Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, and the Afrotech conference draws some of the biggest names in tech to help fix it

Key Points
  • Afrotech, a tech conference held in Oakland, Calif., aims to help black professionals network with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.
  • More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the event, which runs Thursday through Sunday.
  • Microsoft, Amazon, Qualcomm and many more big names in tech will be on site for recruiting and discussions.
Morgan Debaun, co-founder of Afrotech and Blavity.

A bridge across the high tech opportunity gap reopens Thursday as Afrotech 2019 kicks off in Oakland, Calif.

More than 10,000 programmers, engineers, entrepreneurs and more are expected to attend the conference that features onsite interviews from companies like Amazon, Qualcomm and Bank of America.

"It's critical that black people are literate in tech and we reduce the digital divide," said Morgan Debaun, co-founder of Afrotech and co-founder and CEO of Blavity, a web site for black millennials, "People who are waiting for the world to change or tech companies to get more inclusive before they go into these environments, don't wait. There has never been a moment where more companies are focused on increasing diversity in their workforce. If you want to make an impact at scale, get into tech."

With panels like "Started from the Bottom, Now You're Here" named after a popular Drake song and "Black Girls Code," the conference is focused on making black techies feel included and empowered.

"The first time attendee is going to walk into the space and see themselves immediately reflected in every single person in the room," Debaun said.

It's an environment that Debaun said didn't exist when she began her career in tech at Intuit in San Francisco in 2013.

"I loved being in tech. I loved the idea of creating products at scale, building platforms that millions perhaps billions would interact with," Debaun said. "One of the things that was frustrating to me is that I felt very alone. I felt lonely going to work every day and then coming home because the community I lived in and the community I worked in did not reflect my interests."

Five years ago, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft released their first diversity reports. This year, Facebook said its workforce is 3.8% black compared to 2% in 2014. Google said 3.3% of its workforce is black compared to 2.4% in 2014. Apple reported 9% of its workforce was black in 2018 compared to 7% in 2014. Microsoft reported 4.1% of its workforce was black in 2018, a slight uptick from 3.7% in 2016.

While the percentages may have only increased slightly, Debaun said the companies have grown significantly, meaning the number of blacks being hired has increased steadily.

"These are real people, these are human beings making a lot of money. Could it be better? Yes. But I'm hopeful," Debaun said.

Afrotech will also feature networking and recruiting events for high demand candidates. This year, Debaun said Microsoft's VIP yacht party, American Airlines' "Innovation Mixer" and Square's happy hour are examples of companies making diversity a priority.

"I see how much time and energy and staff these companies have [at Afrotech]," Debaun said, "These companies want to change. Our goal is to make it easier for them to change."

Afrotech 2019 runs from Thursday to Sunday at the Oakland Convention Center.

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