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

October 22, 2010

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.

DSC04739

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.