CES, an annual consumer electronics show, is a dizzying array of sights, sounds, and sensations related to cutting-edge (and sometimes strange) technology. It’s a tech circus of sorts, because it is arguably the greatest tech show on Earth.
Unfortunately, in five years of attending CES, I’ve witnessed an ongoing lack of diversity among exhibiting tech companies. I am happy to report that CES 2018 may have had some of the highest representation of diverse companies than I can remember, anecdotally—but still a relatively low presence.
The Importance of Black Founders’ Presence at CES
Dawn Dickson, the founder and CEO of PopCom, had a booth at Eureka Park—the part of CES that exclusively features startups—and spoke on a panel.
“I had a booth in Eureka Park, I was a speaker, and I also pitched in competition. I got the full experience I was looking for,” says Dickson.
“This is my fourth year attending. The previous years I just came to network but decided this year was the right time to exhibit and really start to promote my technology company, PopCom.” Dickson’s startup is an automated software solution that collects customer insight for retailers.
Patrick Jones, the founder and CEO of Vocatio—a media network and talent marketplace designed to help students find meaningful careers and match them with prospective employees—was also an exhibitor.
“We feel like it’s important to be at CES because it allows us to connect with a broad and diverse set of industries and technologies of interest to our users/audience (career-minded students) and it allows us to build relationships with companies who we would like to be our customers,” says Jones.
“In a less direct way, I believe it also allows our brand to derive a “halo effect” from being in places where concentrations of “technology- and innovation-minded” people congregate,” he continues.
How to Know If CES Is Right for Your Startup
Tayo Adesanya, an engineer who recently launched Agbara Life, maker of highly engineered backpacks targeted to tech-savvy urban millennials, also had a booth at CES. He had high praise for the experience.
“We had a great turnout at our booth in Eureka Park near the other startups. We received a lot of positive product feedback and we were even told to demo in the main wearable showroom next year. So we’ll be back,” says Adesanya.
Yet, some black tech founders are not convinced of the benefits of CES. Brian Brackeen, the founder and CEO of Kairos, a facial recognition company, says because his company is B2B (business-to-business) rather than aimed at the consumer market, CES “is not the right venue for us with limited time and budget.” Brackeen headed to a blockchain event in Dubai instead.
Joey Amanchukwu, CEO and co-founder of Tranforia, a Silicon Valley-based Information Technology services company, also doesn’t see CES as lending to his business’ success.
“I don’t think it’s worth $50k–$100k unless your product is already in the market and you have the budget to take on the upfront costs,” says Amanchukwu. “And, your product needs to stand out significantly given the major players showing off around you. Those funds can be used elsewhere instead.”
Expense Can Be an Issue for Entrepreneurs of Color
Money can be a prohibitive factor for diverse startup founders. Fees to exhibit at CES can cost thousands of dollars. Exhibiting in open-booth space at this year’s CES ran businesses $44 per square foot. Turnkey spaces that come with furniture and other accoutrements are often in high foot-traffic areas of the show and can cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.
However, startups can get a break in pricing. Eureka Park is specifically for startups that are not flush with the capital of larger tech companies. Dickson says exhibiting in Eureka Park cost her company from $1,800–$2,500. “It was very worth it for my team,” she says.
CES Organizers Seem to Have a Lack of Commitment to Diversity
There have been criticisms that the organizers of CES have done a poor job of encouraging diverse founders to be part of the show. As the blog GenderAvenger pointed out, the keynote speakers at CES were all men. And there were also no people of color delivering keynotes. In fact, Antonio Lucio, the CMO of HP, called on men to boycott CES.
“In this day and age, it’s very disappointing to see CES does not have any women or people of color as keynote speakers,” wrote Lucio in an email, reports Adweek.
Diverse tech founders could be found on smaller panel sessions and in the exhibit areas. Yet, walking around for days at CES made it clear that the attendees and exhibitors reflect the tech industry: mostly white (or Asian) and male.
Still, the tech founders of color who were at this year’s show said that it was not only important that they showed up, but also stressed how important it is that other diverse startups stake their claim as exhibitors at future CES shows.
How to Get Your Startup to CES
Dickson says if you want to exhibit at CES, it’s important to do your research and to get the process started early, before the show kicks off in January.
“I applied back in July for Eureka Park; for these major trade shows and events you have to be way early to get a good spot,” she advises. “We created an annual event calendar with deadlines to make sure we get registered for everywhere we wanted to attend.”
Startups and exhibitors have to fill out applications to exhibit and for some show areas, there is a selection process. But, the black tech founders say the time and costs are worth it.
“I believe, as black people, it is our responsibility to actively seek opportunities and not wait for people to reach out to us. I did the work to reach out and apply for a booth, researched opportunities to speak and pitch, and signed up,” says Dickson.
“We have to do better. Yes, it is true that we are not in the front of their minds when thinking of speakers to book, but it us up to us to put ourselves in the room and just sit at the table. I have spoken at some of the top conferences in the country by simply making myself available,” she says.