As we chatted amid the hum of the exhibit hall at the Austin Convention Center, a California woman who works for a popular vacation-rental company described last week’s AfroTech conference in a way that felt a bit outdated but was undeniably succinct. “It’s all the tokens in one room,” she joked.
In the seven years since it launched in 2016, AfroTech has grown into the largest Black tech industry gathering in the United States. Attendees this year numbered about 25,000, and chances are that many of them may feel like “tokens” at their companies. According to the Computing Technology Industry Association, Black Americans make up only 8 percent of the tech workforce nationally, compared to 12 percent across all occupations. In Texas, those numbers are slightly higher, with Black Texans representing 9 percent of tech employees, compared to 13 percent of all workers. So AfroTech may be one of the few times Black tech workers get to be in a room with many others in their field who look like them.
Although, for the second straight year the conference happened in Austin, a place with a relatively small Black population. Less than 8 percent of Austin residents are Black, compared to more than 13 percent of Americans. The city has earned a reputation as a booming tech hub and a would-be rival to California’s Silicon Valley. Companies such as Google, Oracle, and Tesla have brought thousands of jobs there in recent years. According to CompTIA, 14 percent of the workforce in the Austin–Round Rock area is in tech—but only 7 percent of those workers are Black.
Walking around AfroTech, it was hard to tell that the tech industry has experienced tumult this year, with recent layoffs at the likes of Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta. Such discouraging developments didn’t stop the thousands who flocked to Austin, optimism in tow. In one conference “learning lab,” Black employees of Meta playfully demonstrated the company’s new smart glasses and discussed working in emerging technologies, while earlier in the day, senior managers from Microsoft discussed generative AI. At another session, a Silicon Valley Bank employee—yes, that Silicon Valley Bank, out to revive its business after a headline-making collapse earlier this year—interviewed record producer Timbaland, while representatives at the SVB “Recharge Lounge” in the convention center encouraged attendees to grab a drink, take a break on their sofas, and consider trusting SVB with their money.
Among this year’s headliners was billionaire Robert F. Smith, the richest Black American and CEO of Austin-based Vista Equity Partners, who has been rebuilding his business after settling with federal authorities over tax fraud charges in 2020. From the stage of the Moody Theater, he shared his thoughts on the economy and the importance of diversity in the future of the tech industry. He noted that more-diverse companies were more profitable, a statement supported by reports from companies such as McKinsey, which found that in 2019 ethnically and culturally diverse companies were 36 percent more profitable.
Beyond that, Smith—whose own good works have famously included paying off the student debt of the graduating class of Morehouse College in 2019—argued that tech entrepreneurs and companies also need to help foster a more equitable society. “If you don’t stabilize communities, then you’re destabilizing them,” he said. “If you want this economy to keep moving, you’ve got to build out that infrastructure of opportunity and access to the opportunity in ways that create sustainable communities.”
On the exhibit hall floor, thousands of Black tech workers and job seekers lined up in search of just those sorts of opportunities. They sought to speak with recruiters from Airbnb, Apple, Duolingo, Expedia, Pinterest, and YouTube, among others. Even companies such as Shopify and Uber that had gone through layoffs in the last year were in attendance at AfroTech and still seemingly interested in diversifying their talent. “Companies are still hiring,” said Jeff Nelson, co-founder and COO of Blavity, the media company that runs AfroTech. “The conversations that we’re having with them are about as you hire and grow, make sure that you’re putting diversity first.”
Kevin Brown, a principal program manager at Expedia Group, was one of those on the lookout for workers. “We’re showing up because we want to make sure that people know that at Expedia we are welcoming to all groups and are intentional about being representative of them,” he said. “We represent all of our travelers at our company.” Brown credits Expedia’s participation in past AfroTech conferences in helping to increase its number of Black employees by 3 percent.
As I eyed bags of free hair products from the Mielle Organics booth, I met Austinites Feven Edwardson and Anastasia Rivera. Edwardson, a logistics coordinator for a biotechnology company, said she bought a ticket to AfroTech to “invest in myself,” inspired by her friend Rivera’s experience at the conference in 2022. Rivera had met with a Bank of America recruiter there and landed an internship that led to a full-time job. But Edwardson wasn’t having the same kind of luck. She said that the companies she spoke with weren’t looking to hire until the next quarter. Still, she remained hopeful that connections she made at AfroTech would yield an opportunity in the next year.
Toni Ade, the director of marketing at the 3ngine, a Houston-based media production company, described the tech landscape for Black Texans as “tense” due to so many recent layoffs. Yet she found AfroTech to be a boon to Black workers in these choppy industry waters, because many companies that showed up seemed eager to hire and help them. “Anyone I spoke to at the expo hall had something to offer,” she said, noting also that the $775 cost of a general admission ticket limits who can take advantage of the conference.
For its first three years, AfroTech took place in San Francisco, then moved across the bay to Oakland in 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced it online for two years, it returned as an in-person gathering in Austin in 2022. Next year, organizers plan to take it to Houston, which, in the words of Nelson, is “where Blackness is”—referring to the city’s 22 percent Black population. The relocation will no doubt make the gathering more accessible to Black Houstonians interested in tech who couldn’t afford both a conference ticket and travel expenses.
It’s the inverse of Edwardson’s situation. I asked her if she was planning to go to the conference in Houston next year. “I’m manifesting getting an opportunity and my company sponsoring me,” she said. “Then, yes, I would attend again.” In a tense tech landscape, even the hopeful can only afford so many opportunities to invest in themselves.