Life changing. That’s how I’d describe my experience at the 2022 AfroTech Conference. It was inspiring and energizing, yet also evoked feelings of familiarity similar to coming home for the first time in a long while. Northwestern Mutual invited four of their community partners, including i.c.stars Milwaukee to take part in a booth takeover on the expo floor.
Our goal was to represent the Milwaukee tech eco-system with pride. It was an opportunity to communicate the values and spirit of i.c.stars while also assisting Northwestern Mutual in sharing their vision with potential black and brown employees.
The conference was held in Austin and attended by more than 26,000 industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and Black tech professionals. Top tech recruiters were there, from companies like Apple, Tesla, Nike, Amazon, Visa, Salesforce, Shopify, National Basketball Association and GAP clothing. Many were hiring, and others came to demo products and discuss emerging trends. These companies showed up with their best and brightest talent, hoping to make their investment in DEI known. I felt nostalgia seeing recent black college graduates nervous and shaking as they approached the booths of these major companies, hoping for an opportunity.
Each keynote brought a special energy as hundreds of us piled into each meeting room. Mark Cuban, Chamillionaire, and Zaytoven gathered large crowds while smaller intimate conversations in the learning labs made a similar impact.
My favorite learning lab was led by Melissa Kancov, SVP, Technology Diverse Segments, Representation and Inclusion at Wells Fargo. This workshop focused on keeping star employees engaged through upskilling.
While the content was engaging I was more moved by the fact that Melissa spoke a cultural language Black American tech professionals understand intuitively. While it’s hard to articulate this feeling I can only liken it to receiving career advice from your favorite Auntie. All of us in the room were captivated by a familial feeling that we seldom experience in most places of work.
After days filled with wonderful keynotes and learning labs, I lived for the evening festivities. The AfroTech organizers booked the best DJ’s and performers making every night a party through and through. If you’ve ever attended a black cookout or wedding, you know the feeling of pure joy and exhilaration when Frankie Beverly and Maze’s ‘Before I let Go’ comes on. The vibration and energy of black joy is a form of protest and in these moments the pain of our past, present, and future oppression cease to exist.
I’ve been in tech for a very long time before any real DEI initiatives. AfroTech is a shining example of the work that’s been done over many years through many roadblocks and obstacles. At this time in my career I’m happy to work for a company that is engaged in creating equity through partnerships with corporate America. i.c.stars has been finding talent, training talent and putting talent to work for many years. Attending AfroTech was an attempt to lock arms with black and brown tech professionals who can and will champion our mission.
While I was in line awaiting my registration credentials and elderly black couple in front of me turned around to greet our group. They looked at us and asked “Are your companies paying for you to attend now? We had to pay for ourselves years ago.” We smiled and said, “YES! Our jobs did pay for us to attend!” What a beautiful reminder of the progress we’ve made. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Thank you i.c.stars and Northwestern Mutual.