Berkeley IT at AfroTech 2023

November 16, 2023

Every year in November, Black tech professionals from all over the world come together to share experiences, recruit talent, learn about new technologies, and hear from leaders in the industry. 

The AfroTech Conference is the largest of its kind in the U.S. geared toward Black technology professionals, with the goal of promoting diversity in the tech industry. The AfroTech conference is named after AfroTech, a tech, investing, and wealth-building platform for the Black community. Both the platform and the conference are owned by Blavity Inc., a Black-owned media tech company. 

2023 marks the fifth in-person AfroTech conference. The first was in 2016 at the San Francisco Embarcadero and had about 650 attendees. In 2018 it moved across the Bay to downtown Oakland. If you worked at the UC Office of the President in 2018, you may remember when AfroTech was held at the Oakland Convention Center and completely transformed the surrounding area into a giant block party. Once the pandemic hit, the conference moved online. But for the past two years, AfroTech has been held in person, in Austin, Texas, a fast-growing tech hub. This year the conference boasted over 25,000 attendees, an over 3800% increase in attendance from the first conference. It was recently announced that the conference is moving to Houston, Texas, in 2024.

I had the opportunity to attend AfroTech in Austin earlier this month with a few of my Berkeley IT colleagues. We were all first-time attendees and they were kind enough to share their experiences. 

Representation, It Matters

Though Black people make up 12% of the U.S. workforce, we only account for 8% of employees in tech jobs. This lack of representation can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and ultimately, impostor syndrome. Women experience impostor syndrome at more than double the rate of men, and that number increases significantly with women of colorSaundra Busch, email and chat communications service lead with Berkeley IT and AfroTech attendee, has worked in tech for over 20 years. She's no stranger to impostor syndrome, “When you’re in totally white spaces, especially predominantly male spaces, being a Black woman is tough. There were so many times I just wasn’t validated or given the stage to express, or implement, many of the changes I had in mind.”

Busch isn’t alone in feeling this way, the underrepresentation of Black women in tech is well-documented. To be clear, the only way to combat impostor syndrome is by hiring more women and people of color, because representation matters, but for some the AfroTech Conference provided a temporary relief. 

Maïssa Kobele Keita, a computer science student at UC Berkeley, also attended the conference for the first time. Keita, along with a few of her classmates, applied for (and later received) funding to attend AfroTech through the Student Opportunity Fund (SOF). The SOF is sponsored by STEM Training, Activities, and Resources (STAR) at UC Berkeley and is designed to provide support for events/activities, both co-curricular and educational, for Cal students. Keita understood the importance of attending a conference like this, “Less than 4% of Berkeley students are Black, and the number is far lower in computer science. Sometimes that can be discouraging. The school is very competitive and it can be hard to even declare. Going to these types of events can make you feel empowered. I’ve attended many company-hosted events, where the speakers made you feel encouraged to find your voice, claim your space, and take up space. A conference like this is designed to help you find your voice, and navigate a space that wasn’t meant for us.”

An Opportunity to Connect

The conference schedule was jam-packed and gave attendees the chance to network in a variety of ways. Simone Burns, administrative assistant for Berkeley IT, enjoyed the relaxing nature of the conference, “I like that the conference was structured to make sure that people had fun! There were networking events outside of sessions that put us in a more comfortable space to feel like we could get to know each other, without it feeling so formal. That was smart because everyone showed up as their authentic selves, as we do outside of work. As I’m walking from one event to another, I’m networking with people walking down the street! That created a comfortable space for you to speak honestly and get to know each other.” Britt McClintock, DEIB Lead for Berkeley IT, appreciated the conference for another reason, “The energy! I was really happy to just be in community. I knew that I’d learn things, connect, and network. But because there are so few Black folks in the tech space, I think a lot of folks have some of the same stresses. So it felt like being in that collective space was a relief. I know I don’t have to code switch, and everything I’m doing this week is in community.”

For remote employees, conferences like this offer are a rare team-building opportunity. Busch said, “I think as a remote employee it’s important to participate and meet our co-workers at these conferences. I’ve attended two conferences recently and altogether, I’ve met over 30 Berkeley employees. Everybody needs validation. It’s one thing to get it via email, but it’s completely different to get it in person. I felt more a part of the Berkeley IT team than I ever have. Getting to meet my co-workers in person, not just through Slack, it’s difficult to explain exactly how much that meant to me. It was a total change in what I’d dealt with in previous jobs. Just to be around my colleagues, my people, was incredible and very humbling.”

In addition to being a Berkeley CS student, Maïssa Kobele Keita is also an aspiring entrepreneur. She knew attending AfroTech would present rare opportunities, “I’d like to get into the startup and VC space eventually, so my goal was to network with people in that space and to meet new people. I’m currently interviewing for companies, so I was also looking to speak to recruiters and full-time professionals who could advise me on the interview process.” 

Keita previously worked as an intern for Microsoft in Seattle, and first heard about AfroTech in a group chat with other interns. She was determined to make the most of her time in Austin, “The conferences I go to are catered to more college kids, and are full of recruiters. AfroTech is different because you get to meet a lot of professionals, working full-time in tech. I was able to meet some people who work full-time at Microsoft. They even invited me to their private event, which was great! I also met a project manager from Google, which was helpful since I’m applying for their program. She gave me useful advice on the interview process, and even offered to do a mock interview when we both got back to the Bay.”

