Six years ago, Morgan DeBaun created AFROTECH. It has quickly grown into a behemoth, becoming the largest Black tech conference of the year. This year, AFROTECH will take place in the booming tech hub of Austin, Texas. It will be the first in-person AFROTECH conference since 2019. DeBaun, who is also the founder and CEO of Blavity Inc., a leading digital media company focused on Black millennial culture, sat down to discuss this year’s AFROTECH conference. In this interview, DeBaun shares what she’s excited about, how they are making the conference more accessible, and why AFROTECH is a much-needed space for both tech talent and founders.
Janice Gassam Asare: Morgan, it’s wonderful to get a chance to chat with you. The AFROTECH Conference is just a few weeks away. What are you looking forward to, and can you speak a little bit more to the role that you are playing in the conference this year?
Morgan DeBaun: I’m really looking forward to everyone coming back in person and being able to see the progress that we’ve made as a community and celebrate the successes and the milestones. We’ve got unicorn AFROTECH founders, which is incredible. This is one of the first times that Black founders have been able to raise money at a valuation of over a billion, so we’re honoring people at our first inaugural awards dinner called…it is really to honor people and to have a formal place to sit down and really talk about the progress that we’ve made together and also the things that people are looking to do to continue to advance the technology space.
This year we’ve also added the music festival as a celebration and a bit of a gift to all of our attendees. We’re saying, we made it. Thank you for rocking with us in a metaverse experience, which is how we did AFROTECH these last two years. But then also a way to really have some time to kind of let loose and have fun and really network. One of the things that we’ve learned doing AFROTECH and building the AFROTECH community at large—it’s really a professional network for Black professionals, and how do we create more moments where people can have informal gatherings, informal meetings. It’s a little bit different than a traditional tech conference where most of the conversations are happening after the sessions end. We really design the experience to make sure that it’s a full, end-to-end, 360 moment for any of our attendees.
Asare: For an attendee who’s never been to AFROTECH, what can they expect and what do you think are the benefits? I know for some people may not have the financial resources to attend, so what do you think are some of the benefits with attending the conference?
DeBaun: We do our best to make sure that AFROTECH is accessible. We always give away at least 500 plus tickets as scholarships through our nonprofit. We also have events throughout the year for those that are more regional, in case the cost is more prohibitive and easier accessible when it’s in your city. The big event and the more festival vibe, I think the reason why it’s important for people to make that investment in themselves is it’s investing in your professional network. And many of these jobs are based off of referrals and warm introductions to companies and companies that you’ve been building a relationship with year over year and they’ve been tracking your progress. And so to me, it’s worth the investment to come to AFROTECH if you’re looking to get into tech or if you’re already in a tech role or working for a tech company, but you want to continue to advance and accelerate your career. Because you’re going to meet people and those are going to be the champions in the room when people are making decisions. And it’s really hard to do that virtually.
The other reason that AFROTECH is a really good investment for people, especially for the founders that are coming to AFROTECH, being a founder is really lonely…just any founder, Black, white, women, male, non-binary. It’s a really hard job and it’s a really tough journey, and AFROTECH is an opportunity for you to meet other founders who have similar experiences as you and build genuine relationships with them.
Asare: So, for the people who know about AFROTECH but don’t identify as Black, how do you think that they can take part in AFROTECH?
DeBaun: We design AFROTECH for the Black community and those who support Black advancement in professional spaces…that’s my target demo and that’s what we design for. And from the music, to the color scheme to the food at the food trucks, to the speakers, we are unapologetically Black all the way through. And what I’ve found is that it’s the coolest tech event that most people go to regardless of race. And so, if you want to learn and you want to hear a different perspective, a different approach to innovation, a different approach to technology, the conversations are technical. We don’t have conversations at a Black tech conference around, what’s it like to be Black in tech? You’re not going to see that in any of our panels, zero, because we’re all there because we are already progressive, so we’re going to talk about, should I be using Kubernetes in my code? Or, how do I become a director at my company? Or, how do I get on the board at this company? Or, how do I ace that interview? We’re trying to make sure that the learning and development that happens on site actually accelerates and doesn’t tokenize our own community.
Asare: I think it’s important to also outline how the tech industry itself can be very isolating, like you mentioned, not only founders, but for employees who work within tech. We see what’s happening at Twitter right now. What is one piece of advice that you could offer as employees navigate all of these different issues from the exclusion, to the racism, to the tokenization? Could you offer a piece of advice for maybe a young Black person in tech right now?
DeBaun: My advice for a young Black person in tech who is trying to feel safe and seen and just do their work and make cool things and make an impact with the work that they’re doing every day, is to work at companies who have actions, that they are doing inclusive work and they’re trying to build an inclusive workforce. If you look at some of the companies that are having challenges and you look at the leadership and then you look at the actions those companies have taken, it’s actually not that surprising. I know some of these companies are cool and the products that they have are interesting or the problems that they’re solving are really impactful. However, if you genuinely want to work at a place that sees you, respects you and will help you advance with your professional goals, then it’s important to look at the full package when you’re considering a job. If you’re already in a job and your kind of feeling a little bit discouraged, my recommendation is that you try to find an internal champion or a group of people who have exhibited that they care about accessibility and inclusivity and equity, which is different than inclusivity, equity within the workforce. And that’s something that we do workshops on at AFROTECH. It’s like, how do you find internal advocates at your company? How do you become an intrapreneur at your company? And how do you navigate difficult conversations and stand up for yourself when you need to?
Asare: Absolutely. I think that’s really great advice. Is there additional advice that you could offer for founders and people who started their own companies and who aren’t maybe experiencing the success that they thought they would when it comes to visibility or raising funds, besides building their community, which is an important part of what I think AFROTECH will bring. Is there any other advice that really helped you as you were building your businesses?
DeBaun: Yes. So many things. I think for the founders that I work with the most and that I speak with and mentor and advise who are deciding to go on this journey, my first question to them is, does it make sense for your company to be venture backed? And first, really having a clear understanding of the venture world before you embark on a journey that does have its own rules and its own vocabulary, and also has a lot of unspoken rules. Not every successful business had venture funding, and so although it’s trendy and it’s in the news and you’re seeing people raise hundreds of millions of dollars, make sure that you fully understand the venture community first before you embark on that journey. I think that there are successful founders that have not raised venture or, like myself, where I’ve raised a relatively small amount of venture for my industry, it’s large in the Black community, but it’s trivial in the media space.
You may see that people stop raising money, and there’s a reason for that. I try to tell people up front to make sure that you understand the industry that you’re embarking on. Now, if you make the decision to go do that, I’m here for it. My advice to those people [is], one, make sure that you understand the opportunity that you’re solving and how big it is, and then you got to work on your mindset. Typically, when I work with Black founders, it’s all about mindset. You’ve got to be the baddest in the room. You’ve got to make sure that you know your numbers. These people should be grateful to invest in your company, because you’re helping them out.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
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