How A Grad Student Organized The Afrotectopia Black Tech Event On Zero Budget

How A Grad Student Organized The Afrotectopia Black Tech Event On Zero Budget

The Moguldom Nation

You probably won’t be able to get tickets for Afrotectopia. The student-led media arts, culture and technology festival is sold out — not bad considering it was created and produced with zero budget.

The student-led festival was designed to recognize the contributions of Black artists, designers, technologists and activists, as well as build community amongst people working at the intersection of art, design, technology, activism and Blackness.

Clearly, it resonated with its intended audience. More than 500 people applied to attend Afrotectopia.

Hosted by New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), the inaugural event is scheduled for March 10 and March 11 at the Tisch School of the Arts Building in New York, New York.

This is the first Afrotectopia festival, but it probably won’t be the last if its creator and producer, Ari Melenciano, has anything to do with it.

Melenciano told Moguldom that she plans after she graduates to continue developing Afrotectopia outside of NYU.

Alumni from NYU’s ITP program include a MacArthur Genius grant recipient; an interactive light artist who rigged up the San Francisco Bay Bridge; the founder of Foursquare; and the creator of a mobile app that helps families reunite after disasters and crises.

Melenciano is an Afro-Latina graduate student who was born in the U.S and has a Dominican heritage.

She’s a multidisciplinary visual artist, creative technologist and digital fabricator, according to her NYU Tisch School bio. Before entering NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Melenciano studied visual arts at the University of Maryland and urban planning at Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. She is passionate about merging art, design and technology.

Melenciano produced the two-day Afrotectopia festival with zero budget. It will feature a variety of celebrated artists, technologists and culture producers who will create a space that welcomes visionary thinking through presentations, think tanks, panels, installations and open dialogue.

Panelists and discussions include Brandon Bryant, managing partner and co-founder of Harlem Capital Partners; John Henry Thompson, inventor of the Lingo programming language used in Macromedia Director and Shockwave; and Iyore N. Olaye, the lead development engineer at Walker & Company Brands.

Afrotectopia is supported by student volunteers, NYU faculty and working professionals.

Moguldom spoke with Melenciano about how she managed to organize the Afrotectopia on zero budget, and the excitement the event has produced in the New York City area.

Mogudlom: What is your role at NYU?

Ari Melenciano: I am a master’s degree student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU Tisch. It is a two-year graduate program which focuses on the use of human-computer interaction, art, design and engineering. We call ourselves the Center for the Recently Possible, as we explore innovative uses of emerging technologies from mixed realities to user experience. I am excited to be graduating from the program in May. 

Mogudlom: ITP sounds like an exceptional program. What types of companies are employing graduates of the program?

Ari Melenciano: A lot of the past graduate students have gone on to work in creative technology positions or build their own tech startups. I also know others have gone on to work with the New York Times, Google and others.

Mogudlom: What brought about the idea of this event?

Ari Melenciano: Afrotectopia spun off from a Black History Month event in 2017. A few of us attempted to do an event which was put on at the very last minute. Afterwards, I began to look around at what other schools were doing for their Black student population to raise awareness of our culture and talents. I came across and attended Harvard’s Black in Design conference. Seeing students talk about the Black experience in the industry they want to be professionals in — and building a community — made me want to see the same thing happen at NYU. I want people to feel comfortable in pursuing these tech, arts and activist dreams while driving a conversation for change. I just think we need to create a connected community since many people in our field do not look like me.

Mogudlom: What makes this event different from other conferences with a tech focus?

Ari Melenciano: This event is focused specifically on blackness and activism. Most other black tech events are focused on the business aspect. This event is taking the conversation of our blackness through activism or our experiences and melding them with moving us forward with and in tech. I want the activist or the artist to see how they can use technology to advance their messages and talents. It is important to have innovative and creative thinking to build the lives of those in our community.

Mogudlom: Why is it important bringing an interactive event to your school important?

Ari Melenciano: Here at NYU’s ITP program, I’m one out of 10 black students, and there are approximately 240 people in the program. So, just like this program, it is tough to find Black people in the tech, art and activism space.

Mogudlom: Being that it is hard to connect with others in the tech and creative space, how did you connect with professionals that will be speaking at Afrotectopia?

Ari Melenciano: From referrals and searching on LinkedIn. It was hard to figure out who was out there. I didn’t know 75 percent of the people who are a part of the upcoming event, so that speaks even more to the need to connect the community. 

Mogudlom: How are students and the professional community reacting to the event?

Ari Melenciano: It makes them excited to hear what other blacks in the ITP are doing. There is definitely excitement beyond the campus. Even the professionals that are participating are reporting they are hearing the buzz and the applicants are happy about them being involved. 

Mogudlom: Why is there an application to be able to attend the event?

Ari Melenciano: Space is limited, and we are looking for people we believe can contribute and gain the most from Afrotectopia. Also, keep in mind that this event is designed by Black creatives for Black creatives. Over 500 individuals have applied to attend.

Mogudlom: Will this become an annual event long past your time at NYU?

Ari Melenciano: I intend to do intermittent events throughout the year to keep the momentum going. Afrotectopia is blossoming out of NYU’s ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program). NYU’s ITP has served as an excellent incubator for the inaugural Afrotectopia festival, providing us faculty assistance, handling all of the money, giving us free space and sponsorship. This inaugural event is entirely student-led, but as I graduate, I do intend to continue developing Afrotectopia outside of NYU, with plans to keep it in New York City. We would love to continue partnering with NYU, in particularly with ITP.

How do you think events like Afrotectopia can help people of color in their professional career?

Ari Melenciano: Focusing on creating a community will allow us to provide job opportunities amongst one another. The idea is to raise awareness of our abilities and our strengths and marry them with using technology to make a difference. One of our near-future goals is to try and start raising scholarships for more people to be able to carry out their ideas or to attend a tech-related program.