A Place for Knowledge

Session topics ranged from entrepreneurship to sports tech, to health tech, to AI. McClintock attended the Women’s Summit (one of the most talked-about sessions of the conference), “I enjoyed hearing all the incredible stories from founders and CEOs at the Women’s Summit. They spoke about how they created these apps and products because they saw a need, and didn’t see those apps/products on the market. That was truly inspiring, the thought of, ‘Oh, that doesn’t exist? We should just make it.’ It’s so simple, but we forget that sometimes. I also learned that Black founders receive about 2% of all VC funding, and Black female founders receive less than 1%, and that was disheartening.” Aside from her work with Berkeley IT, McClintock is also a co-founder and strategist at sousou strategies - a company that partners with organizations and individuals to develop the trust, discipline, and continuous commitment to transformational, sustainable change grounded in community.

The Women’s Summit closed with a highly-anticipated Q&A session with producer, writer, actor, and director, Issa Rae. Burns arrived early to secure her seat, “I was so excited to hear Issa Rae speak. Just her entrepreneurial spirit, and seeing her go from a YouTube series to being one of the biggest Black moguls in the business, it was inspiring to hear her speak. And one thing I always appreciate is that she’s very real and down to earth. The way she speaks about success makes it feel attainable.”

Rae is also an entrepreneur, she’s co-owner of Hilltop Coffee, ColorCreative, and Sienna Naturals, founder of HooRae Media, and she recently launched Viarae Prosecco (the official drink of AfroTech 2023). 

 Rick Kern/Getty Images for AFROTECH
Issa Rae speaks at AFROTECH | Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images for AFROTECH

Large companies hosted off-site events throughout the city of Austin. The Google Kickback was held in a warehouse space that was completely transformed for the event. The outside of the building was covered with Google’s logo, and one wall had a list of Black-owned businesses in Austin that conference attendees were encouraged to patronize. Inside, the venue was converted into a lounge space with plenty of seating, entertainment, and a pop-up coffee shop hosted by Three Keys Coffee, a Black-owned coffee shop located in Houston. Attendees who signed up could come to the Google Kickback throughout the day to rest, chat, and grab a snack. Google employees were also on hand to talk about Google products, jobs, and new software. A few Berkeley IT attendees even got a demo of Bard AI, Google’s conversational AI tool.

The Google Kickback, a temporary lounge space created by Google for AfroTech attendees. The Google Kickback, a temporary lounge space created by Google for AfroTech attendees.
The exterior of the Google Kickback, a temporary lounge space created by Google for AfroTech attendees. 

A Professional Development Opportunity

When submitting a request to attend any conference as a UC employee, you are asked how attending would benefit your professional development (and the university). Van Williams, vice president of Information Technology and UC chief information officer (CIO), had this to say:

“I think it’s hugely important. So much of my work is trying to work from outside in, and really understand what our different constituents are doing. When you’re working that way, it’s important to know - what’s the outside?  …it’s sometimes the country, sometimes the state, and sometimes it’s higher ed as an industry. I think President Drake very deeply believes that exhibiting excellence that isn’t recognized by our state, our country, or the world - is not truly excellence. We want to exhibit excellence. One way of doing that is going out there and representing UC, in all forms. I think it’s critically important. Anytime I see anybody having the opportunity to go out there and participate in it, I cheer them on because I think we have a fantastic story to tell. And I also feel that by going out there and telling our story to other people, it causes the story to change. Because somebody will come up and say, ‘Hey we’re doing something like that, but we’re doing it a little differently. Have you thought about…?’ And we want to steal all of those ideas and build on them and continue to serve as leaders. Because we are listening, and we are synthesizing, and turning that into something that continues to be a compelling vision.”

A Place for Recruiting

In recent years Berkeley IT has made a concerted effort, and some strides, in diversifying its staff. AfroTech offers a rare opportunity to recruit more Black tech talent. Burns said, “For me, the best part was the expo hall. Seeing how many companies showed up and were actively trying to get more diverse recruits made me realize - Berkeley belongs in that same space. I’m hoping that Berkeley, and other UCs, will recruit at AfroTech and other conferences that cater to diverse groups. I think that will be a smart way to push the effort to get more diverse recruits in Berkeley IT, and on campus in general.”  McClintock echoed these sentiments, “I’m obviously biased because I work for Berkeley IT as someone who’s trying to shift culture. So for me, it just makes sense. I meet with a lot of hiring managers who say, ‘There’s no Black people. We want them to apply, but they’re just not there.’ - which is not true, we’re just not looking in the right places. AfroTech drew 25,000+ people who are all looking to grow their careers. Recruiting at AfroTech would be such an amazing opportunity for Berkeley IT.” 

Looking forward to Next Year

Now that another AfroTech is in the books, Berkeley IT staff can reflect on the wonderful memories. Busch explained, “The conference itself surprised me. I felt at home with my people. One of my friends said it was kind of like finding your tribe. What surprised me the most was how sad I was to leave, and I would love to go again!” McClintock added, “Black professionals in a lot of different industries, and especially higher ed, we’re few and far between. There’s this revitalizing energy we get, from going to events like this. You connect with people, you feel comfortable, and there’s an opportunity for collaboration. If you have the funding, go! If not, AfroTech gives away a certain amount of tickets, and they seem very serious about making sure people can get here. ‘If your company can’t pay for this, we still want you in community with us.’ That was my takeaway.” Burns ended with, “To be surrounded by people who look like you and are successful, and enjoying life, is an indescribable feeling. These jobs can be stressful. And this conference was full of Black Excellence and Black joy - and that’s what made it so unique and incredible. And if you don’t want that, I don’t know what to tell you!”

 Britt McClintock, Jeané Blunt, Simone Burns, and Saundra Busch at the 2023 AfroTech Conference in Austin, TX.
From L-R: Britt McClintock, Jeané Blunt, Simone Burns, and Saundra Busch at the 2023 AfroTech Conference in Austin, TX.