In March, 20 alumni of the American Express Leadership Academy network met up in Austin, Texas, and turned the annual South by Southwest creative gathering into a leadership development and network-building opportunity. Here is the fifth and final post in this series.
When I attend an event, I look out for three things in the audience: who shows up, why they show up, and who is not there.
I think about this because attending an event is another way we access information, experience, and form connections to people and learn. Thus, if we don't have access to certain events, it means we also lack access to the resources that come with those events.
Of course, not every convening is right for everyone but we can draw lessons when entire groups lack access or representation at an event. I was reminded of this when I first attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.
SXSW is one of the largest international conferences that focuses on diverse leaders and innovators in technology, education, music, social entrepreneurship and the arts. I was blown away by the variety of topics, sectors and experiences available each day. It is truly rare to attend an event where you start a day thinking about empowering women in tech, then have lunch talks about artificial intelligence (AI) and the future of our workforce, and end the day examining how technology is changing music distribution and development, and why that matters.
I loved the conference, and left feeling empowered. I reconnected with so many amazing people and new friends.
At the same time, I was also aware of who was not well-represented there: namely, diverse and emerging leaders in social entrepreneurship, as well as those in the nonprofit and foundation world.
This absence was understandable on some levels. Attending SXSW can be expensive: the SXSW badge, which gives participants access to the full experience, is not cheap, even before travel and lodging costs. And we must not forget the time investment: it takes time to strategize how to make the most out of your days when there are multiple sessions going on at the same time. Those of us in the nonprofit and social entrepreneurship sectors often have limited budgets and time.
Organizing a SXSW Social Purpose Cohort
As I reflected on my first SXSW experience, I realized that many other people like me would benefit from an opportunities to connect and grow, if only we could remove some of these cost-time barriers. So for 2018, I and my friend Terri Broussard Williams, a fellow American Express Leadership Academy (AELA) alum, made a pitch for a mini-grant to attend SXSW with other members of the AELA Alumni Network. Thanks to support from American Express, we were able to bring a group of nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs to attend SXSW, and make the experience more educational by organizing a workshop and speaker to share wisdom about thoughtful leadership.
Daron K. Roberts, former NFL coach and author of Call An Audible, agreed to speak with our group. He's a powerful speaker, as a university lecturer and founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation at the University of Texas, and he shared his journey from Harvard Law graduate to NFL coach to educator.
We also did an Adaptive Leadership Exercise with the nonprofit I Live Here, I Give Here. We helped them problem-solve a challenge that the founder was facing, and generate possible solutions.
Igniting the Learning Spark
As a result of attending SXSW together as a group, our experience felt more intentional and inclusive. Not only did we meet new friends and learn new things, our activities and conversations reminded us why we chose to do what we are doing today: because we had a mission to fulfill. What's more, attending such a huge event with trusted allies helped us stay at ease and stay open-minded. I was able to attend discussions on topics such as blockchain (a secure, decentralized approach to storing digital assets), music trends in Africa, and VR trends and reflect on their applicability to my work.
Since everyone in the group had different expertise and interests, we helped give each other access to different events and connections that permitted us exposure to many more networks and events than we'd have alone. It made "showing up" a lot easier and more fun.
I believe we benefited others, as well, by sharing insights about the nonprofit world, foundations and social entrepreneurship.
Most importantly, the experience of doing something can have a domino effect. New connections and experiences makes it easier for us to continue learning new things. I certainly know more about blockchain than I did before. And the experience helped remind me that I must continue to actively pursue new information do each day, not just stay with the status quo. I have to show up to different places and learn something new with an open mind.
The experience of doing something new has a domino effect. New connections and experiences makes it easier for us to continue to learn new things.
There will always be constraints in our social purpose work. Budget, time, capacity are often tight, but knowledge should not be. Each "new thing" we learn gives us the awareness and courage to explore the next new thing. This time it happened to be SXSW. Next time it can be somewhere else. As I reflect on our experience at SXSW, I’m reminded of why it is important to show up and ask why.
This blog is one of a five-part series of reflections from the #amexleads leadership meetup at this year's South by Southwest festival. We will update this post with each week's new blog.
Part 1: Building Leadership Ecosystems that Thrive by Blair Glencorse
Part 2: How I Didn't Meet Barry Jenkins - My Experience at SXSW by Kim Gube
Part 3: The “Reach Out” versus Networking: A Conversation with Molly Beck of Messy Bun by Julie Smith
Part 4: What's a Conservation Nerd Doing at #SXSW? by Mary Burke
Part 5: Show Up and Ask Why by Monica Kang