This story is part one of Boardroom’s Women’s History Month series highlighting bold figures forging distinctive paths in the worlds of sports, business, culture, and entertainment.
Part II: Valentina Shevchenko | Part III Dany Garcia
The 30-something serial entrepreneur exclusively spoke with Boardroom about the foundation of Blavity, Inc. and its plans for expansion into the music world with the AFROTECH™ Conference.
Morgan DeBaun founded Blavity, Inc. for a highly specific reason: as a means to fulfill a self-discovered need for the millennial generation to have a Black-owned company that housed Black products, ideas, and solutions and valued Black audience satisfaction.
Nine years later since its 2014 founding, DeBaun has curated a media empire that evolved into a market leader in Black media, housing divisions across various verticals of technology, entertainment, lifestyle, and more with Blavity News, 21Ninety, AFROTECH™, Travel Noire, Shadow & Act. Those properties are joined by the recently launched Home & Texture, the first-ever curated home, interior design, and commerce hub dedicated to Black and multicultural consumers.
“Black folks, we drive so much of culture, we drive internet culture, we build incredible innovations. There was nothing in the marketplace that was a way for us to connect, to hear about news and local heroes,” DeBaun told Boardroom about the initial inspiration behind her nearly decade-old company.
“Then similarly, from an AFROTECH™ perspective, there was very few opportunities for us to learn how to get into these higher paying jobs or start to scale our businesses through venture capital, so really I wanted to build a company that could before the people and try to drive change as much as possible.”
Based on her understanding of the Black experience as non-monolithic, DeBaun wanted the arc of her company to reflect the versatility and diversity of the communities it serves, which inspired her to expand its brand portfolio in all these directions. From fun cafe finds in Amsterdam and Paris for the first-time Black female solo traveler to the future executive and serial entrepreneur who wants to be in the know about leaders and influencers in the tech and media space, Blavity, Inc. has come to create a hub for all manner of millennial professionals to feel seen, heard, and valued.
As DeBaun further framed her philosophy for Blavity’s ongoing expansion, “I knew that early on when I started the company, the vision was always to have an ecosystem and a portfolio of brands that could leverage each other’s strength, but also specifically serve the unique needs and solve the problems of the demographic that it was trying to reach. Blavity as a corporation wants to make sure that we are creating products and platforms for the entire nuance of our identity as people of color in this world.”
A few weeks back, Blavity, Inc. hosted its first-ever Grammy Awards party at LA hangout The Nice Guy — which also served as a celebration of the SheEO’s birthday — and married tech, music, and culture on a warm Saturday evening in Los Angeles ahead of one of the biggest nights of awards season. The occasion was filled with vibes, energy, and like-minded talent, managers, and agents who all strive for the amplification and protection of Black media with Blavity and DeBaun as its fearless leaders.
The party also served as an unofficial conversation starter on how her media enterprise plans to expand into the music industry, including the AFROTECH™ conference’s recent inaugural music festival track, which re-ups again in Austin in November 2023.
DeBaun noted Blavity, Inc.’s debut music festival last year as having “incredible turnout” thanks to nearly 25,000 attendees packing sold-out venues. To ring in this music festival track with full fanfare, she made a point not only to include Grammy Award-winning producer Zaytoven and “Whole Lotta Money” rapper BIA in the proceedings, but feature A&R, distribution, and publishing executives in panels and conversations as part of a 360-degree perspective on the music industry.
“The reason why I wanted music to be incorporated into AFROTECH™ is because the platforms in the music industry have dramatically changed how music has happened, distribution of music, [and] ownership of [intellectual property]. Those are conversations that we’re having now that we’re not happening our generation before us 20, 30, 40 years ago,” DeBaun said.
“They weren’t talking about owning their IP and making sure that they own the distribution rights. How technology completely disrupted how music runs. You see that in the pricing of music festivals, you see that in people building out a merch strategy because these big conglomerates like Spotify, Amazon Music, or Apple Music are driving so much of the economics and the music industry,” she said, “and all of those companies are our biggest partners for AFROTECH™. It made sense for us to bring in the decision makers, then the artists, and of course have a celebration.”
