There are a lot of reasons to love South by Southwest: music, film, food, the latest tech trends, celebs, networking, you name it. For me, it’s all about the speakers and panels and a chance to learn new things. It’s the convergence of industries and people, combined with an underlying ethos of making a difference that makes this conference and festival truly special.
Porter Novelli began supporting SXSW in 2003. When I began leading our presence at the conference in 2015, I made a deliberate decision to use the Austin-based event to bring together a diverse team from across our network to learn and grow. Since then, more and more colleagues have converged in Central Texas to become a part of the South-By community, hearing from popular and up-and-coming artists, film-makers, and thinkers.
With so much to see and do, each team member comes to Austin, responsible for covering a specific beat/topic of their choosing. This year, 14 of us from 11 cities, five countries and 3 continents gathered the latest insights in social impact, marketing and branding, journalism, technology, health and wellness, food and nutrition, gaming, social and digital media, entertainment, politics and much more.
The wonderful part of having team members from as far away as London, Mexico City, Melbourne (Australia) and San Jose (Costa Rica) and locally from Atlanta, Boston, DC, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle is that each person brings their unique way of looking at the world. There’s nothing like the wide-eyed enthusiasm of colleagues open to all kinds of experiences, speaking in English and Spanish, greeting each other with big hugs at the end of each day, excited to share what we’ve learned. For about a week, we become a family eager to learn as much as we can so we take it all back to our colleagues and clients back home and apply it to our work.
In my case, years before I became Porter Novelli’s global diversity and inclusion leader, I started covering the topic of diversity and inclusion at South-by. I had started to see more and more issues of hate in society and I was eager to learn more about ways to combat that hatred through culture and the workplace. My very first SXSW panel ever was “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter II” featuring Dr. Kimberly Ellis a.k.a. @drgoddess and Meredith Clark (@meredthdclark). During the session, Ellis and Clark delivered a masterclass on things we know today but wasn’t part of the national dialogue at the time: the unequal treatment of Black young men in media, bias against African-American victims of brutality, and the infantilization of White perpetrators. They deconstructed the cycle of media coverage, introducing critical facts and layers about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that had not been covered at all in traditional media. Like the title of their panel, they were brilliant. I soaked it all up like a sponge.
Since then, some of the most impactful sessions I’ve ever heard – mainstage keynotes as well as panels with only a few people in the audience – have been at SXSW. I realize now I’ve been the beneficiary of SXSW’s commitment to diverse programming. Using the acronym G.L.O.V.E., SXSW has been looking at diversity of gender, location, opinion, variety and ethnicity to evaluate its panel submissions. And it paid off in 2018, as I’ve never seen SXSW programming more diverse and intersectional.
This year, I heard from people like Luvvie Ajayi, Christiane Amanpour, Michael Barbaro, Kamau Bell, Guy Benson, Pat Bishop, Rukmini Callimachi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wendy Davis, Dan Fogelman, Jenny Hagel, Justin Hartley, Elliot Kotek, Dylan Marron, Mandy Moore, Joy Reid, April Reign, Hilary Rosen, Roy Spence, Kara Swisher, Yen Tan, Tina Tchen, Christina Tosi, Milo Ventimiglia and Jeff Yang. I watched the documentaries: Half the Picture and Alt-Right: Age of Rage and much more.
While I can’t say SXSW is the reason I’m doing the work of diversity and inclusion today, I can say that it certainly encouraged me to delve deeper into my personal passions which has become my life’s work. In a full-circle moment, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kimberly Ellis again this year, the only time I’ve seen her since attending my first SXSW panel years ago. This chance meeting gave me the opportunity to say thank you for helping me make some sense of what’s going on in the world through her SXSW session years ago.
In the future, I encourage folks to check out a panel that’s outside of your specific field at SXSW or elsewhere. You never know where it might lead you.
Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and global diversity and inclusion leader for Porter Novelli.