Thursday, August 21, 2014

BlendConf: Just what Charlotte's tech environment needs

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 8:18 AM

Charlotte will soon play host again to one of the most progressive, trail-blazing tech conferences in the South's tech scene Sept. 11-14. BlendConf is the Charlotte-born conference intentionally aimed at growing our tech scene. Its refreshing focus on diversity while simultaneously connecting our city to the larger community (and intentionally unplugging while doing so) is exactly what the tech environment needs the U.S. over, not just here in the Q.C. Here's a video featuring last year's event so you can get a feel for what BlendConf 2013 was all about:

BlendConf 2013 - Charlotte, NC from Blend Conference on Vimeo.

Over and over again the issue of (lack of) diversity in the tech community, both locally and at large, is up for discussion. The Washington Times recently touched on the topic when covering Technoir, a conference "created to examine the challenges and opportunities unique to black entrepreneurs."

From the Times story:

“A lot of these top firms, their diversity is, in my opinion, shameful,” said Justin Maddox, the chief executive of CrowdTrust, an identity verification service for crowdfunding sites. “It’s extremely lame in 2014 for you not to be able to reach outside your demographic and grab somebody of another gender or another race."

Start-ups founded by women and people of color are also funded in lower numbers than those founded by white men. While studies have shown there are a number of reasons for the disparity, several panelists said the fact investors often look within their network for the next big idea contributes to the problem.

“If you have a great idea and somebody believes the only people who have great ideas are white males, then how are we ever going to create an economy that outperforms those economies like China?” asked Talib I. Karim, executive director of the nonprofit STEM4US. “We have an advantage in our diversity.”

Big tech companies and big companies with big IT departments (here's looking at you, Bank of America and that ilk) lack diversity. It's well illustrated in the recent statistics released by Google, Apple and Facebook on their respective workforces.

Bermon Painter, BlendConf's founder and the winner of the Charlotte Business Journal 2014 CIO of the Year award, says he and his team focused intentionally on making diversity a priority in organizing the speaker lineup.

“We continue to focus on diversity both in our curated speaker lineup and in our attendees. Speakers are heavily curated to ensure a diverse speaker lineup. Our speaker list includes seasoned speakers from around the world, some individuals that just getting started, and even some that will be speaking for the very first time." He continues, "In 2013 our attendees were roughly 30 percent female and 70 percent male. This year, we hope to achieve at least a 50/50 ratio by doing outreach to a number of excellent organizations like Girl Develop It and Black Girls Code that focus on improving the gender gap that currently exists.”

Keynote speakers include Mike Monteiro of Mule Design; Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America; Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code; and Scott Hansleman of Microsoft. Other notable speakers include Aaron Gustafson, Abby Covert, Allison House, Chris Coyier, Greg Hoy, Irene Pereyra, Mark Boulton, Paul Boag, Sougwen Chung and Val Head.

BlendConf also breaks the often impenetrable bubble of tech that holds Charlotte start-ups, students and professionals back by allowing locals to mingle with the big names from elsewhere that they wouldn't otherwise have access to, especially if they're young.

“Charlotte is a city that continues to grow and incorporate technology more and more," Painter says. "In order for that to improve, we believe the necessity to reach out to younger students. We’ve coordinated with IT-oLogy this year to provide a free student track on Saturday, Sept. 13 that involves middle school and high school students within CMS. We hope to provide them with information and activities that we hope helps to foster their interest in technology and design.”

It is so inspiring to know that Charlotte is producing events with a progressive, pro-active approach to taking our seat at the table as a tech hub in the South, something we couldn't celebrate even five years ago. Get on out to BlendConf this September. Charlotte's tech scene needs you to. It's important to be a shining example of what an inclusive, accepting tech scene looks like, even in the face of a world that is often not.

Sept. 11-13, 2014
The Sheraton Hotel, 555 S. McDowell St.

The event spans three days with eight workshops and 48 sessions.
For more info, visit the website.

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