by Monica Kang
When you hear so much about a conference such as South by Southwest (SXSW) before your first trip, you start to wonder: How much of all the hype is true? Is this going to be worth my time? Is this worth anyone’s time? Why in the world do thousands of people around the world keep showing up for 30 years? What should I expect to get out of it? What questions am I not asking?
In 2016, according to SXSW, over 72,000 individuals registered for the 10 day event in Austin. If you include all the people who came for the unaffiliated sideshows and free events, they estimate that about 150,000 attended. That’s HUGE! We don’t know the final count for 2017, but I bet it is somewhere close to that number.
So why do you show up? I wanted to know why.
As one of the 26 WeDC Ambassadors who had the opportunity to attend SXSW to represent DC’s diversity and inclusiveness, I took the opportunity to navigate this world for 5 days to understand these questions and learn as much as possible.
Here are some key observations that I want to remember and share from this experience.
(1) The Power of Random Connections
Unlike other conferences that attract a selective audience from a particular industry, SXSW attracts everyone from technology, retail, film, music to art and they all come with different motivations. And this randomness is beautiful.
It is a rare opportunity to see your entire world of networks clashing and connecting. It’s one thing to see mutual friends on Facebook or to introduce someone over email. It’s another to see how they all relate, interact and connect in person. You believe the song ‘it's a small world after all.’ And I loved it! Certain friendships were formed in ways I never thought was possible based on general interest but because we met in person. With Austin’s chilled atmosphere and a vacation like feeling, the opportunity to connect and meet amazing people from all walks of lives was so much more organic. It also permitted me to reconnect with great friends I have not seen in a long time and rebuild friendships. I can see why so many continue to come back and see this as a way to reunite and reconnect. If you are a people and idea connector, this is definitely your kind of party.
Lesson Learned: If there is an opportunity to connect with different networks and different groups, show up and learn.
(2) Importance of Offline Engagement
There is immense power in offline relationship building. No matter how much we rely on technology in our daily routines, nothing can replicate offline in-person human interaction. Its complexity, warmth, power, and depth is not replicable. Technology can help stay in touch but can never replicate the experience. Seriously. Information about these individuals, organizations, and products can be easily found online yet thousands of people decide to travel and show up to see in person. Why the hassle? Because nothing beats the in-person experience. The energy in the city during SXSW? You can’t generate that energy through software. This is why events like SXSW will most likely only grow not disappear in the continuing technology development.
Plus, you get to also see how you interact with those who you’ve met virtually or know in certain settings. I was quickly reminded of this as I found how I felt uncomfortable with certain people in person while they sounded fine via email and vice versa. While my true friends instantly made me feel at home and welcomed even when I had not talked with them in years.
You learn so much more when you experience it in person.
Lesson Learned: Don’t forget the power of being offline. Watch out for the innovators working in offline community products and services.
(3) Best Way to Meet The Real People Behind the Screen
This was my favorite realization. Yes, we tend to know more about a certain individual when you meet in person and it’s always great to add a face to the name during an age where we communicate so much digitally. There are a lot of non-verbal cues, attitudes and cultural nuances you can get. However, at an event like SXSW where there are a million things - or at least it seems like that - happening every hour, you see these cues a lot sharper. For instance, I noticed how people who gave me some judgy vibes before were a lot ruder and openly rude as they were constantly trying to meet other people and move away from me. I also noticed how acquaintances who were true friends ended up in longer conversations while those who underappreciated me kept moving on and ignored me. These insights were critical because it helped me have an auto filter of determining who are the people I want to keep closer and who I want avoid. It also reminded me that at the end of the day you are not going to be everyone’s best friend and that is ok! We are so used to pleasing and being pleasant with everyone that we forget that we may be hurting others by faking being pleasant. And when we don’t speak our true voice we may lose the opportunity to get to know our tribe.
As SXSW was a casual professional setting, I noticed how my strong questioning or curious voice at first meetings would either backfire and upset someone as they were not expecting that from a petite Asian female like myself. At the same time, this very element was often the reason how I got to connect on a deeper level with some other friends. I realized, while I should be sensitive to people, I shouldn’t feel like I need to hide the true version of who I am. If more people acted as their true selves and less judgy of those who were not like them, what would the interaction be like? It would be better.
Oh, and it may not be a coincidence that the people I admired the most after this event were the people who truly stayed present during the conversation. No matter how long we talked, they were fully focused and present instead of being distracted. The quality speaks for itself.
Lesson Learned: Be both your confident self and mindful of how everyone is different. Just because you do not get along with someone does not mean that person is not a good person. So instead of judging just let them be who they are. We don’t need to be the same person to like one another.
