How important is STEM/Tech? Ask one of the 100,000 school students who specialize in courses and classes that revolve around STEM and Technology.
The BITcon (Blacks In Technology) Conference is in its 5th year — and now in the music city as the Fall season nears. The annual conference will be held from September 5-7 at JW Marriott Nashville.
Behind the Growth in Tech
A growing number of startups and top tech companies are setting up space throughout urban cities — and the industry contributes $22 billion to America’s economy. How did STEM rise to become one of the most impactful avenues and what can the community do to sustain that growth?
Firm Biz caught up with Blacks In Technology’s Founder Greg Greenlee and Technology, Sales, and Marketing Executive Director Dennis Schlutz on what’s next for their business and what they’re doing to help transform America’s tech ecosystem.
FIRM BIZ: What are your expectations for this event and what do you want to see attendees discover from this conference?
Greg Greenlee: One is that we belong here in tech. In just having a conference like BITCON and seeing other black people in tech is impactful. If you’re new to tech or you’re on the fence about getting into tech, understand that we belong. Second is that we’re hoping that you’re able to take something from the conference that’s applicable to your job, career or business.
We pride ourselves on being a tech conference and not quote unquote a “diversity” conference. So we bring in subject matter experts and people that can speak to their expertise in tech in order to be able to give our speaker or attendees knowledge, wisdom, some understanding about the subject goal, whatever it is so that they can take that away from our conference and directly apply. We’re not preaching to the choir. We’re well aware of the disparities that exist – the two percents of three percent numbers, things like that. We already know that we’re not deep in this industry so we don’t need to hear that coming from us.
What we need to hear is ways on how we can improve, plus ways that we can gain knowledge in areas and techniques that we can focus on. And at the end of the day being in Tech, it’s going to be another way for you to have to financial independence.
This is just the way to empower you with more knowledge of wisdom. Whether it’s to build a company or get six figure or more paying jobs and help you out of that economic status or help you progress in your finances, that’s what we want to happen.
Dennis Schultz: The only other thing that I would add as far as to take away for the attendees, is the networking that you can do at the conference. Building your personal and professional network, you never know where the next opportunity is going to come from or the next co-founder or that next round of capital. Those things are important as well as the knowledge that you’re gonna get from a good session. A lot of folks attend the conference and the sessions are secondary to connecting and reconnecting with people that they haven’t seen or have been working with or want to be. And that is really good.
FIRM BIZ: What goes into the preparation for something like this? Because there’s so many layers of tech.
Dennis Schultz: Our member base is pretty wide and diverse. We have people who are students and educators or entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The majority of the member base are going to be people who work in IT, working in the technical profession and or working with a tech company in a non-technical role like the sales folks at Google or the marketing folks at Meta. So in those non-tech companies, we want to include them as well. When it comes to planning, how do you cater to software, engineering and cybersecurity and big data, machine learning and AI and cloud develops in one conference in two days? The answer is you really can’t.
You have to pick your battles and make sure that there’s at least one or two sessions that gets in the weeds a little bit about something that’s pretty technical and something that can be applied to a very specific role, so we have a little bit of both.
There’s a lot on career development because that’s universal. Everybody wants to advance their career, figure out how to do better in their job. But there’s also some technical things so people can dive deep into autonomous vehicles, for example or figure out what the latest tricks and tips are to incorporate ChatGPT or other generative AI resources into what they’re doing. So we are going to do a little bit of both and try to cater to as many people as possible.
We have concurrent sections going on. So people can choose what is appropriate for them at any given time during the day.
Greg Greenlee: There’s always aspects of our culture and our talks on how hip-hop culture could inspire development jobs search. It is suggested that in the culture of the black community, and there are sometimes this whole stigma of where, you can’t be hip hop and be tech, so to us, we try to dispel those notions and fuse that here with our program wherever we can. When we see a topic or talk like that, that perks our ears up. We want to give a platform for for things like that because we think it’s important to infuse aspects of our culture, music entertainment sports and with technology because we accomplished that, as black people in Tech.
You’ll see things like gaming for instance. We had a huge gaming tournament last year. I think we’re having something like that this year as well. Just being able to add those elements of our culture into the conferences, is what makes it unique, what makes it our type.
FIRM BIZ: What fuels the both of you because year after year, it is a grind to put these type of events together and it does not seem easy.
Greg Greenlee: I’ve been doing this for over a decade just as far as the Blacks In Technology brand. We’ve been around since 2009. 2017 is when we first started planning our conference and at that time, it was just me and one other person, and then we had a graphic designer. So essentially three people. We had some chapter leaders and things like that, but we didn’t have the number of people on the planning committee that helped to execute it. I mean if you ever been to our conference, you would see why every year we want to do it and we want to do it bigger and better. We believe in the impact and when you see what it has on the community, it is unlike anything that I’ve ever felt.
It’s people coming up smiling, being happy, being joyful, just just thanking the organization for bringing black people together in tech. When you feel like you’ve been on an island for so long and you’ve been in some volatile environments, having something like BITCon and just being able to be yourself or be authentic,
it feels unlike anything. Those conversations and those interactions are what drives me. There’s been times where I’ve been close to like “you know what, this is just too much.”
I work a full time job. I have two young boys and a whole family. So there has to be something about what you do that motivates you enough to take time aside of everything else that you’re doing and it’s the community. It’s the impact that drives me. It’s the emails that I get, the LinkedIn conversation where people are thanking me as the founder and for me I’m just like “hey this is all for you.”
Just people being able to find their career paths and their journey from being in our conference is huge. And without that who knows what would happen with those people. Not saying that they wouldn’t get a job but definitely having a venue like BITCon helps that. So for me, it’s almost a no-brainer to say I got to keep doing this until we don’t need it anymore.
Dennis Schultz: I’ll just say that I’ve worked harder for less in my life. When I look at the benefit of what I’m doing for the amount of work that I’ve put in versus some of the jobs that I’ve had in the past, it’s been retail work. I’ve worked factory jobs. I’ve sold door to door. I remember a Jetson’s episode where Jane Jetson woke up and she pushed two buttons like, “oh, I’m exhausted.”
It’s really all I do. All day is pushing buttons, but I don’t have to do that hard manual labor. I think about the people in my immediate family, my friends circle, people who don’t like their jobs, either unemployed or under employed and struggling to get by. I’m sitting here doing what I call Jetson’s work and getting good money to sit in a t-shirt and basketball shorts all day.
It’s like ‘why are you doing it the hard away?’ Why aren’t you getting into this because it does provide opportunity to change your lifestyle and build generational wealth. It gives you opportunity to move out of your circumstances, mentally emotionally and physically.
You can transform somebody’s life by giving them opportunities and giving them a path way to get in and remove those financial barriers to entry. For me, that’s all the motivation I need. If I can change a couple people’s lives doing that, it’s worth it.