Seven years ago, Morgan DeBaun left her job in Silicon Valley to help create Blavity, a news and events company geared toward Black millennials.
The name comes from the concept of "Black gravity"— the force that pulls people of color toward each other in predominantly white spaces — and it's intended to reflect the very voices she saw excluded in her tech job.
Over the years Blavity has become an influential voice, birthing AfroTech, a conference that it calls the largest for Black founders and creators, and acquiring travel startup TravelNoire in 2017.
On Saturday, Blavity will host its inaugural AfroTech Executive in Los Angeles. DeBaun, the company's CEO, sees the gathering of dozens of venture capitalists and founders as means to build ideas among leaders who share a collective consciousness about race. It can also help build a network of Black executives so they can get into decision making positions at some of the most powerful tech companies.
Founder and CEO of The Plug Sherrell Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Reddit Steve Huffman, co-founder and CEO of Squire Technologies Songe Laron are among those slated to speak.
DeBaun thinks that coming together is a powerful force, especially after 18 difficult months. At the start of the pandemic, Blavity asked employees to take a 30% pay cut and shut down the Los Angeles office in anticipation of falling revenue. Then came the killing of George Floyd. It took a mental toll on staff but also gave her mission ever more urgency.
The company, which has since secured $12 million in venture funds, has bounced back. And the remote work experience made her realize that the arrangement made sense for employees who had to take care of children or parents.
How did AfroTech Executive evolve? And why did you feel it was needed?
AfroTech has been such a fruitful conference and brand for bringing together incredible Black tech innovators, we knew we wanted to continue to expand into different segments of our community to provide different experiences for connection. We wanted to create a space for executives to dive deep into what is going on in their industry and company, and be able to have candid conversations about what is and isn't working. This sort of exchange of ideas and long-lasting partnerships are at the foundation of AfroTech.
There is a shift going on right now in conversations about diversity and inclusion. But certainly these are not issues that are new to Black Americans. How have these changes impacted thinking among Black executives and other leaders?
Black executives and other Black leaders are really having their voices heard right now and that has pushed people forward, rightfully so, to use this as an opportunity to launch more ambitious ideas for people of color as consumers and different audiences. Taking advantage of this time to build a better opportunity for their employees and community moving forward is definitely something that is on the minds of Black leaders in business as they execute on their priorities.
Are we just at a moment or is there any real change going on?
These continued conversations will bring about real change if we continue to have them and hold businesses accountable by voting for what corporations succeed with our dollars. Through our purchases and our platforms, we should reward the companies that address our needs and treat our community with equity respect, not just in this moment, but for years to come.
You wrote a really powerful piece for dot.LA last year after the killing of George Floyd. You said: "Our pain serves a purpose. Destruction is necessary to make space for a new reality. A new world must eventually emerge because, as former President Barack Obama addressed in his statement this morning, we cannot accept our current reality." How does AfroTech Executive fit into that vision?
It's been a little over a year since George Floyd was murdered and we haven't had a chance to get together in person to celebrate the progress that has been made. Having a moment of time with your community and like-minded individuals to talk about what we've learned, how we've grown, and to celebrate success in Black tech and the media industry is important as this 'new world' continues to evolve.
Who is going to be at AfroTech Executive? Talk to me about the value of bringing these particular folks together.
Incredible tech innovators, investors, startup founders and tech moguls will come together for AfroTech Executive. The conversations that happen, partnerships that get started, and ideas that get sparked when these people are in the room are extremely valuable to the AfroTech community and the larger tech and startup community.
Why in Los Angeles?
L.A. is one of the most diverse cities at the intersection of media, entertainment, tech and finance. It's important to us that we create a community here in L.A. to help bridge the gap between those different industries, and AfroTech does just that.
Is it a good time to be a Black person in tech? Do you have any advice for Black people in tech?
Black people in tech are being heard more than they have historically, and my advice for Black people in tech is to take advantage of this time and push all of the ideas that you have out into the open. Continue to innovate and build.
Women entrepreneurs, especially those of color, don't have the same buy-in from investors as their male counterparts, but that shouldn't deter them. That's the advice of four women startup founders and investors during a panel on equity at The dot.LA Summit.
"We can't let the data stop us, especially as women," said Morgan DeBaun, founder and CEO of Blavity, who said she hit roadblocks six years ago when trying to get her media company geared toward Black millennials funded.
The panel, "Locked Out in Lockdown," also featuring Bonfire Ventures principal Jennifer Richard, Halogen Ventures General Partner Jesse Draper and Suma Wealth co-founder and CEO Beatriz Acevedo, explored the deep inequities that remain for women.
Earlier this week, dot.LA's Tami Abdollah, who hosted the event, reported that VC investment in female-founded companies in Los Angeles dropped 70% in the third quarter compared to last year. Meanwhile, all male-founded companies saw a bump of 385%.
"As our country is going through a movement, after Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, there has been a much bigger emphasis on diversity of race," Richard said. "Of course I want more women to have access to capital, but when you look at the access to white women versus Black women, it's still very different. There's no equality until everyone is getting it."
The investment world is largely dominated by white men and has been under fire for failing to diversify. Pitchbook has no data on people of color, a point panelists said underscores just how far female founders and investors of color are from reaching equity.
Draper, who invests in early-stage, female-funded tech companies, said backing diverse companies is a smart investment that few firms are making. In September, she published published an article on Medium called "Investing in Women Isn't a Fucking Charity."
"VCs are all out there to make money," she said. "We're greedy, greedy people. If you want to make money, invest in women."
Draper said although she wants to see more investment in women-led companies, she realizes that this is a hard road for anyone and that founders need to be ready for rejection.
"I often do have CEOs come pitch me and say, 'Well everyone said no already'," Draper said. "Well who's everyone? Go pitch 100 and come back to me. If you're a startup founder, you have to keep going. It's a grind."
Acevedo said she often found herself pitching to investors who hadn't been exposed to the Latino community from which she comes. She said she often finds herself explaining her experiences to them. But, she doesn't view it as a negative, rather she sees an opportunity to expose investors to the community that she wants to serve.
"I thought, 'there's no one like me'," she said. "Nobody knows what I know better, nobody has my upbringing. Being me is my superpower. My experiences, my immigrant status, what my parents went through with their finances that now I'm trying to solve for my community. Be proud of everything that others might perceive as a weakness."
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