(4) Diversity - We Still Have Work To Do
We may have done a lot but I forgot how much of a bubble DC is. While I knew that Austin as a city is not as diverse as some of the other metropolitan cities, I was still shocked to experience these moments. These moments reminded me of why our work in DC and those who work in diversity development is so critical. Let me share two stories as an example.
Observation 1: There are tons of parties every night at SXSW and most people jump from one to another. After waiting in line for one, my friend and I decided to stop by another party at the other end of the city. The party was at an end but we still decided to take a walk into the space and explore what we missed. We were shocked. This party from what it looked like had thousands of people. It was dark but I visibly noticed that we were one of the 10 minorities in the entire place and everyone stared at us as we walked into the place. He was one of the five blacks we spotted. I was the only Asian. There were no Latinos. I could sense the weird looks they gave us. I never felt so vulnerable and naked. We immediately rushed back to the WeDC House where we found a colorful crowd of different races, genders and backgrounds dancing and singing. Even the energy in the room was different.
Observation 2: “I know they are not from Austin because you wouldn’t walk here if you were local,” said the cab driver as she indicated three happy young black males walking down the street in downtown Austin. “Wait, why??,” I asked with ignorance. While many love Austin and the city, many minorities avoid living or staying long in downtown as they are constantly discriminated or treated unfairly said the driver who was also black. Now that I thought about it, I realized all my friends in Austin who are minorities did not live in Austin. They were telling me how they were driving into the city and I just thought it was a happy coincidence. Turns out it was not.
We have work to do. These are just a few of many moments I experienced but I do not want to forget them. If Austin still feels that way after doing so many years of an international conference like SXSW, how many more people are living in unconscious bias?
Lesson Learned: Discrimination is a real problem and diversity is a real opportunity. We can make a difference but we have to all work together. Whatever gender or race we are, we have work to do. Let’s never forget that.
(5) You Are Human.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself to recharge before you jump back into the fire. With so much programming, people and parties happening nonstop, you can easily get overwhelmed and exhausted. It kind of reminded me of how we go through our daily routine. We let so much of the noise takeover our daily routine and distract us from what we should be doing - that buzz, text, email alert, and more. I certainly lost my voice and was getting quite tired by the end of it but I was really glad I made time each day to connect with close friends, get some sleep, spend time alone and eat well. If I compromised any of those details, I may have felt more exhausted and less happy.
Lesson Learned: Prioritize Recharging.
(6) Plan for the Marathon Not a Sprint.
See, the truth is I have always worked hard for everything I have ever done. It’s just not my nature.
I know that to some of my friends it looks like I suddenly accomplished entrepreneurship but on my end it has been a long time coming as I have been working night and day. Each milestone I reach has taken at least 6 or 9 months of work. That’s probably why when I get rejected from programs I thought I’d get in, when people snap at me out of nowhere, and discriminate against me, I get hurt and discouraged a bit. I know this work at InnovatorsBox is my life’s mission and I work hard every day, but I have to admit sometimes I am heartbroken when those moments happen.
I share this context because though such moments still happen, and even at SXSW, the conversations I had at SXSW reminded me that truth has volume. I was truly humbled during some of the conversations I had. They shared with me how they have been following my work for the past year and have been excited and inspired by what I do. One Instagram fan even came to me saying that our message encouraged her to start the project she wanted to start finally. Their hugs and words of encouragement were powerful because I had no idea those voices existed. I felt so alone at times. Yet, there was this crowd of people behind the internet watching me, observing what I do and cheering me when I did well. I was shortsighted. I worried about not meeting my immediate goals that I forgot to think of how far we have come and how much more we are about to do in the long run.
It was a needed reminder as a full-time bootstrapping entrepreneur. I don’t ever want to forget this.
Lesson Learned: You may not think it but your fans and enemies are watching you. Do your best and let your truth speak volumes.
So in all, I learned a lot and I’m deeply humbled to have experienced it.
SXSW was enriching, energizing, inspiring, exhausting and interesting overall and I would certainly aim to go back again in 2018. Next time, I’d love to speak and share my work in creativity and empower more organizations and leaders.
The next few weeks are critical for InnovatorsBox and I am grateful to have been part of SXSW, had the time to reflect and put these thoughts together, and for your support by reading the message thus far!
I hope these insights will help others take a peek into what SXSW is like and what you can get out of it if you plan to go next time.
Any questions or thoughts? Let me know. Thank you for reading this!
P.S. Hope to see many of you at our next Beyond The Box event. It's free but RSVP is required.
Beyond The Box is a group panel series where we debunk what is possible with creative thinking in industries that people think one can't be creative.
Want to learn more about InnovatorsBox? Join my webinar on April 19. Limited seating available. First come first serve.