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Racism Still Alive and Well When Tech Industry Speakers Take the Stage

There are still industry event-goers who openly say they are surprised when a minority delivers a keynote.

Janet Schijns

July 29, 2020

3 Min Read
African American Speaker at Event
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Janet Schijns

This is what great looks like — my friend and industry associate Will Harris. Will has built a prestigious and successful career as a speaker, marketer, and sales leader in our industry despite all of the obstacles thrown in his way. He gives back through his charity, benefiting thousands of people in need annually. He is truly a leader among leaders. And yet, he still faces racism even with his stellar reputation, large following and band of industry supporters like myself.

The first time I saw Will speak in our industry was the late ’90s. I was sitting next to a member of our technology channel who turned to me and said, “Will Harris is Black? I didn’t see that coming. When I saw his name, I guess they had to find someone like him to speak.” I was speechless for a moment, but then stammered through trying to explain to the person that no, they weren’t picking speakers that way, and that Will had earned that spot because he had a valuable message — which I knew at the time because he was part of my team.

You could feel the judgment, frankly, in the room as Will took the stage. None of the other speakers had faced, in my opinion, such a tough crowd. Suffice to say, my words did nothing to change my seatmate’s mind, but Will did change everyone’s mind. He blew it out of the park; he was the best speaker that event audience had ever seen, and in the end he got a standing ovation, even from my previously doubting seatmate who went on to hire Will to speak at one of his events. Will has always excelled in this setting, but my heart bled thinking that he had to not only battle through the stagefright we all have, but also had to be better than anyone else just to prove himself worthy. Completely unacceptable.

Channel Partners and Channel Futures commit to fostering an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion in the channel and the technology community as a whole. Thus, we are featuring news articles, first-person accounts and strategies around topics of race, diversity and inclusion to spur discussion of these important subjects. So visit our webpage dedicated to the topic.

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Will Harris

Fast-forward to 2020. This same amazing speaker and leader, Will Harris, is now a keynote speaker for Channel Partners Virtual, Sept. 8-10. And again, a member of our own industry said, “Well, I guess they needed a black guy.” This time I was not speechless; in fact, just the opposite. I showed him Will’s accomplishments, his achievements, and his accolades. And then I said, “Let’s check the rest of the speakers together to see if they are qualified enough for you not to think they got on because of their demographic.”

Well, that changed the discussion pretty radically and ended with this person apologizing. We had a multiple-hours discussion about how we all need to do better, be better and support others better if we want our channel to change.

So I challenge each of you — what lens do you use to judge talent? Do you look for people who look like you, or widen the aperture and look for and celebrate genius like Will? Together we can change the course of our industry and welcome diversity. My road map for success:

  1. Speak up when you hear or see racism; don’t leave it for someone else to take action. Do it yourself.

  2. Be respectful in your challenge, but stand up and be heard. Remember, an argument doesn’t generally change things, but a healthy dialogue can work wonders.

  3. Think about your own conscious and unconscious biases. How do they negatively impact your business? The industry?

I for one am proud to know and work with Will Harris. Shouldn’t you be too?

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