Professional Networking Events Are Hella Shallow
Illustration: Richard A. Chance

Professional Networking Events Are Hella Shallow

When steam tables and free cocktails just don’t cut it

When I took my current job, I wasn’t planning on much camaraderie within the workspace. I’ve kind of become accustomed to expect otherwise — a handful of Brown faces in the office to share head nods with is a bonus more valuable than the company’s gym membership reimbursement. It’d be great to have an outlet for encouragement, feedback, and insight from people climbing the corporate ladder who actually look like me.

Between my first job working in the tech space and my current one, I’ve made connections with a few Black colleagues who have kept in touch and introduced me to their own circles. But a co-worker from my last job put me on to what I figured would be my first serious level-up: the Black Tech Professionals event pool.

Jamal, the guy who actually wanted to kick it with me beyond 10 awkward seconds at the elevator, was the plug; there’s no way I would’ve known the scene existed if he hadn’t hipped me to it. (Seattle isn’t New York City, you know.) I had assumed a Reddit forum of Black folks talking shit about their managers was the best show of solidarity I could hope for — to know that these events existed gave me a completely new mindset. When I began attending them, though, I realized they weren’t the career-advancement panacea I’d imagined.

Jamal’s description of a recent event he’d attended — “Man, I swear it was like the ‘Big Pimpin’ video” — tripped me out completely. The idea of a cruise where Black professionals talked strategy and algorithms against a Jay-Z x UGK backdrop? Nothing could have stopped me and my roommate from RSVPing for the next event. I was just ready to be around skinfolk making waves.

The idea of a cruise where Black professionals talked strategy and algorithms against a Jay-Z x UGK backdrop? Nothing could have stopped me and my roommate from RSVPing for the next event.

Much to my delight, this soiree wasn’t on water, but in a shiny building overlooking Lake Union. Promising already. We filed into the lobby, checked in, Sharpie’d our names on those sticker tags no one actually wants to wear, and made our way upstairs to the main area. All the trimmings you’d expect to be there were there… and then a few curveballs. Rows of chairs with little pamphlets on each seat. An open bar, already crowded with solo guests waiting for their plus-ones. A row of tables filled with soul food from Black-owned restaurants, and an even longer line behind them. A stage to host a kickoff panel of experts, and a DJ to close the night by introducing musical acts once all that free wine starts hitting. So basically, Techchella.

The panels were informative enough. And it was encouraging to see all the burgeoning connections taking place around the room, especially since I have no such support group at my job. I ran into an old colleague who arrived with other Black transplants she met online when she first moved here from Vegas. Imagine a college freshman mixer during orientation week, just with disposable income and legal freedom to double-fist whiskey gingers.

But outside of sweet mini-reunions and tasty hors d’oeuvres, the event felt like it was more about flossing than bossing. Of a few more friends I found floating around the event, half of them didn’t work in the industry, or have plans to. They didn’t even try to hide that they came for the open bar and local performers. Really, bro? You didn’t come to get a new contact or finesse a job opportunity, but rather to fill up your Instagram stories with shaky snapshots of an event about which you barely know the details? Nice.

It didn’t shock me too much, though. In Seattle, I’ve been to many a Black function where creatives exchange contacts with no intention to follow up. It’s disappointing. I love free shit and a crowd of well-dressed Black and Brown folk as much as the next person, but when you get below the surface, what’s the real takeaway here?

I think about how big companies always come up with special Black History Month programming that includes circulating Martin Luther King quotes, themed lunches, and a special “For Us, By Us” screening of Get Out or something. A kick-it session that simultaneously ticks off companies’ cautious steps toward increased diversity and inclusion. (Ah, my favorite gluten-free buzzwords.) And those are hella fun, I promise. But sometimes I wonder — and don’t shoot me — am I wrong for craving a little bit more from these get-togethers? What’s actually being retained? How about events that shift the industry in intentional ways that are also forms of celebration?

We talk a mean line about wanting more of us to pull up seats at the table Solange so eloquently sang about — or better yet, assembling and setting our own. So I’m always here for panelists candidly discussing their experiences. But a Black TechCrunch where different groups of color work together and build some shit? Sign me up.

The same can be said about paving paths for our future generation. How about coming together to create scholarships and programs for people of color and low-income families who don’t have extra dollars for those big fancy camps? I’m lucky to have a small network of professional friends whose brains I can pick. But most of us in this industry don’t, so how do we change that? You know, something more than a function where we get together, take photo booth pictures, and watch Black Panther… again. (No shade, T’Challa’s my guy.)

But let me be real and step off my soap box. Who am I kidding? Once social distancing is a thing of the past, I’m jumping at the next invite that slides my way. Hell, I’ll even hop on one of those awkward virtual happy hour events on Zoom for some forced networking and human connection. I want to advance professional opportunities for others who look like me, but I get that light bites, noncommittal chatter, and a solid playlist might be what brings together people to have these conversations in the first place. Hey, at the very least, it’ll probably lead to a new follow on IG or a new business card in the pocket. And, of course, another drink.