Blavity, Inc. is home to the largest network of platforms and lifestyle brands serving the multifaceted lives of Black millennials. Founded by Morgan DeBaun, Aaron Samuels, Jeff Nelson, and Jonathan Jackson in 2014, Blavity’s mission is to economically and creatively support Black millennials across the African diaspora, so they can pursue the work they love and change the world in the process.
Noun Project and Blavity have joined forces to launch a new collection of stock photos that celebrate diversity in tech. Giving underrepresented groups a visual seat at the table is a critical step to changing attitudes and expectations about the tech industry for the better.
We spoke with Blavity’s Senior Director, Corporate Affairs Ashley Harmon to learn more about her work, how Blavity is lifting up the Black tech community with initiatives like AfroTech, and her advice for young people currently navigating the path to a career in the tech industry.
Hi Ashley! Tell us about yourself, how did you get to where you are today? What inspired you to join the team at Blavity?
I graduated from the College of William & Mary and started my career in strategy consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington, DC. I had the opportunity to lead a variety of different projects, everything from building tech solutions for large insurance companies to managing communications for the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Sandy. I realized early on that there were not a lot of people that looked like me in consulting, and that I needed to work harder and advocate for myself to continue to progress in my career. I was one of the youngest women in my position, and there were a lot of meetings that I walked into where I was not only the youngest but also the only woman of color in the room. It took me years to feel confident in my work and my abilities, so once I gained that confidence I committed to helping others do the same.
Fast forward seven years later, my fiancé and I decided to make the move to Los Angeles. I got a job as the Head of Operations & Development at a travel startup, where I managed international operations and business strategy for the company. After a year of working at the travel startup, I had the opportunity to join Blavity, Inc. After meeting the team, I knew that my values and goals aligned perfectly with the mission of the company. It was an opportunity to expand upon my commitment to helping advance diversity in the tech industry and support Black entrepreneurs and founders.
Blavity is a tech company for forward-thinking Black millennials pushing the boundaries of culture and the status quo. As Senior Director, Corporate Affairs for the company, what does a day on the job look like and what initiatives do you oversee?
My days are busy! The Corporate Affairs Team oversees and interacts with many different teams within Blavity, from client management to conference logistics. A good day for me is being able to empower my teams to come up with new ideas, push boundaries and solve complex challenges. My role involves a lot of decision-making to ensure that we are not only meeting our short-term goals but working towards a long-term vision of what we want Blavity and AfroTech to be in five years or more.
While my days are long, I am constantly motivated and encouraged by the direct impact I see from the work we are doing at Blavity. I am very excited about one of the projects that we launched this summer called the Black Growth Network. We were seeing how COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting the Black community, including small business owners. In response, we developed a network to provide funding, resources and a support network to Black small business owners as they rebuild and recover from the pandemic. This project not only addresses the immediate need of funding, but also ensures that the businesses are equipped to effectively utilize the resources provided to continue to grow their business and expand their revenue. This is an example of how Blavity is working to not only address short-term challenges, but build long-term equity and wealth within the Black community.
One of Blavity’s brands is AfroTech, an incredible conference, website, and community where founders and employees of some of the world’s fastest-growing startups connect and share ideas. What are some of the programs and networking opportunities AfroTech facilitates, both at the event and post-event?
The Black community has been largely unrepresented in the tech and startup industry, which AfroTech is working to change. We all know the importance of a strong network in not only getting a job, but also in starting a business and receiving funding. People in our community usually do not have generations of wealth or networks to build upon, so it makes it even harder to get started. That’s where we come in.
We are helping entrepreneurs and founders connect directly with VCs and Angel Investors through our Founders Showcase, AfroTech Cup Pitch Competition and our network of startups. Raising funding is not only about having a winning idea, but about getting your idea in front of the right people. We take the time to research and connect with investors that are committed to funding diverse startups.
In addition to supporting entrepreneurs and founders, we also connect job seekers with top tech companies that are committed to hiring diverse talent. We have a jobs board that is active throughout the year, as well as an expansive Expo Hall with over 150+ corporate sponsors during the AfroTech Conference. People actually get internships and jobs onsite, which is helping to further build equity within the tech industry.
This year, AfroTech is going virtual. Can you tell us more about what people can expect from the 2020 AfroTech experience?
