For students of color, South by Southwest (SXSW) serves as a premier destination to absorb impactful trends in tech and startup culture with the opportunity to snag a coveted job at some of the world’s leading tech companies. The annual festival is a celebration of nearly 75,000 tech and entertainment enthusiasts featuring HBCU@SXSW, an official diversity and inclusion initiative designed to give minority students heightened exposure in front tech’s key players and decision-makers.
The four-day program, March 8-12, is comprised of students from historically black colleges and universities, predominantly white institutions, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges. Registration for each student costs $3,000 including flights, a 5-night accommodation, and meals for the duration of the conference. Applications for the annual conference opened last June and students learned of their official acceptance by March 1. This year’s HBCU@SXSW was the biggest yet, doubling last year’s attendance with more than 250 students attending.
Activities included a series of workshops on tech and entrepreneurship, a fireside chat with Priscilla Chan of the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and an open day at Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU located in Austin. Participants gained one-on-one time with recruiters from partnering companies like Tesla and MailChimp while soaking up many culinary delights from food trucks and other attractions. These events coupled with the opportunity to network and mingle with peers provided a fresh perspective into the industry.
For a student like Nailah Heard, the experience enabled her to see what’s available in the world of tech. The communications senior at Clark-Atlanta University is the co-founder of the OHUB chapter at her school. As a result of the conference, Heard is now interested in how she can incorporate technology into her entrepreneurial endeavors in the future.
“You can network in so many ways there. You can connect in so many ways and it’s a great atmosphere to be in. I took away from that experience that OHUB wants students to connect with so many companies and they don’t want to limit you,” Heard said. “They don’t want you in a conference room to interview and that’s it. They want to put in a space where you can connect with thousands of different companies.”
HBCU@SXSW is the brainchild of Atlanta-based tech entrepreneur, Rodney Sampson. The conference is the flagship program derived from his organization Opportunity Hub (OHUB) which provides training, job opportunities, and entrepreneurial resources for nearly 10,000 students of color across the U.S.
Initially self-funded by Sampson and his wife for two years until profitable, OHUB now partners with tech companies seeking to recruit students into summer internships and permanent roles. The companies are matched with selected candidates for interviews before the conference, and they meet at SXSW for the interview. This form of recruitment has been met with great success with 90% of its participants walking away with an internship or full-time position at major companies like Comcast, Amazon, and Uber.
As one of three Black founders to receive over $1 million of investment in the late nineties, Sampson has seen the landscape of tech funding and inclusion slightly improve with more opportunities for Black tech workers.
‘‘I didn’t want everyone Black have to figure out the hard way just how to get into tech, how to build something from nothing, how to launch a high growth company, how to raise capital, how to get customers, how to structure it and all the unknown unknowns that no one talks about,” Sampson said.
Facebook partnered with HBCU@SXSW for a second year as part of its recruitment drive to forge more connections with students. In addition to sponsoring five students, Facebook’s Diversity Program Manager, Willie Henry said recruiters met with new candidates by chance at the event and hired some students for their summer internships. These serendipitous recruitment opportunities are a testament to OHUB leveraging SXSW as the ideal setting for ambitious Black students serious about pursuing careers technology.
Both OHUB and HBCU@SXSW stem from Sampson’s belief that, “We can disrupt the racial wealth gap, and poverty and socially disadvantaged communities by ensuring that we have equitable access to an inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship and investment ecosystem.”
SXSW prides itself on being a place where new discoveries are made and with HBCU@SXSW as an official partner, the face-to-face nature of the conference helps bring people together in a way to addresses the issue of diversity in tech. For Sampson, the mission is simple. It’s about making access available for young people determined to succeed.
On the heels of yet another successful program that once began with 50 students, Sampson has his sights set on a bigger and better HBCU@SXSW experience in the years to come. One thing is clear: it’s not just an event—it’s equity for the next generation of leaders to disrupt the tech industry through an authentic pipeline.
“When you hear about Black excellence in tech, that’s what we do,” Sampson said.