This interview is part of our Diversity in Tech series in partnership with All Raise, Anitab.org, Blavity, Grid 110, and Latinas in Tech, a coalition effort to champion diverse representation in the tech industry. Read more about this initiative here, and download images from the Diversity in Tech collection here.
Karissa Uko leads the events and conference operations team at Blavity, where she oversees Blavity’s AfroTech conference experience and tech programming for a number of virtual events throughout the year. We spoke with Karissa about her career path, her work on this year’s AfroTech World experience, and the importance of visual representation to help change the status quo in the tech industry.
Hi Karissa! Tell us about yourself — how did you get to where you are today? What was your career path?
I’m a proud graduate of the illustrious Howard University and my education there definitely prepared me to pivot during the tough job market and financial crisis of 2011. Throughout high school and college, I actively interned and volunteered within capacities to serve communities of color. I decided early on that I would align my career with service and impact. My career path has been nontraditional — post-college I worked at a retail bank, healthcare publisher and trade association feeling detached in purpose, but further developing my project and event management skills.
Joining the Blavity team has enhanced my ability to serve and strategically impact a large audience that looks like me. I appreciate the unique relevancy of working at Blavity — it is not common to largely work with, and for, the Black community.
You oversee events at Blavity including Blavity’s AfroTech conference operations team, as well as the overall attendee experience and tech programming for a number of virtual summits throughout the year. What does a day on the job look like for you? Can you tell us more about the events you lead and overall goals for the attendee experience?
Outside of growth and profitability, the goal for our events is to curate memorable and impactful experiences for attendees, where they not only return the next year, but they bring a friend with them.
Things evolve fairly quickly within my role and for my team, so typically I am meeting with vendors and internally to evaluate/mitigate risks and leverage opportunities that impact the attendee and sponsor experience. From those meetings come action items that are delegated cross-functionally or within my team. My team is very agile and hardworking, it’s been rewarding to both lead and support my colleagues.
Through my work at AfroTech, I’ve been able to hear directly from current and former Black Panther Party leaders/members and their viewpoints on how to progress our communities with technology as a tool for advocacy. I’ve even had the opportunity to speak 1:1 about one member’s experience then versus now. These interactions certainly served as further motivation and grounding to keep doing the work that I do and encourage my colleagues to see the bigger picture of our behind-the-scenes action.
What are some of the ways AfroTech facilitates networking and connections both at the conference and post-event and what role does community play in supporting a more inclusive tech industry?
Last year, the decision to move AfroTech to Oakland definitely enhanced the intersection of technology and community for us. We use the term “Black tech homecoming” in reference to AfroTech and as an HBCU graduate that’s exactly how I felt working the event — like I was back on campus, but this time as a professional.
There is so much value in networking and seeing a sea of people in attendance that look like you. AfroTech’s amazing programming and diversity-recruiting opportunities bring a significant economic impact to a community largely left out of the tech conversation. Oakland serves as a great host city for an offering like AfroTech and when we’re able to return, we will once again leverage and welcome the community to further promote diversity and inclusion in tech.
What are some of the greatest opportunities you see right now to drive meaningful change when it comes to more equitable representation in tech?
Transparency and accountability are two great opportunities companies and leaders should leverage right now. We’re currently in a climate where audiences are paying more attention to ethics and equity within organizations.
Is your business on the right side of history to create change? Organizational leaders should:
- Take an honest look at where the company is with diversity and inclusion
- Develop strategic plans to improve those shortcomings
- Not be afraid to be held accountable or implement quantifiable change
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?
Visual representation is critical to disrupting the lack of diversity in tech. I mentioned above that working with people that look like me has built my confidence and sense of belonging in the tech space. Prior to Blavity, leading a team to plan a large-scale tech conference was not a consideration. It comes as no surprise that I’ve learned how to code more with Blavity, than I ever have before in my event planning career. My curiosity to develop and strengthen technical skills has been heightened and repositioned my own perception of technology.
Visual representation can entice more diverse and brilliant thought leaders and innovators to join an industry that desperately needs to improve its diversity efforts. The tech industry serves a global market and its employee demographics should reflect the communities that they connect or support.
Looking to the future, what inspires you and what initiatives are you most excited about right now?
COVID forced us and many other events to pivot to a digital space. We’re currently in the midst of planning AfroTech World, November 9–14, where attendees can show up authentically as themselves in the form of an avatar. We are offering dynamic programming in a multi-day virtual environment, where attendees can visit 150+ companies hiring diverse talent in our expo hall but also hear from top tech and business leaders, and end the day chilling on a beach — all in the comfort of their own home and pajamas.
How can people support the work you’re doing and get involved with AfroTech and the events you organize?
Shameless plug, register for AfroTech World! Continue to watch out for our virtual summits to return this December. Your engagement with AfroTech/Blavity content and participation in our events allows us to extend our impact through messaging and experiences centered around diversity.
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.
Senior Director of Marketing at Noun Project