In Conversation with Ashleigh Ainsley, Co- founder of Black Tech Fest – Creating Pathways for Black People in Technology

Ashleigh Ainsley Co-founder of Black Tech Fest.

Thank you Ashleigh for agreeing to take part in an interview for Diversity Business Magazine. Please elaborate on the aims of Black Tech Fest?

Black Tech Fest was created with the objective to celebrate culture inclusively through the lens of technology. We had the objective to bring new voices to keynote speaking opportunities to highlight the amazing work from Black people in the technology industry and to give brands the opportunity to tell society and communities what they were doing when it comes to diversity, equality, belonging and inclusion.

Since launching the festival in 2020, what have been the highlights for you? What did you learn about managing a festival?

First of all was the amazing experience of last year and really this was because we were creating authentic places to have conversations that just didn’t have a platform in existence in previous years. We spoke about a number of different things that impacted the community, from cryptocurrency, product inclusion allyship to a range of topics which impact our everyday experience of technology. 

TIkTok’s EMEA, Head of Business Marketing told an amazingly personal story at the festival about why his experiences of discrimination led him to bring inclusive design into all of his marketing campaigns and work which is a must watch at https://www.blacktechfest.com/

What was the response from participants? Did you get customers from all over the world?

For us Black Tech fest wasn’t just a necessary business generation idea. We wanted to make sure many of the participants and attendees who were curious about the content, had an amazing time. Fortunately our partners also enjoyed their experience and we are fortunate to have a number of great brands joining us again in 2021 such as Salesforce who are committing to participate and again for future editions. That is a real testament ultimately to the quality of experience that both of our partners had. Ultimately the main thing for us is that we have interesting and dynamic conversations around the topics that actually matter. We firmly believe that by doing this the audience will value what we do and spread the word worldwide.

2020 could be viewed as a pivotal year, not just because of COVID 19 and the disproportionate impact on Black communities, but because of the reaction worldwide to the George Floyd killing. Has the reaction and global outcry made any differences to the way the tech industry operates in the UK?

Our latest research suggests that there is a lot more to be done. When we surveyed members of the community we found that 38% of them actually believe that most of the gestures that organisations undertook in response to the events that affect the Black community in 2020 were tokenistic. This tells us that there is still a way to go in terms of progress in this space. 

I think broadly 80% of respondents thought that the startup ecosystem was no different in terms of inclusion, in the last year. I don’t think we can let organisations pat themselves on the back because they have put a post on social media or because they have told us they are going to do more. We actually need to realise those gestures in action. Asking people in the industry what they think, will be the true barometer to ascertain if there are meaningful differences. One positive thing, we note, is that we have observed more conversations around race.  However, there is a lot more to be done in terms of making that turn into substantive action, otherwise it is just all talk and no action and this could be more damaging.

How is Black Tech Fest making a difference with regards to representation and inclusion in tech businesses?

Black Tech Fest exists to provide a platform to highlight amazing Black people in the tech industry and use that as an opportunity to provide more role models for folks who don’t necessarily see people like them in leadership, innovating, or working in the tech industry. Through providing a platform to celebrate Black technologists we hope to open up a conversation about how we can create more pathways for more people from diverse backgrounds to get into industry. Our partners are also committed to that mission and have created opportunities. One of the initiatives of our partners is TikTok for example, they fast track graduates through their recruitment process if they attend Black Tech Fest. Facebook also provides a number of recruiters with whom candidates can talk to live in session in real-time to connect with further opportunities and ask particular questions about their circumstances.

Congratulations on becoming a Forbes under 30 award winner for the work you do in the nonprofit sector. Please share your achievements in this area?

Haha! I’m far too humble for that. In reality accolades are great, but the reason we exist is to give others opportunities and it’s truly a team effort. ~40% of eBays UK graduate hires came through Colorintech Programs, (which I am also the Co-founder of) and our alumni have landed roles at organisations such as Google and Facebook too. We are incredibly proud of our work and are excited to work with new partners such as Microsoft, Sky and Farfetch to create more opportunities. (Colorintech is the UK’s leading non-profit focused on diversity and inclusion in technology backed by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Atomico, eBay).

What are you planning for the next Black Tech Fest in 2021? What changes will you be incorporating particularly in light of your findings within the tech sector?

Black Tech Fest 2021 will be about creating more provocative and interesting conversations. Fundamentally, we want to provide a platform for discussions exploring the role between Black businesses and the narrative of charity. How do we make fintech inclusive for all, as well as being joined by a number of brands talking to us about what they’re doing in this space. Not shying away from having those conversations about whether their efforts go far enough. 

Interestingly, one of the key things I’m excited for this year is, going back to nostalgia and talking about the first publication to go viral. We are going to watch how leaders have navigated throughout the last 12-months in the light of everything that has happened. 

For the Black community we’re going to ask brands about how they are making sure that their products are pushing forward and not building biased systems. Finally as another hint we’re going to look back on the venture capital space and explore, after a year of introspection whether any more money moved to Black founders. We’ll be announcing the first wave of content for BlackTechFest from 6th July, so watch this space, and follow us here https://twitter.com/BlackTechFest.

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