Morgan DeBaun ‘couldn’t find a media brand that spoke to the things’ she cared about, so she created one herself, Blavity. Ahead of the organization’s biggest event, AfroTech, DeBaun explains where it all started and what’s ahead.
By S.C. Stuart
On November 7, thousands of tech innovators will converge on Oakland, California, for the fourth annual AfroTech conference, which brings together black entrepreneurs, techies, startups, and community organizations for discussions, workshops, and networking events on business, culture, and technology.
Blavity, the company behind AfroTech, has called it “the biggest black tech conference” in the nation, and it all started with a group of friends-Morgan DeBaun, Jonathan Jackson, Jeff Nelson, and Aaron Samuels-sitting at a lunch table at Washington University in St. Louis.
The word “Blavity” comes from the concept of “black gravity”-when people of color migrate toward each other in predominately white spaces, as DeBaun did with her future co-founders. After graduation, the friends headed for opposite coasts to work at Palantir Technologies, Bain Capital, Google, and Intuit but later joined forces to form their company Blavity.
Since its founding in 2014, the media organization and community for multi-cultural creatives has raised $9.4 million from investors including 500 Startups and Google Ventures. Blavity has also acquired several content companies, including Travel Noire, and has 80 full-time employees with offices in Los Angeles and Atlanta.
AfroTech is the company’s main event; there are also smaller activities in San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. PCMag spoke to Blavity founder and CEO Morgan DeBaun about leadership and entrepreneurship, how Blavity has evolved, and what to expect from this year’s AfroTech.
PCMag: Morgan, tickets to AfroTech sold out last year. There were 4,000 attendees, 69 speakers, and 35 major tech companies that came to recruit experienced hires. What were the highlights for you?
Morgan DeBaun (MDB): AfroTech 2018 was amazing. We had already moved to a new venue [in San Francisco] to accommodate the growth but swiftly sold out again, so this year we’re moving to Oakland. The highlight for me included seeing so many young people interested in getting into the tech industry; observing engineers collaborating on projects in real time during the event and seeing founders who’d raised millions onstage sharing their success with their community.
I know you can’t pick favorites, but it must have been powerful for the attendees to see luminaries such as Dave Salvant (Squire Technologies), Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins (Promise), and Valerie Jarrett (former advisor to President Obama) giving the inside track on their careers. Who are your headliners for AfroTech 2019?
I can’t say yet, but I’m really excited about taking AfroTech to Oakland. I want to grow with the city that is closer to our community and make AfroTech a real destination. This year we’re also offering an entire set of programming for free and will open up a community stage as well to give back.
You’re also the founder and CEO of Blavity Inc., the company behind AfroTech. Give us the elevator pitch: What is Blavity and why is it important today?
Blavity Inc. is a media company and community platform for black consumers, primarily in the US, focused on creating content, ideas, and experiences that bring people together. Blavity also reflects our community by distributing other voices and lives that haven’t been told. We want to be as diverse as the community we’re trying to represent.
I heard you say in an interview that entrepreneurship is about risk, but it’s also about finding and building an ecosystem to thrive in. Did you start Blavity because the ecosystem you needed just didn’t exist?
That’s exactly right. I was working in Silicon Valley, inside the heart of innovation, but I couldn’t find a media brand that spoke to the things I cared about. There was no black-run company looking to solve the problems of today’s young black consumers. It seemed so obvious, but it didn’t exist. So I built it.
As a CEO, what are your go-to tech tools? And how complex are your daily dashboards to track success?
We are deeply integrated into Asana for project management, and use Slack for all comms. We developed our own CMS and a bunch of other proprietary technologies. Our co-founder and CTO, Jeff Nelson, worked at Palantir so we have quite the tech stack.
Blavity and AfroTech are not just focused on the US, but on the global black diaspora, right?
That’s a great question. Yes, the tech industry is booming globally. People come from all over the world to AfroTech, and, at Blavity, we’ve collaborated with clients in Haiti and South Africa. I’ve been inspired by how local governments in those areas are supporting young entrepreneurs to scale their businesses. The South African Tourism Board is a sponsor of AfroTech and Haiti has a huge tech summit, in partnership with Google, another Blavity client. This is just the beginning.
Success in tech entrepreneurship often depends on learning from failure. You founded a couple of startups before Blavity, including a personal finance calculator and an app that scraped local event calendar data to let students know where to score free food to save cash. What did you learn most from both?
I learned a lot about building a strong founding team and only working on something you’re incredibly passionate about. There are an infinite amount of problems to solve with technology, but you have to be passionate about the community you’re building it for. One of the reasons that Blavity has been so successful and sustainable is that we focus on our audience and less on how we’re solving problems for them—it’s all about the audience in the end.
You’ve raised $9.4 million to date. What really resonated with investors about your pitch?
When we showed how big the opportunity was in serving a community that is not just underserved right now, but hyper-engaged online. They also responded to our authenticity.
Ava DuVernay has a $100 million deal with Warner Bros; Shonda Rhimes has a similarly sized deal with Netflix; Tyler Perry is launching a massive streaming service with BET; and Amazon Studios has a first-look deal with Jordan Peele. Are you building Blavity to be the millennial answer for next-gen Hollywood?
Not necessarily [ Laughs]. But I will say we are certainly a place for the next generation of Hollywood to be discovered. Through our Blavity-owned brand Shadow and Act, we partner with Hollywood studios to ensure that stories can be found there from people who haven’t yet found their way into Hollywood. People who deserve to be seen and heard.
AfroTech 2019 will take place on Nov. 7–10 at the Oakland Convention Center.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com on September 11, 2019.