Q&A: How AfroTech Drives Engagement for its Portfolio of Career-Focused Live Events

“What we learned this year is that folks really do like in-person experiences, as a lot of our community works remotely and works from home. They actually don’t even have the opportunity to engage with their own team members within their organizations that often, and so AfroTech events serve as an opportunity for the larger community and for employees to see each other. A lot of times, it’s a kind of homecoming for the tech folks.”

–Simone White, SVP-AfroTech and Live Events


Since 2016, AfroTech has been the place where inclusive tech companies and Black professionals and innovators meet. The media company, under Blavity Inc., offers a hub of tailored editorial, video and professional development content—including inspiring stories, industry insights, job postings and entrepreneurial resources—as well as a platform for partners to connect with motivated and career-driven individuals. The mission-driven brand’s programs include AfroTech U, celebrating the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Experience; AfroTech Future 50, honoring outstanding achievements in technology and innovation; and, coming soon, AfroTech Labs, mentoring, coaching and programing for mid-career professionals.

Beyond its online community and talent infusion solutions, AfroTech features a portfolio of in-person events: its flagship AfroTech Conference, the largest annual conference for Black technologists, and AfroTech Executive, a multicity, three-part event series for tech industry leaders and executives who are shaping the financial sector. In addition to its signature conferences, AfroTech hosts several happy hours and meetups throughout the year across the U.S. to bring together Black professionals in technology and entrepreneurship.


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Simone White, svp-AfroTech and live events, leads these experiences’ operations, production and programming. Over the last eight years at parent company Blavity Inc., she has primarily been working through strategic partnerships and engaging enterprise tech companies to hire and develop tech talent.

Coming off a successful showing of AfroTech Conference 2023—which featured health, women’s and sports summits, as well as heavy-hitting speakers like Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Timbaland and Robert F. Smith—White sat down with us to recap AfroTech’s recent event programs and discuss the brand’s strategies for growing its experiences and reaching new audiences in the coming year.

Blavity AfroTech Conference 2023_Simone White and Jeff Nelson 1

Simone White, SVP-AfroTech and Live Events at Blavity Inc. (left)

Event Marketer: You just hosted AfroTech Conference last month. How did it go?

Simone White: Amazing, it was great. We hosted AfroTech Conference in Austin, TX, the first week in November, with 20,000 attendees citywide. I think one of the key things that we learned this year is that there are so many attendees that we did not know existed. They came this year, which was fantastic, and so we’re excited about the growth and really thinking about how do we house and create opportunities for such a large community as the conference grows?

 

EM: What is the attendee experience like at AfroTech Conference? Why do attendees get excited about going to this event?

SW: There are so many thousands of people there, and so part of what we focus on is recruiting and talent acquisition opportunities with our tech companies. There’s a huge expo floor with over 150 partners that are specifically looking to hire. So that’s one aspect, and then the second is around learning and development. We have multiple tracks that are specifically designed to be teachable, tactical workshops and conversations where people feel like they’re getting meaty information that they can apply to their day-to-day work. They can also expect programming specifically around thought leadership: What are the types of things that are going to drive the future of innovation and technology forward? Those types of conversations happen on multiple stages at AfroTech Conference, and then the last element is around community engagement and networking—people who are saying, “Look, I just want to meet my co-founder; I want to meet other people who do work that is similar to me.” There are lots of opportunities for networking and engaging more deeply with folks in this space.

 

EM: What is your engagement strategy for AfroTech Conference? How do you attract a new audience and continue to build your community, while driving awareness for your various event offerings?

SW: We leverage our efforts year-round on the AfroTech app and partner with other events that are similar to ours that we know we can cross-promote. We also use the traditional marketing channels like social media. We have a very large and robust newsletter community that we communicate with often, as well as leveraging our sister properties across the other portfolios to promote and grow our audience.

Blavity AfroTech Conference 2023_attendees inHBCU tees

Blavity’s event portfolio includes AfroTech U, celebrating the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Experience.

EM: How do you choose the locations for AfroTech’s events?

SW: For the large-scale conference events, we always look at, can we grow and continue to scale inside of that city? In past years, we’ve gone from 5,000 to 15,000, 15,000 to 20,000 attendees. What does that look like as it pertains to our micro-events that are under 500 people? We look at where our digital audience lives. We do a lot of community-building through the AfroTech app and our newsletter, and so we usually mirror cities that are either fast-growing tech hubs or spaces that our audience already lives in and would love for us to have a physical event presence there.

Our bread and butter really is in media, and I think part of what our advantage has been is that we actually do engage our larger ecosystem through digital content all year. Even pre-pandemic, it allowed us to see where people who were reading our editorial content and engaging in our video and learning content lived. And so we have a kind of upper hand because we have a lot of metrics around where people are that live in the digital space. People are finding us digitally and then learning more about our in-person experiences.

For the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about what it looks like to build AfroTech to have a more international presence. And so I think that that will likely be an opportunity for growing beyond where we are today.

 

EM: How have this year’s events been different from past years, and what have you learned?

SW: 2022 was our first year back. We did some smaller events in ’21 but not very many, just given what was going on with the pandemic. What we learned this year is that folks really do like in-person experiences, as a lot of our community works remotely and works from home. They actually don’t even have the opportunity to engage with their own team members within their organizations that often, and so AfroTech events serve as an opportunity for the larger community and for employees to see each other. A lot of times, it’s a kind of homecoming for the tech folks.

I think the biggest thing is figuring out ways that more micro-communities can find spaces to connect with groups like founders and entrepreneurs, product and engineering-focused individuals, design folks, or people who are tech-adjacent but don’t actually identify as technologists. How can they have spaces to feel a part of the larger community?

 

EM: What kind of feedback have you received from attendees that you’re looking to incorporate for 2024?

SW: Past attendees always tell us what they want, and we try to listen as closely as possible. The biggest feedback is space, so we’re excited to go to Houston for AfroTech Conference 2024. It allows us to scale and grow our event even larger, which means that our rooms for programming are more accessible and that we can have more diverse conversations that apply to multiple groups of people. That was one of the more key areas, and then also doubling down into learning and development: What does that look like beyond the digital experience? How can we bring that to a live experience at AfroTech Conference?

 

EM: What kinds of metrics are you looking at with your events?

SW: When we move into next year, one of the things that we’re really excited about is dialing into how much time is spent in certain spaces versus just someone showing up. I think that indication can be a metric of interest. And then the other piece of it, too, is identifying what actions take place after that. If someone spent time in a space, do they make a purchase, do they come back? We’re looking at the actions that are taking place after the event is finished.

 

More Scenes from AfroTech Conference 2023:

Photo credit: Getty Images for AfroTech

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