And while DeBaun admittedly didn’t want to introduce Blavity News with a full-fledged music vertical because of her fear of being “pigeonholed” by the stereotypes of Black media outlets and becoming another run-of-the-mill hip-hop and R&B news site, she thought there was no time like the present to amplify Blavity, Inc.’s continued support of artists throughout the diaspora and the influence of our music.
“Now that we’re more mature and we have such a huge scale, I wanted to make sure that we were continuing to still go back to our roots and really support the voices and the artists and the people and culture that are driving the business behind the music industry,” she said.
What that means for DeBaun is going beyond simply seeking out big names on billboards and coveted artists who land on magazine covers. She wants to use her platform to highlight the geniuses, creatives, and innovators who keep the wheels of the music industry churning outside the spotlight as well.
“Talent is front and center during Grammy Awards weekend, but it’s the folks making it happen behind the scenes that are really driving a lot of the different parts of the music culture and the music industry, which is of course dominated by Blackness,” she said as she exclusively shared her plans ahead of next year’s ceremony with Boardroom. “So, I’m excited that we had our first event and we’re able to bring people together from the sports world and a variety of different talents, DJs, et cetera. Next year, I’m looking forward to doing a bigger event that’s not public so that folks who are in town have a place to go that are a part of the industry.”
As for her personal lens as a Black woman, it’s a no-brainer to always include Black women of all shades, hues, and backgrounds in discussions devoted to tech, media, and entertainment. Why, you ask? ‘Because Black women run the world’ — no, I’m kidding,” she laughed before reiterating her primary point. “I’m not kidding. I think that’s just who we are, right? Black people are our core demographic and it’s critical no matter what we do. Our first lineup for our first day, it’s all Black female artists from the DJ to the opener to the headliner, but you don’t see that often.”
Specifically as a serial entrepreneur and top executive in the media space, DeBaun notes that you can’t have a conversation about the current state of news and media culture without the inclusion of Black media professionals and outlets. No matter the generation, from Baby Boomers to the rising Generation Alpha, she expressed the importance of exemplary storytelling and narratives that can serve as a positive depiction — and celebration — of our people throughout the years.
“It’s important for us to see stories as the most powerful way to change people’s perceptions of self and self-confidence, and also to influence other people in power that may need to get out of our way so we can take the power we deserve,” DeBaun said. “Ensuring that we have the media element of our business is really helpful. You look at our TikTok, you look at our Instagram, you are gonna see it’s really fun; it’s not intimidating. It’s really accessible so that anyone should be able to envision themselves in the tech, media, and entertainment world.”
Speaking of those rising generations to come, the millennial mogul served up a few bites of advice for upcoming Gen Z and Gen Alpha media entrepreneurs regarding keys to success when embarking on a journey to curate their own empires.
“Media is a tough world. Really focus on building an audience and a community that is loyal regardless of platform and stay focused on who you’re serving,” DeBaun said, alluding to the exact reasons why she strives to create space for these younger voices through the Blavity U vertical.
“Don’t try to grow and expand too quickly. When I first started the company, everything that VCs asked me first was like, Hey, will you ever expand outside of Black? And I was like, Nope. That served us really well — being really focused because it means that we can help someone from cradles to graves, make sure that they have what they need, what information they need, the entertainment that they need, and then access to the networks that they need.”
As DeBaun put a bow on it:
“Gen Z is our future, right? They’re the future leaders. They’re already leading at a much younger age than our predecessors were. I think that having an experience and a space where multiple generations can come together to collaborate, to share ideas, will help us all progress faster towards our shared purpose of economic freedom and growth for our people. Understand you can and should be considering working at a tech company, learning how to code or how to use these tools at our fingertips, the internet, our mobile phones, to do whatever it is that is your purpose in life. You don’t have to wait to go to a four-year university and get all these degrees. You don’t have to wait to start to make a difference in the world, and Gen Z already knows that, but we wanna make sure that they know some of the tools and different ways that they can make that happen.”
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