South By South West, or just “South By” is a 10-day festival for original music, independent films and emerging technologies. But really the festival is a celebration of inspiration, discovery, innovation and the creation of memorable experiences.  Every 5 or 6 minutes, I find myself saying “Woah,” “Wow,” or, “Look at that.”  At every corner, there is someone talking about something amazing, demonstrating something mystifying, or cooking up something delicious.  Today was sensory overload and I have a feeling the next 5 days will be the same.

There is an endless stream of panel discussions, barbecues, flyers, games, stickers, sessions, business cards, concerts, secret treasure hunts, merchandise, parties, launches, apps, meeting rooms, and random meet-ups to navigate.  Then there’s the stream of hipsters, geeks, techies, tourists, volunteers and exhibitors. Most people have their faces glued to a smartphone, tablet or laptop screen.  They are constantly tweeting, emailing, GroupMeing, Whatsapping, texting, Facebooking, checking in and updating where they are, what they see and who they meet.  Everyone is trying to figure out where they should be, what they want to see and who they want to meet next.  Everyone is looking for their next fix.  Speaking of which, why are there needle disposal containers in all the restrooms at SXSW?

It’s hard to stay afloat in the bustle of it all.  But somehow, despite the confusion and the unworldly experience, the festival is superbly organized.  The registration area alone is bigger and than any exhibition space I’ve seen in Kenya!

 By 4pm, an hour before my panel Teaching Cheetahs: Disruptive Education in Africa, I was completely overwhelmed and unable to think why anyone would be interested in some small EdTech startup in Kenya.  On my panel were the kind of people I never dreamed I would ever be in the same room as, let alone speak on a panel alongside:

  • Rick Reeder: an amazing and inspirational man who works full time as a senior consultant at Dell.  In his spare time, he runs the African Leadership Bridge (ALB), a sustainable scholarship program based on a “pay it forward” model for promising African leaders to access the opportunities of higher education in the States.  Rick also donates his time to a cancer foundation and has a 9-month old daughter.
  • The panel leader/moderator was John Kidenda, who was the first recipient of Rick’s ALB scholarship.  He graduated with honors from University of Texas and is currently working in the healthcare industry in Austin.  Not only has John paid forward his scholarship from ALB, but is now the Vice President of the organization and is helping others access and make the most of the opportunity ALB provides.
  • Finally, the vivacious Christy Pipkin, who with her husband, has created motivating books, documentaries and short films at The Nobelity Project.  They have a fund for schools in rural Kenya to build infrastructure like classrooms, libraries, and clean water systems.  Her focus on girl-child education and the long term impact it has was something I had never thought of in that way before.

The panel discussion went well.  In a strange way, it calmed my nerves.  The audience was receptive but asked the kind of insightful questions we discuss for hours internally at eLimu.  Here was a room full of people who were not only interested in seeing what was happening in the education space in Kenya, but had ideas and a genuine enthusiasm to help us build something meaningful.  Not telling us that we’re doing it wrong, but “did you think of this?” or, “what about this?” and “what if we tried this here?” The vibe at South By is defined by an air of optimism and absolute faith that anything is possible. Any problem needs only a group of committed and creative people to think through and solve it.

The day ended with beer, BBQ meat and the Interactive Opening Party hosted by frog design. This was where the slogan “keep Austin weird” began to make sense:

Light as Ink


Paint by RGB


The Zen Robot Gardener


Crowdsourced DJ

And finally there was the snake bike:

Signing off from South By,

For a background on how and why Simeon and I are in Texas: Read more about Natalie Cofield and the kind folks at the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce (CCAACC). 

South By South West – Day 1

Leave a comment