OoTheNigerian

sometimes, I make a lot of sense.

Why Aren’t Black Tech Founders And Executives, Speakers at Major Tech Conferences?

15 October 2015 by Oo Nwoye

From Left: Aston, Bilikiss, Obi, Juliana, Iyin

From Left: Aston, Bilikiss, Obi, Juliana, Iyin

As with any blog post on race, I have to include a prelude.

This post is neither meant to be combative nor to apportion any blame. It is merely to add to a continuous conversation about diversity in technology. This post is MY OWN observation made on behalf of MYSELF. If any statement here can be interpreted in more than one way, assume the less combative way and / or ask me for clarification.

I actually wanted to write this over a year ago. However, I had been advised about the risk of branding myself as a diversity activist rather than being primarily known as a technology person. And most importantly, to avoid the risk of pissing off the people who control the tech media. But there is only so long you can postpone a question that pops up in your brain daily. As for the risk, we are in the business of risk taking. 😉

Here is the issue

There are almost zero black faces speaking at the major tech startup conferences held in the US and Europe. And in the rare times they do pop up, e dey get k-leg (basically, it isn’t so straightforward).

Let’s check out the numbers of the most recent major/popular tech events (you can google for previous years).

Numbers are objective!

Conference Total Number of Speakers Number of Black Speakers Percentage of Black Speakers Notes
Disrupt SF 2015 83 3 4% Footballer, Snoop Dogg, Music Agent
Recode 2015 28 2 7% Movie Director, Lucious Lyon!
Disrupt London 2014 54 0 0% Thierry Henry is 1 of 20 this year
Le Web 2014 90 0 0% It happens.
Launch Festival 2015 71 7 10% The best I’ve come across. Nice one Jason.
The Next Web Europe 2015 53 0 0% :/

What you will notice is that in the rare times the black (wo)man is on stage, it somehow manages not to be those who are primarily in the tech field but say, in entertainment or sports. When it’s a tech person, s/he is mostly talking about diversity.

Here is the thing. This past year, I have personally emailed a few of these organizers to highlight the anomaly (no, I will not mention them). I have also recommended speakers. The responses (if they come) have not been positive.

Why are Black Speakers Important?

The Pattern Matching Loop.

When you make a decision based on historical data, you are bound to be biased by the data and produce a similar output. That becomes part of the data set and it continues…in a loop.

When tech black founders aren’t seen on stage (aka recognized as leaders in their field), fewer black kids would believe they have a future to excel in that field. The less black kids go into tech, the lower the chance the situation can change. Of course, that bias does not only influence the future black kids, it affects those looking for a co-founder, those looking for whom to fund etc.

I never blame those that pattern match; it is simply human nature.

Let me confess, if I have a few seconds to make a decision, I would not choose someone that looks like Jamie Oliver to make my jollof rice (don’t read the comments :)).

While it can be argued that food, music and some sports are cultural and therefore could have an inherent racial bias, tech isn’t.

5 years ago, I asked for the renowned black founders. While, there has been a lot of progress in that field since then, it has been against the odds.

The about pages and the speaker list of the tech conferences would have more influence on getting more diverse people into the technology field than any other thing I can think of. I know from first hand experience.

Here are some Black Founders and Technologists that should not be overlooked.

Clockwise from Top Left: Sim, Louise, Anthony, Tony

Clockwise from Top Left: Sim, Louise, Anthony, Tony

First, I have to apologize for putting their names here. Because there is this taint that comes from being used as an example. When they get justifiable noticed, it becomes, “oh, they are there to fill in a quota”. But that could not be further from the truth. These folks deserve to be on the largest stages and are needed to correct the flawed data that say none of the best  happen not to be black.