When we made the difficult decision to cancel the in-person AfroTech Conference this year, we were committed to still finding a way to bring our Black tech community together. This year’s event is a fully-immersive virtual reality experience called AfroTech World. Attendees and partners can show up in the world as their authentic selves with the help of customizable avatars. We still have over 150 corporate partners, two expansive expo halls with interview areas, five stages of programming and other activations like meditation and musical performances. I am so proud of the Blavity team in building out the first VR tech conference of this magnitude, and I am so happy we are able to continue supporting our community.
What are some of the greatest opportunities you see right now to drive meaningful change when it comes to more equitable representation in tech?
This has been an extremely difficult year for our community. Black people have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with greater infection and morbidity rates, climbing unemployment and increased closure of Black-owned businesses. In addition to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, our community is also fighting the pandemic of racial injustice and violence against Black people.
With all of these challenges, I have seen more and more companies committing to diversity and supporting the Black community. With that being said, we need to ensure that these changes are meaningful — there needs to be a long-term vision and path forward. In addition to marketing that includes more diverse representation, tech companies need to commit to allocating funding for diverse companies and commit to hiring diverse talent. And not just 1–2%, I mean a real and lasting commitment to spending to ensure more equitable representation.
As companies are on this journey to increase diversity and make change, they should be careful to avoid placing the burden on their already exhausted Black employees. It is great that companies are committing to diversity, but they must own that process. Work with consultants, hire QUALIFIED diversity & inclusion teams, invest in educational programs … but please stop expecting your Black employees to teach you how to support diversity.
What role does community play in supporting a more inclusive tech industry?
Community plays a critical role in building a more inclusive tech industry. I believe that access and representation begins at the community level. Communities become a support network, they provide a safe place for entrepreneurs to start businesses and they encourage innovation. Tech companies should be investing in and partnering with local communities to find talent, identify startups to invest in, and launch new products. There is a lot of amazing innovation happening in local communities, and tech companies should be supporting them!
At Noun Project, we believe visual language has the power to shape, reinforce and change perceptions. What are your thoughts on why diverse visual representation in tech is so important to helping change the status quo in the industry?
I love the work that you all are doing at the Noun Project! Visual representation is critical in driving lasting change in the tech industry, not only to help change the perception and bias of the industry as a whole, but to also support BIPOC individuals working in the tech industry. We carry an extra burden of proving that we belong and that we are capable. Visual representation reminds us that there are people that look like us that are successful, and also shows the world this as well.
That is also what we are focused on with Blavity and AfroTech, to show the success of Black people in tech, of the entrepreneurs that have received large rounds of VC funding and that achieve significant exits. Visual representation shows the world all the amazing things Black people and people of color are accomplishing and how hard we have worked to get here.
Looking to the future, what inspires you and what initiatives are you most excited about right now?
We are busy at work on AfroTech World to ensure a meaningful experience for our attendees and partners. I am excited to continue building the long-term vision of AfroTech and expanding the impact we have on our community across the globe.
In addition to AfroTech, I am very excited about our recent launch of Blavity.org — the social impact arm of Blavity, Inc. We are creating programs that empower Black creatives, journalists and reporters as they share their stories with the world. Our goal is to help overcome existing challenges the Black community faces in media, including underrepresentation, lack of resources and inaccurate and misguided portrayals of race in the news.
What advice would you give to young people currently navigating the path to a future career in tech?
Work hard, advocate for yourself and find opportunities to be challenged. Nothing will be handed to you, so you have to be confident in yourself and the hard work that you have done to get here. If you are lacking skills in a certain area, be proactive in taking online courses or doing research. You can’t advocate for yourself if the skills are not there. Also, find mentors and build a support network of peers. There will be challenges, but having mentors and advisors makes a big difference in being able to make it to the next level.
How can people support the work you’re doing?
Support AfroTech World! You can come as an attendee, have your company sponsor the event or even make a donation for student scholarships. We also have a lot of exciting projects coming up for Blavity.org, so check out our website and see all the opportunities to get involved. And of course, check out the amazing work our community is doing through our editorials on Blavity.com and AfroTech.com!
Blavity, Inc. is a media tech company, home to the largest network of brands specifically serving Black millennials through original content, video and unique experiences.