Morgan DeBaun, Founder & CEO of Blavity, started her career in Silicon Valley. She is a serial startup entrepreneur, whose passions include building technology at the intersection of creativity and culture. Since its launch in 2014, Morgan has scaled Blavity to be one the fastest growing digital media startups, currently operating five brands: Blavity, 21Ninety, Travel Noire, Shadow and Act and AfroTech.
Jeff Nelson is a technical entrepreneur driving innovation at the interection of human and machine intelligence. Jeff is a Co-Founder and CTO of Blavity, a digital media collective that provides content focused on news, women’s empowerment, travel, films and entrepreneurship for over 20 million urban millennials each month. Jeff also is the Founder and CEO of Cinchapi, an early stage technology startup that gives businesses real-time data insights with the power to act when it matters. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Jeff studied Computer Science at Washington University in St. Louis and worked in engineer and technical business development roles at Palantir, MailChimp and Ionic Security.
Morgan was loving the life, loving her job, but wondered why she was spending her time and energy building products for people who didn’t view her as a leader. She wanted to take advantage of the vast opportunity generated by Silicon Valley. At the time, it looked easy. People were getting investments based on ideas scribbled on napkins.
Jeff recalls walking around Palo Alto with his mentor and being encouraged to think bigger. Today, people can come to AfroTech to hear inspiring stories and get guidance from people who have done it. That option didn’t exist then. “Imagine what Blavity would have been if we could have gone to AfroTech first!”
2014: Blavity founded. First money made was through ad sales but expanding the ad platform wasn’t enough. So Morgan decided to produce an event (Blavity EmpowerHer, in NYC, 2016). She was surprised that people were more willing to put money into an event for a few hundred people than an online platform reaching many more, but it lit the light bulb.
Inspired by Facebook and Google conference, Morgan and Jeff thought, “we deserve that.” Despite having little funding at first, they were determined to put on the best, most professional experience possible.
2016: First AfroTech Conference at Bespoke
Expected 300–400 people, but the event sold out quickly
Two weeks before the event they expanded to hold 650 and that sold out too. “People were sneaking in!”
2017: 2,200 attendees on the Embarcadero
2018: AfroTech’s biggest year yet, at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts
200 people worked on the production this year, making sure it was seamless.
Where Is AfroTech Going?
MOVING TO OAKLAND IN 2019!
November 7–10; Early-bird tickets are available RIGHT NOW.
“It’s super-black.” At first, the goal of AfroTech was to make an industry that doesn’t see Black people start to see us, and to prove that we should/could have the same kind of experiences the rest of the industry had.
Now, it’s about pushing the community forward. So they want to go to a place that people don’t even talk about when they think of “Silicon Valley,” although they should. “As we grow beyond 4K, 5K, 6K, we want to grow in a city that is a reflection of our culture.”
There were some concerns. Not many tech HQs are in Oakland. But thinking about the future, 10 years and beyond, “are we going to be proud of where this is? Are we going to be proud of pouring money into this city?” In Oakland, absolutely. The whole point of Blavity is to shine a light on people and places that deserve it.
Jeff: When the final curtain drops, you go to the after-party and that’s it. But the next morning, we’re focused on next year.
Morgan: We want to respect and honor and be authentic with our presence, so AfroTech will partner with loval nonprofits, community organizations, schools, etc.
Blavity is more than AfroTech, so they are looking for an Executive Director just for the conference. Morgan: “I want it to be someone who’s in this room right now, who has been here before, and will be 100% dedicated to it.”
When there is doubt expressed by companies about the ROI of being in Oakland, tell them they should be doubling their investment, buying corporate tickets, because this is benefitting the community and building the local talent pool.
Blavity is hiring engineers, too! In Atlanta and LA.
So many relationships, connections, and businesses have started at AfroTech, Blavity wants to make sure this becomes a year-round benefit, that connections are always being made and knowledge is always being shared.
Morgan thanks all the key players who made the event happen and… THAT’S A WRAP!