AfroTech, an annual tech conference put on by Blavity, brings together Black tech enthusiasts from coast to coast for a grand meetup and networking event. It was my first rodeo at this four-day tech bash in Austin, Texas, and the excitement was pouring out as I stood in line waiting for my badge.

The conference took place at the Austin Convention Center downtown, with additional events happening at venues such as the Hilton and Fairmont. The vibe was set for a mix of connecting, soaking up knowledge, and whatever surprises the conference had up its sleeve.

AfroTech is a true game-changer, according to attendees

The moment you step into the conference, a wave of ease comes over you, almost like an instant recognition that you’ve entered a safe space of a community that looks like you. I caught up with attendee Chinonso Onyechi to expand on this sentiment, and here’s what he had to share:

“Tech conferences like AfroTech are true game-changers for us. AfroTech offers a unique platform for Black professionals to connect, network, and support each other as we strive to reach new heights in the tech space. I firmly believe that proximity is everything, and AfroTech delivers that twofold – not just proximity to some of the top tech companies, but also to individuals who share common aspirations and struggles. Additionally, the representation of Black entrepreneurs on panels is incredibly inspiring and pushes us all to be better. It’s a dynamic space where we can find our community and supercharge our ambitions.”

The kickoff days were all about diving into workshops and checking out the company expo, laying the groundwork for a packed schedule. As the event rolled on, the vibe shifted to music performances and networking sessions.

The conference had its own app, which was another game-changer. It gave us a breakdown of the entire schedule and let us bookmark our favorite events, making it a breeze to pick workshops tailored to our industry or career path. What I loved was the real-time updates, workshops starting right on the dot, and the app keeping us in the know.

Plus, a live feed and chat feature allowed us to connect with other attendees, drop LinkedIn profiles and get the scoop on different events.

Blockchain, AI, NFTs, and ETH were all on the table

Judging by the conference lineup, it was crystal clear that the buzz shifted from blockchain to AI technology. That was no big surprise given the current vibe in the bear market and the rollercoaster ride of NFTs — although, shout-out to ETH for making a comeback, woohoo!

Despite that, I managed to catch the career panel hosted by the Metaverse employees at Meta. They provided insight for diving into the metaverse industry, shared pro tips on networking, staying in the loop with the latest industry happenings, and discussed how their unique backgrounds paved the way for their successes.

Another standout was the panel by Trey McDonald, co-founder behind Lockverse, a Web3 platform for athletes and creatives. Lockverse is all about empowering creatives and athletes to connect with their audience while cashing in on the action. The panel delved into how blockchain technology is reshaping the game, which allows athletes and creators to craft their narratives, build thriving online communities and rake in an income that’s truly theirs to own.

AI takes centerstage

The rest of the workshops that captured my attention got into the impact of AI across diverse sectors, spanning from health to sports and fitness. A standout session was led by the renowned super-producer Timbaland. He peeled back the layers of the prevailing fear surrounding AI technology and emphasized that it’s merely a tool – its effectiveness is based on the quality of input and the person wielding it.

Another engaging workshop spotlighted the impending role of AI in the film industry. I had the chance to connect directly with the speaker, Anatola Araba, whose film dives into the biases inherent in AI. I took the opportunity to pick her brain on strategies to combat these biases, and she shared her insights, saying “We need so many voices and perspectives in the data that is used to train the AI systems, but we also need all of us to be behind the systems and understand how they work and create them, so it’s not in the hands of the elite few.”

I was also able to ask her about the status of Web3. She said, “There has been so much in the news surrounding the rise and lack of mention of NFTs, but what I think will continue to stay is the idea of decentralization and ownership. People are wondering how AI will impact artists and actors, and what will help us is if we can own our image… so decentralization and AI should go hand in hand.”

My goal for the conference was to dive into workshops on Web3, AI, and the latest tech trends, hoping to gain insights into the trajectory of these technologies. To my surprise, the experience surpassed my expectations.

Companies seek out Black talent

The workshops were not only informative and engaging, but there was also an entire expo hall buzzing with companies actively seeking to connect with and hire Black talent. Adding to the excitement was the launch of their cutting-edge platform, Talent Infusion, where attendees could showcase their resumes and get matched with companies aligning with their skills and interests.

Curious about the significance of companies participating in such events, I caught up with Zuri Godfrey from Google and got his take on the matter.

“AfroTech and similar conferences are immensely important to employing Black talent in the tech industry as they are melting pots of diverse, nontechnical and technical tastemakers who can drive tech businesses forward. Without said conferences, tech companies wouldn’t be able to engage with a wide variety of talent at scale, with speed, in person.”

There is a huge obstacle many Black people face when it comes to getting into tech and moving up in the ranks, so having these spaces where we are allowed to connect with the recruiter directly is important.

Issa Rae headlines the Women’s Summit at AfroTech

The headliner for the conference? None other than Issa Rae, and let me tell you, the room was hyped with excitement as everyone eagerly awaited her wisdom. Now, some folks were scratching their heads, wondering why they brought in an entertainment powerhouse for a tech gig. You know, the usual suspicion that high-profile speakers are just there to draw a crowd.

But Issa’s journey as a business owner spoke volumes and then some. She had a standout moment when she dropped some truth bombs about always questioning your path – why you’re in it, why you got picked for it and what you’d be up to if this wasn’t your thing. That nugget had a bunch of us taking a serious dive into our purpose and plotting out the next steps.

And then there’s the ownership talk, a hot topic over the tech weekend. Issa laid it out there and admitted her HBO collab doesn’t give her the ownership she craves. She’s on a mission for that next level and figuring out how to truly own her work down the road.

Rick Ross, Saweetie and DJ Spinderella take the stage

Once the educational part of the conference wrapped up, we shifted gears to the official music stage bash, and let me tell you, it went down at a local park. It felt like the biggest backyard cookout ever, complete with all the good stuff – activations, food trucks, drinks and a ton of line-dancing action.

Picture performances by heavyweights like Saweetie and Rick Ross with the beats brought to you by none other than DJ Spinderella. And they didn’t stop there; they threw in brunches, happy hours and late-night jams to celebrate 50 years of hip hop featuring the one and only Jadakiss.

What I love most is how the conference doesn’t just keep it serious with the learning and networking. It throws in a good dose of our culture.

What’s next for AfroTech 2024?

Since the conclusion of the conference, there has been a lot of discourse around the value and setup of the experience. Attendee Ashley Evangelista stated, “I wish there was more of an emphasis on learning, hands-on workshops or in-depth panels that discussed the nuances of AI.”

Another attendee, Gabe Williams, stated, “There were negative comments regarding the conference, but I think it’s what you make it. Having direct connections with recruiters and companies who want to hire Black talent? You can’t beat those connections.”

Blavity heard all of these complaints, and their founder Morgan DeBaun made a statement, “As we plan for next year, just know, we heard you! In 2024, look forward to larger stage sizes, more founder conversations, tech deep dives and a lower entry price starting at $250. We move fast with feedback, and new growth always presents new opportunities!” I love that the company is not only open to criticism, but is moving swiftly to make those changes.

The conference matched the investment based on the connections you were able to make in the room. I am excited to see more educational workshops that they plan to implement, and I can’t wait to attend next year in Houston.