In 2017, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney returned from his first visit to megaconference South by Southwest (SXSW) with one concern: The rooms he was in did not reflect his city’s demographics.
As a response, Kenney said, Philly should host its own big tech conference and call it the NorthStar Conference, in honor of Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery publication. On Tuesday, the City announced the event was indeed coming together, with the help of a nonprofit called Black & Brown Founders.
“Philadelphia is experiencing a renaissance, spurred in large part by the tech and innovation companies who call our city home,” said Kenney in a press statement. “We have the fastest growing tech sector in proportion to total job growth after the San Francisco Bay Area, but we have to make sure our progress is inclusive if we want the city to flourish well into the future. In Philly, we have to do tech in a way that is authentic to who we are.”
Slated to take place in Philly Oct. 2–5, the NorthStar Conference will seek to provide “connections, education, and opportunities to 500+ current or aspiring entrepreneurs and knowledge workers from the Black and Latinx community that want to participate in the innovation economy.”
Locally, the nonprofit has banded together an advisory committee of 10 stakeholders: Francisco Garcia, from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce; Jon Gosier, from Southbox Ventures; Brigitte Daniel, from Mogulette; Kahiga Tiagha, from The ITEM; Sylvester Mobley, from Coded by Kids; Tracey Welson-Rossman, from Chariot Solutions and TechGirlz; Cristobal Carambo, from Benjamin Franklin Academics Plus School; Jamie Bracey, from Temple University; Kiera Smalls, from Philly Startup Leaders; and Keenan Corrigan, from Venture for America.
After seeing the lack of diversity at major tech events, I wanted Philadelphia to host a high-caliber tech conference specifically for people of color. Excited to announce today that @BBFounders will help bring #NorthStar2018 to life this fall. https://t.co/2SDBR5ej49
— Jim #VaxUpPhilly Kenney (@PhillyMayor) June 5, 2018
At the helm of Black & Brown Founders is Aniyia Williams, a Philly native and Penn State grad who moved to San Francisco in 2014 to start her hardware company, Tinsel. In 2017, she founded the nonprofit — currently at five full-timers split between the West and East coasts — which has so far organized its conferences in four U.S. cities.
“The focus of NorthStar is on the Black and Latinx communities,” Williams told Technical.ly. “The event is not necessarily about diversity but about how to reduce inequities. Our demographics are changing rapidly and people who are growing the most in size are not the people who are getting expanded opportunities to keep up with living expenses. Being employed in the innovation economy is a great tool to change that reality.”
But a qualm raised by community members upon the announcement of the conference was, essentially: By focusing solely on Black and Latinx communities, others are being excluded from the conversation, as former City staffer Archna Sahay said in a series of tweets following the event’s announcement.
Cities thrive when they recognize the contributions of every member in the community and build bridges between them, not walls.
Sponsoring events in the name of diversity and inclusion that exclude major portions of a community is not equity, is not diversity, is not inclusion.
— Archna (@ArchnaSahay) June 6, 2018
Are Asians no longer considered POC?!
Asking for a friend.
— Archna (@ArchnaSahay) June 6, 2018
“Is there another way to accomplish the mission w/ more people of many backgrounds?” asked Seer Interactive founder Wil Reynolds on Twitter. In an email, Reynolds said he viewed it as a net positive.
“Seems like they are trying to do something good in the city so I’m down,” Reynolds told Technical.ly. “I try to be super inclusive of all people in the events I invest my time in. It’s a net positive so I’m here to show love and support.”
"I'm not black or latino, but I'm definitely a minority."
For Tern Water founder Mohamed Zerban, pushing the tech community forward means hosting more events that are inclusive to everyone.
“I think true diversity is in the inclusion of everyone and not through making events for certain ethnicities,” Zerban said in an email. “I’m not black or latino, but I’m definitely a minority.”
But, Williams said, the event is open to everyone, it just looks to zero in on two communities where inequities tend to be the greatest.
“I wouldn’t think of it as not recognizing or excluding anyone but rather us being laser-focused on a specific problem,” Williams said. “At the end of the day we’re a small team of black and latinx people who are experts in understanding the social context for those communities. It’s not that we don’t recognize those people but about trying to make a difference where we know we’re equipped to do it.”
There’s also a difference, Williams said, in the way minority communities experience the tech industry.
“Even among those groups: not every Asian-American’s experience in the same,” the founder said. “I’d love to save the world for everyone, but today we’re proving out the model and we’re starting out with the most marginalized groups of people in the U.S.”
On the other hand, local stakeholders participating in the process say bringing tools into the ecosystem is a net win, no matter the focus.
“For us, the success of this conference means connecting more people to resources and tools they may not have had before, and introducing potential funders and supporters to new and exciting ideas,” said Smalls, PSL’s executive director. “I am excited to see that there are more opportunities being created to make Philly’s tech scene more accessible and reflective of the demographics of the city.”
In Philly, Black & Brown Founders became synonymous with a panel at its Philly conference last September, where Little Giant Creative’s Tayyib Smith got in a heated discussion with then–PSL Executive Director Yuval Yarden. The former ED left her post later that week as a result of remarks that the PSL board of directors called “disappointing, inappropriate and unacceptable.”
Also on that panel was Liz Brown, formerly of design shop WebJunto, and who’s now starting anew with a company called Design Jawn.
“I have very high expectations [from this event],” Brown said. “Because I have seen firsthand how much thought and effort goes into their work. They produce events with high quality and purpose. I can’t wait to see what they do next; I’ve been following along since I spoke at their event last year.”
Philadelphia, Brown told Technical.ly, should be at the forefront of supporting inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship.
“It’s not just an opportunity to do the right thing, it’s also an opportunity to set an example and showcase thought leadership to other cities,” Brown said.