speaking the most at tech events, you don’t have to worry about me after November 18 as the Internet Summit is my last event”

    You have no idea how sad I am to read that and how much I hope it isn’t true. I listen to you because you are insightful, bright, witty, and informative. If you do stop speaking at events? It’s the audiences’ loss.

    Funny thing Wayne – I was telling my husband about this as I read it and before I commented. Only I had to give him a background on it first, as in all of the times I have mentioned you previously? (Dude, that’s a lot, from the time we were on the same panel at Chicks Who Click, to the SMBF, to 2 BlogWorlds now and more.) I have never brought up your ethnicity. Never occurred to me that it was relevant. Then I had to do the same for Shannon – but I started it by saying “you remember my friend Shannon Renee who was the first person I ever met from Twitter? You know, the one I went to have coffee with and told you to call me just in case she was crazy and I ended up spending 6 hours with her that first time?”

    Now, I think maybe I’ve been guilty of an oversight. I would invite either of you (or both) to speak at an event because you are both intelligent, experienced, and interesting – but not because I was trying to make sure that I was getting a diverse enough roster. And you are making me think twice here. I know a number of women don’t spend their carefully budgeted conference dollars at ‘mainstream events’ because they get tired of being under-represented as speakers and would rather support a conference that doesn’t ignore them as a powerful demographic. I also have many friends who speak at and attend ethnicity-focused events like those Shannon mentioned but eschew the bigger conferences because they feel like they aren’t the target market for those and only have so much time & money to devote to conferences & travel.

    I just think that we can change this only by continuously fighting to do so. I have to – because otherwise my daughter grows up in a world where women are still “under-represented” even when they aren’t under-skilled… where racial diversity has devolved into racial separatism… where we (the generations before hers) gave up and said “those people who think that they need to bring in less-qualified speakers/entrepreneurs/executives/fill-in-the-blank simply to have someone who they can say represents diversity instead of realizing that there are *equally qualified* people who reflect those demographics and aren’t just token anythings? They win.”

    I will say that I am sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together at BWE – and if you aren’t speaking at events any more? That just means I need to get to NC more often. But I certainly hope this proves to be one of those posts which you have to look back on and say ‘I was wrong about not speaking anymore.’

    Meanwhile, expect to see me working harder to get women recognized as worthy keynote speakers, CEOs, politicians, leaders and innovators – because I’m done with the status quo on that front. Oh, and if you are done with the speaking thing? I certainly hope you mentor a TON of tomorrow’s speakers. You have a lot to share with them.

    • p.s. went back digging (see? I don’t read blog posts regularly enough) and see that your post about stopping your grueling speaker circuit was prompted by more positive events. Still hope that you aren’t gone for good and still hope that this post about diversity will some day be obsolete as well.

  6. I did not attend the opening lunch but I was sitting in the hallways. Conference attendees were VERY diverse especially for a conference of this type. As far as attending that lunch or any other activities the first day, the price difference was about $300 for the full conference vs. the weekend pass which is why I was not at that lunch and didn’t attend anything the first day. There were a lot of folks in the hallways with me. While I believe the attendance was diverse, the speakers were a little less diverse ethnically but did seem to include a lot of women.

  7. Wow, first, let me say, thanks to Lucretia M Pruitt for sharing this via twitter (I’m a new follower!) After a reading this post I came to quite a few realizations. As a mother, PR professional and new “mom” blogger (or at least attempting to be one) often times those worlds don’t mesh, meaning what I learn at work doesn’t always make it home. Now sometimes that can be a good thing, but in this case its a serious faux paux on my part. While I am no where near as versed in tech/web as many of you are, the info I learn on a day to day basis is plenty for my 13yr old son. And there my friends lies the problem.

    As a young African American mother of three, I can shamefully and regretfully say the issue is not just at conferences or in these respective fields its in homes everywhere. We cant expect African American (only group I can inteligently speak on) representation at these events, if these are not the types of things we are grooming and exposing our kids to. I dont think that its that it is less important in AA households, but quite frankly, the struggles are different. As a mother I want my children to succeed, I want them to be exposed to opportunities and experiences beyond those that I was exposed to.

    However the issue about not having diversity in these conferences begins partially with the idea that the small percentage of AA participants, whether conciously or subconciously often, dont share the wealth.

    Additionally, many AA communities arent exposed to the information. As mentioned many read the gossip, fashion or sports blogs and arent really sure what a blog is. Sad but true. We glorify, sports and entertainment as a community, when we should glorify “substanitive” careers (no offense to athletes or entertainers.) We must fight to get programs that explore these initiatives in schools, there should be afterschool and weekend programs affordable and available in our communities. I should see free standing signs on every corner promoting these programs as I do for football, baseball ect. Parents need to write letters showing their concern instead of fighting over calls at pop warner games.

    While we as AA’s must take some of the blame I must say event organizers must play their part as well. Do research, defy normal procedures in seeking speakers, they’re out there. Sometimes we have to open an oyster to find a pearl.

    I’m guilty of being one of the AA’s who dont attend these conferences not out of lack of info or intrest but, often because Im not as connected as I should be so I find out too late to pay for and attend. I must do better.

    So, Ive never had the pleasure of hearing any of you “drop Jewls” of the industry and Mr. Sutton from the comments (of which I read all), I truely missed out. However, I would like to propose a challenge. If you have reached your personal/professional limit for speaking engagements, why not share your info with those who may never otherwise have access to you or any other person of your calliber? Go into these communities make it the “in” thing. Encourage your colleauges to do the same. I wish there was a program I could take my son to. We can talk, now lets make moves. If your concerns are deeply rooted, I would love to help with this effort. I cant stand by, watch and point the finger if I do nothing to help solve the problem.

    Thank you for this thougth provoking post. I intend to share with everyone I know. Well done.

  8. I agree with some of what you have to say. I think there are many entrepreneurs, regardless of race, who are mystified and or upset how some seemingly clueless founders with weak businesses get funded (sometimes over and over again) when they do not.

    My experience of the valley after 15 years here is that if you have a plausible way of making money, someone will give you a shot (perhaps not at the valuation you would like), but it’s there money so …

    We’ll see how I feel after our current fund-raising effort however.

    I’ve been thinking seriously about putting together a professional organization for serious tech professionals and entrepreneurs to provide networking and mentoring for those who want to break into technology and entrepreneurship. What do you think?

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