SXSW Interactive Banks on a #Bettertomorrow

There’s more to SXSW than just finding the next Zuckerberg.

For almost two decades since its founding in 1987, SXSW was known as the place to discover breaking new music acts and independent, off-beat films. SXSW Interactive, the festival’s lesser known venue -mainly due to the emerging nature of its medium – didn’t attract nearly as much public notice as its more established twin.

Fast forward a few years, as SXSWi has become a launching ground for some of the most formidable names in technology, including Twitter and Foursquare, and it has come to almost eclipse its original indie-music and film roots. In so doing, SXSWi has become something of an annual debutante ball for start-ups. Now, every spring in a time-honored Texas tradition, start-ups with a lot of VC funding “come out” to tech society (with handfuls of hoodies and logo tees in lieu of tiaras and white gowns).

Amidst the product launches, celebrity sightings, free t-shirts and libations flowing freely through the streets surrounding downtown Austin, it’s easy to forget that there’s an actual conference to go to. But with thousands of tech experts and luminaries on site to discuss timely issues having anything to do with technology today, participants stay on task. Additionally, despite the atmosphere that can definitely at times resemble a nerdy Cancun spring break, SXSWi happens to have a strong social component, with a multitude of events and sessions directly addressing the interplay between technology, innovation, and social impact.

This year, with “Better Tomorrow” as the main conference theme, panel subjects have ranged from race, gender, and class issues in the Silicon Valley, to using tech in dictatorships, to innovation and hacks in resource-limited societies, to leveraging online communities for social good projects.

Two panels, one of them led by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, tackled the reasons behind the enormous racial and gender gap in Silicon Valley. According to CB Insights, about 1% of entrepreneurs who received venture capital in the first half of 2010 were African-American, even though they make up 11% of the general U.S. population. Compare this to the 87% of founders funded who are Caucasian, and 12% who are Asian.

Why the gap? Participants discussed how socio-economic barriers, an often late start in developing tech skills, and a Silicon Valley culture where tolerating failure is a necessity, have hampered diversity in the tech industry. Hank Williams, an entrepreneur, pointed out the economic realities of many African American communities, and how that combined with Silicon Valley’s culture of failing forward can act as a barrier to entry.

“Some groups, for whatever reason there may be, have the socio-economic flexibility to fail,” while for others, “Failure means no rent money…or being able to eat next week,” says Williams.

If YouTube, Facebook, or comments are any indication, online commenters aren’t particularly well known for their kindness. However, a session featuring Alexis Ohanian, a Reddit co-founder, and panelists from, Reddit Gifts,
and the Awesome Foundation discussed how online communities can move beyond trolling to giving. By setting a tone for its online community and providing incentives that bring out the recklessly generous side of participants (think positive peer pressure, or trolling with a heart), Reddit has been a driving force for a variety of weird and wonderful altruistic projects. Reddit community members have even participated in the largest Secret Santa in the world, sent complete strangers pizzas on request, and facilitated a campaign to “charity blackmail” Stephen Colbert that raised over half a million dollars for

Social ventures were a popular topic of discussion at SXSW, and affiliated events like the Good Capitalist Lounge sought to prove that social impact and profit margin weren’t two disparate entities. Though there are plenty of businesses out there with an ethos that have proven wildly successful (such as Patagonia and Melissa shoes), the conversation on social ventures can still seem a bit apologetic and defensive at times.

On a marketing panel, the utility of cause-related work (employee retention, increasing brand awareness, building trust) was challenged with the claim that any company creating jobs – whether it be Wal-Mart, McDonalds, or BP was providing an overall social good, and that profit margin shouldn’t be hampered by “wanting to go to heaven.”

That assumption, that jobs trump all other considerations, and that having an ethic behind any business is not only not profitable but not an endeavor worth pursuing for the bottom line, seems to be a well-ingrained notion that requires constant, thoughtful pushback on multiple platforms, and SXSWi is only one venue (though with lots more free food and music) to explore social impact and the tools that can facilitate it.