  1. Sim Shagaya (Harvard MBA, first Google Rep for Africa) is building a Nigerian e-commerce giant. Has arguably tamed the German Moving Train known as Rocket Internet’s Jumia with Konga. Raised $78 Million
  2. Iyin Aboyeji (University of Waterloo). At 24 he has finally got his stride in his 3rd tech startup and has co-founded Andela, the mill to churn out the next 100k technologists in Africa. Recently raised $10 million.
  3. Bilikiss Adebiyi (MIT). Using technology to help take away waste while making wealth and helping Lagos go green. Oh! She happens to be Black, Nigerian and Muslim.
  4. Obi Nwosu is co-founder and CTO at a top UK based BitCoin Exchange in the UK called CoinFloor. Doesn’t get more tech than that.

There are many more. However, let me not be accused of being biased towards Nigerians home and abroad. But Charity begins at home 🙂

Aston Motes was the first employee at Dropbox outside the founders. I do not recollect him being on any stage. He cannot be seen as a quota at any conference. And no, he is not a diversity expert.

Juliana Rotich of the BRCK team should be on every stage possible. BRCK is globally genius and should get much more love than it does.

Tony Gauda a TC Disrupt Finalist build Bitcasa, a Dropbox alternative. He is very qualified to be on any stage talking tech. And so is Anthony Skinner who was the CTO of Moz for many years, especially during their major technology transition. Louise, Kalam and Courtland are some of the black YC alums that are doing stuff as good as those speaking on any stage. So the question of affirmative action does not arise.

BTW, it took me 3 years to know that 2 Nigerian brothers founded a YC coy as far back as 2012. They just never happened to be on any major stage

Like I said above, I actually emailed a tech publication about their speaker lineup after one of their writeups criticizing the tech companies who had released their diversity reports. I didn’t get a response.

I am certain that there isn’t any conspiracy to deny black people in tech stage presence but it is quite easy to take certain things for granted if you are not checking yourself. One example I use to show there is no deliberate plan by white people is one of the quietly best podcasts on tech around, DRT. Only two black people out of the 104 guests so far and the first was number 99. Well, the host is a black british designer 😉

So how do we solve this?

To Affirm or Not to Affirm?

The biggest criticism of affirmative action is that it gives the impression that those who get in are not there based on their competence. Anyone who knows they are worthy on a level playing ground hates it. It is why I apologise to those people I named above. It would seem that they ordinarily would not qualify. That could not be further from the truth based on pedigree and results.

To me, I have started trying to see affirmative action as being more thorough and conscious. Instead of doing a quick Googling to see who to invite to the next conference, spend more time, go more further to find different types of people that QUALIFY to be on your stage. It is that simple!

I also think having a more diverse staff/speaker selectors at the disposal of those organizing tech events would help. People are quick to go for what and whom they know.

Though I fully respect and understand the need for minority focused events, I do not think it alone can help. We belong in the mainstream.

What finally triggered publishing this post (I wrote most of it a month ago) was the latest speaker announced for TC Disrupt London. When I finalized the draft for this post, they had 0 black people and I noted that there was still a chance to rectify it.

Then they chose Henry of Arsenal.

Please rectify.

PS: I hope because of this, I’m not punished covertly or overtly by the conference organizers I appear to criticize. This is to keep an important conversation going with good intention.

#OneLove

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PPS: Forgive typos. I just don’t see them. Thanks to Emmanuel, Banke and Sheriff for helping reduce them.

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I am a founder of Fonebase Labs, a Nigerian technology company. Our products are Fonenode - a telephony API, Callbase , a virtual contact center and WriteRack the best way to tweetstorm. Feel free to holla at me (ositanwoye@gmail) if need be.

12 comments | Categories: Commentary, Startups, Technology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

  • …it happens. LOL!

  • Nnanna

    I don’t think the conferences matter that much (if at all) . On the list of things to worry about regarding diversity, this would not be in my top 1,000

    • I don’t think it is just about the conferences themselves as events but the overall signal. It perpetuates the insignificance of minorities and other stereotypes

      • Nnanna

        I guess another data point is not a bad thing. I do have a personal, umm shall I say, lack of respect for the usefulness of tech conferences in general.

