Entrepreneur Delane Parnell made history last year after his esports software company PlayVS raised $15 million for its Series-A funding round, making it the largest Series-A ever raised by a Black founder in consumer internet. In September of this year PlayVS, which provides a platform for competitive high school esports competitions, again made headlines when it announced that it raised an additional $81 million in funding from a group of notable investors that included Adidas, Samsung, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over the course of 15 months, the company raised a combined total of $96 million in funding to expand the business and a 27-year-old Parnell, who serves as the company’s CEO, became one of the most talked-about Black founders in tech.
During a time when only 1 percent of venture capital funding is going to Black founders and only 0.2 percent of venture capital funding is going to Black women founders, Parnell’s recent success represents an anomaly in the tech startup world. Despite a major increase in press concerning the lack of access and opportunities that Black founders in tech receive and an incredible growth in minority-focused venture capital funds and resources, the PlayVS founder remains a part of a small but growing crop of Black millennial tech founders that have created innovative business solutions so desirable that even the predominantly white-male dominated tech world has been forced to recognize and support them.
Blavity Inc. Founder and CEO Morgan DeBaun is also a member of this burgeoning class of Black millennial startup founders making noise in the industry. Last year, Blavity Inc., which owns Black millennial media and event platforms Blavity, Shadow and Act, Travel Noire, 21 Ninety, AfroTech, and Summit 21, raised a $6.5 million Series-A funding round and grew the company from one office and 30 employees to two offices and over 80 employees. DeBaun, who founded media company Blavity Inc. in 2014 with her three co-founders Jonathan Jackson, Jeff Nelson and Aaron Samuels, is vocal about the struggles not only Black tech founders face but the ones Black tech employees experience working at large white tech companies. Last month, DeBaun once again had a platform to speak on these issues during Blavity’s fourth annual AfroTech Conference, a tech conference geared toward Black millennial founders.
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AfroTech was created in 2016 as an event to highlight Black tech innovators and provide more opportunities and information for them to succeed. The first three years of the conference took place in San Francisco, Calif., the U.S. epicenter of technology startups. This year, the festival was moved to Oakland, Calif., a strategic move meant to honor a city with a rich Black history and patronize the small Black businesses, that despite aggressive gentrification, are still operating today. During the second weekend of November, Downtown Oakland hosted 10,000 Black tech innovators from around the U.S. looking to form meaningful connections, learn from one another, and celebrate the rising profile of Black people in tech.
One of AfroTech’s primary missions is to address the lack of information Black millennials have about the technology industry. The dozens of high-profile guest speakers, which included Parnell, The ShadeRoom founder Angelica Nwandu, lawyer and political commentator Angela Rye, and media personality Charlamagne Tha God, were carefully selected to provide Black founders, college students, and employees access to knowledge that would better equip them to lead successful tech careers. Across four different stages, speakers shared their experiences and advice on venture capital funding, coding, the cannabis industry, media, and blockchain.
“We don’t always have the vocabulary to frame our success so that we can have opportunities like getting venture capital,” DeBaun tells VIBE prior to taking the main stage at day one of AfroTech. “Part of AfroTech is creating information so that people know how to talk about what they are already doing. We don’t have to change much besides just the vocabulary and breaking down some of the biases we have been taught about ourself.”
Although knowledge plays a big part in enabling Black people in tech to receive greater opportunities, a supportive and well-connected network pipeline is another key factor necessary to fuel the group’s success. In tech, warm introductions and word of mouth rivals technical skills and ability during the job selection process. Ivy League and country club connections make it difficult for non-white people to penetrate the exclusive tech veil. A harsh reality that new diversity and inclusion departments and new executives are apparently working hard to change.
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Reports revealed #Al's discriminatory instincts — including mislabeling Black people as gorillas — are only getting worse. What can we do to improve the future of artificial intelligence and remedy the tech industry's diversity problem? #Tech #Afrotech #Al #artificialintelligence
“Unfortunately we have been trained to have a mindset of deficit, that we can be one of only,” says DeBaun about the lack of representation in tech spaces. “The vision of AfroTech is that we show that it’s an abundance, it’s unlimited potential, unlimited power. So if you have access you should give it to someone else. That’s your duty and your responsibility because you wouldn’t have gotten here if someone hadn’t given you access most likely. AfroTech is actually designed to try to speed that up.”
AfroTech’s socialization component may be the most valuable part of the weekend. Dozens of high-profile tech companies from Google to Twitter, Lyft to YouTube, sent representatives to set up booths to recruit potential job candidates and share valuable information about its diversity efforts. Diversity-focused venture capital firms like Harlem Capital Partners and Precursor Ventures were also engaged with founders and swapped business cards during the conference’s designated networking periods. For Black people who did not attend an Ivy League school or grow up with a country club membership, these moments provided a valuable and direct pipeline to the world’s largest companies.
AfroTech’s opportunities for connection and knowledge distribution did not simply end once the conference did. The AfroTech app, website, and Slack channel have continued to provide helpful resources and opportunities for Black people in tech to communicate with one another. With platforms like AfroTech, Black Women Talk Tech, Black Girls Code and Black Founders, Black people in tech are provided with opportunities to not only empower themselves in this industry but support and empower other Black people in the process.
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"A lot of the opportunities I have is because I invited myself instead of waiting to be invited. I don’t often wait for people to validate whether or not I should be in the room. I make that decision myself. In this world, you can’t be afraid of “no” or “sorry, I can’t help you”. You let that be fuel to keep going no matter what. 👊🏾" - @carterlove⠀ ⠀ We found this story in our mentions and just had to reshare these inspirational vibes! We know many #BlacksInTech can wait forever to "be invited" to the table, so it's so important to be the change and invite ourselves! ✊🏾Or better yet, make our own 💁🏾.⠀ ⠀ What are some ways you invite yourself to opportunities? Let's talk about it!👇🏾