Written by Mya Saint-Louis. A Bank of America scholarship recipient to Afrotech.
I’ll start this off by coming clean: in the days leading up to AfroTech, I was nervous. I’d never been to a conference before–but if a family, friend, or coworker were to ask how I felt about attending, I’d mask my anxiety behind a grin or a quick chuckle, accompanied with a cheery “I’m absolutely excited!” I’m far from what would be considered an extrovert–as a teenager, I preferred to shy away from the spotlight and would scurry off to the side, just out of reach. I won’t deny that in the past, this tendency of mine to blend in with the crowd and avoid becoming the center of attention has affected me in going after opportunities that may have further developed not only my career but also my character.
The first day I stepped into the conference hall, nerves sat at the bottom of my stomach like an immovable boulder. I could feel its weight with each step I took in the check-in line. I admitted to the employee as he printed out my badge that I’d never been to a tech conference before, and that I was a bit nervous. He offered me some advice. Though I can’t remember what he said word for word–the primary effect failed to come to my aid in this instance–he had said something along the lines of, “Speak to as many people as you can. You’ll never know who you’re sitting next to or who the person you strike up a conversation with will be.”
It wasn’t until I sat down at the welcome reception that I realized just how true his words were. I ended up sitting next to an executive-level recruiter, who actually gave me some sound advice on both the tech and gaming industries: he referred to them as parallel lines, and that though it is possible to go from one industry to the other, it’s a bit harder to do so. As someone who has absolutely loved video games since childhood, it’s given me something to think about: which industry do I truly see myself working in in the future?
The rest of the day, I met a few of the other Rewriting the Code girls and headed to an after-party that was not at the Austin Convention Center. At the after-party, there was an art exhibit, free drinks, along with a live band. Being able to see and connect with other black people in such a relaxed, cheery atmosphere was definitely one of my favorite sights of the day.
The second day was much busier–the expo hall, where all the company booths were, had just opened, and it was absolutely jam-packed. In the days leading up to AfroTech, I set a rule for myself: talk to at least 10 people a day. At the expo hall alone that day, I talked to at least thirty to forty people. Remember how I mentioned that I was an introvert? It was definitely overwhelming; however, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Being able to network and make connections with so many recruiters was quite an exhilarating experience! I was able to discover companies that I’d never heard of, and learn more about what companies around the world are doing to ensure that they create a diverse, comfortable working experience for black talent. The swag I received was very nice as well! I also had the chance to speak with some Credit Karma recruiters and meet other ColorStack–another organization I’m in–members, thanks to Credit Karma and Jehron Petty, the ColorStack CEO!
If there was anything I wish I could have done differently, I definitely would have gone back to the hotel to rest a bit. AfroTech–and most conferences in general–span across multiple days. You do a lot of talking and walking, so you’re definitely bound to get tired at some point! It’s always good to take some time for yourself, even if it’s only an hour or two because you’re bound to get tired at some point.
The third and final day I spent there started off with a breakfast hosted by 3M, where I got to meet a few other RTC scholars I hadn’t met yet. I also had the opportunity to speak about my experiences and interests as they relate to Computer Science with a 3M employee. Later that day, a few other RTC members and I were able to personally meet with Bank of America, who sponsored our trip to AfroTech. There, we were able to discuss what we’d like Bank of America to do to ensure black employees, especially black women, feel comfortable and heard in the workplace. We also received advice that I will carry along with me for the rest of my life.
AfroTech was truly a life-changing experience for me. Seeing so many black people in tech in one place and being able to speak to so many amazing people has not only increased my confidence in myself but has also allowed me to meet and create what I hope will be long-lasting connections with others. I know that the road ahead is not necessarily going to be a smooth, comfortable ride, but I’m ready to take on whatever is headed my way.