  • Kayode Muyibi

    Do they want to speak? Do they have the freedom to share useful non repetitive narrative of their story during the struggle ?

    There is not much public information about this “Black Founders”, because they made a conscious choice to keep their story private. Their interviews for example usually would contain very limited information, usually carefully crafted details of things you would have already read somewhere.

    Black Founders are vulnerable as it is; there is this much they are willing to talk about and they are conscious of the consequences of exposing their weakness during the struggle.

    If conferences were PR platforms to talk about news. Many Blacks would be speaking everywhere, but its much more than that. You have to be willing to share much more than just news and make a conscious effort to get on different platforms to do so.

  • Kayode Muyibi have you worked in PR for any of the top tech companies in Nigeria? …LOL

    Your answer is the most perfect one I have come across for this topic.

    I have had the opportunity to work in PR at iROKO, Konga and now at eTranzact, and I can tell you that apart from Jason, there are few Nigerian speakers at disruptive tech companies that want to speak, In fact as a PR person, you can get fired for telling your CEO to speak at one of these major events.

    The CEOs would actually rather get a VP or Director within the company to speak. e,g Konga– Kunle Oguneye spoke at Webdaggarna 2014 in Stockholm–> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gi81-AOZTk and other speakers at different events.

    Some of the CEOs you mentioned @Oo are amazing at articulating the problem, the struggles and the solutions, but they would rather stick to speaking to their employees/managers than to the outside world.

    The reality is that speaking at such International conferences is extremely important for positioning the company, closing bigger financial rounds, etc, but sometimes it takes a “white” PR person to tell the CEO before they listen. Oh well, let me shut up now.

    • What a coincidence that only the blacks don’t want to speak at conferences. 😉

      Anyway, from observation, I see them spending time speaking at lots of conferences and events. Just not the majors. I very much doubt it is as a result of they turning it down. e.g Sim has spoken at many places. He can never have time to do all.

    • Kayode Muyibi

      Just watched the talk. Properly captures my argument about our story telling. Did you learn something new?

      I did, but just because he mentioned it subtly, and I have interest in enterprise software.They use inRiver & Viamo for software and Star Republic for project management. Something probably very relevant to the local community.

      Beyond that, he hardly talked about Konga and the market and the dynamics in detail !!

    • To answer this and accurate Kayode’s assertion, it also depends on the quality of events. You can get invited to 1000 events in a year just because of one article and 999 of them are a waste of your time. Even the 1 that is useful is not really of much relevance to you financially.

      I was invited to a panel discussion at a UK university on “African Business” recently and it occurred to me that not everyone around with me was there to share any knowledge. It was because of cheap publicity and plugs. Same thing that plagues all the prolific TedX events.

      If the media is already doing a good job at misdirection and publicity, why should I go out to publicly expose my business and myself? Jason is in the entertainment industry. It is important for him to be in the news. He however goes beyond the news and provides substance. People like him are rare.

      The original subject of this has to do with some of those supposedly “quality events” and why Black founders don’t make the list. The answer may be simpler than we think and it is “Signal”.

      Conference organizers are not altruistic. They are business people. They are also in competition with each other. There is also a struggle for relevance as more and more of the “tech celebrities” have their own platform to talk and be heard.

      For them to land “bigger and better” speakers, they have to show that “bigger and better speakers” usually come to their events. Then there is the audience. One of the most painful realizations and why I stopped going to foreign events was that attendees had absolutely no clue of what was happening in Africa and couldn’t be bothered. The burden was always on me to educate.

      I believe the burden is on us to create our own greatness. our own platforms and our own conferences that become World famous. The burden is not on anyone to accept or recognize us. It starts from doing serious events locally. Not scams or shams.

  • Jason Calacanis is the only one who takes diversity seriously, sadly