At the end of November, Madison Butler, founder of HR and DEI consultancy Blue Haired Unicorn, posted a reminder on her LinkedIn page: “Do not wait until January 15th to try and book your speakers for Black History Month,” she wrote, “and do not ask them to speak for free.”
Later in her post, noting that Black people can talk about things other than DEI and Blackness, she encouraged Black speakers to drop into her LinkedIn feed their topic expertise and contact info.
Black speakers and Black speaker recommendations started flowing in. Butler told Convene that she quickly realized that “she couldn’t waste all that information” by letting it live in an endless LinkedIn scroll. To manage the growing collection of names, she created — “because I am admittedly not the world’s techiest person,” she said — a Google spreadsheet. She shared the spreadsheet link on Twitter and tech consultant Chris Dancy offered to turn it into something better and easier to use. “Give me 20 minutes,” Butler said he told her, and, just like that, he turned the spreadsheet into the Black Speakers Collection website, giving Butler access to run it on the backend.
At that point, there were 28 speakers. The next day, on Dec. 1, she added another post to her LinkedIn page: “It’s 2021, why are you still telling us it’s hard to find Black speakers? We’re right here.” She announced that she had made the list “a permanent resource for those looking for badass speakers,” adding, “I hope you’ll add your info!”
When Convene spoke to Butler the morning after the site launched, more than 200 Black speakers had accepted her offer. Later that day, Butler shared that the first speaker on the resource list had been contacted by an event organizer.
By late January the number of Black speakers on the site had grown to more than 2,000, and Forbes and Black Enterprise wrote about the Black Speakers Collection. The response, Butler told Convene in a follow-up email Jan. 31, has surprised her.
“When I first launched it I had 28 speakers so to see it grow to 2,000 with a Slack community of more than 500 is pretty amazing,” she wrote in the email. “We have started planning events/workshops for the community and have had some speakers booked more than once already. It has been incredible to watch people get booked, noticed, and paid for their skillset.”
The response to the collection — and a need to show hiring managers that Black C-suite professionals exist — led Butler to start another database specifically for Black executives. The Black Executives Collection showcases Black candidates who are qualified for leadership roles. Launched the last week of January, the Black Executives Collection currently lists 170 C-suite professionals.
“The ‘pipeline problem’ is something that we see not only with speakers but organizations trying to fill their leadership roles. It is often easier to hire someone who feels/looks ‘familiar’ rather than putting in the work to find the best candidate for your role,” Butler wrote. “I have been told time and time again that there are no Black executives in fields where that is just not the case. We want to continue to build different collections off of the speakers collection — the exec collection is just the first.”
Neither collection was a spur-of-the-moment idea. The Black Speakers Collection was the culmination of years of Butler’s firsthand experience and observation. The reminder post about Black History Month? “It’s something that happens every year,” she said in December. “One hundred companies come into my email inbox on January 12th, like, ‘Oh, we need a speaker.’ And I’m like: ‘You knew this was coming. Every year, it comes at the same time.’ And they wait because I think they think that they can get people at a cheaper rate, they can rush people in, they don’t have to sign contracts, all of that stuff.”
The site also is an outgrowth of Butler’s more global observation — she constantly sees events “that are painfully short of any speakers outside of white men,” she said. She would ask event organizers: “Why is your panel or your conference so light in people of color or Black folks — or Black women, specifically?” The answer she always got was, “‘Well, I couldn’t find anyone.’”
That was compounded by another issue: When she herself was asked to speak at an event, the compensation often offered was not monetary — that she would benefit from getting “exposure.”
Butler said she wanted to solve for those two problems by creating a list to give Black speakers that exposure — and also for them to include their speaking fee along with their topics of expertise and contact info. “The next time someone tells me, ‘I can’t find anyone,’” she said, “I have an exact resource to give them.” She wanted to create “a living document that could just exist in people’s bookmarks and folders and be a resource for ERGs [employee resource groups] and companies, because not being able to find [diverse] people is the exact same excuse hiring managers use in my world. And for me, it’s just not acceptable. It just tells me you don’t want to do the work. And I don’t want people who look like me to suffer because other people don’t want to go do the work. I couldn’t have made this easier for people who are trying to set up conferences and events, right? They can look at them and say, ‘Oh, look at all these Black speakers. Okay, I’m going to reach out to them.’”
The speakers on the site are not vetted, and Butler thinks that levels the playing field. Vetted speakers simply have a platform, she said, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good speakers. “My intent here is that you don’t have to have a platform to be a good speaker, and I expect anyone who’s reaching out to a speaker,” she said, “will vet their knowledge.” She is, however, able to remove people from the site “in the event that someone signed up that isn’t knowledgeable — or who isn’t a Black person, for that matter.”
I encourage people to be really intentional and consistently ask, ‘Whose voice is not represented here? Who is not at the table and who does not see themselves in this panel or conference?’ Because representation is so incredibly important, and it matters so much.”
Butler has wasted no time in enhancing the collection as a resource for the speakers themselves. She is launching a Slack channel for them “because there is wealth in having the resources and [access to] the knowledge of other people and having connections that you wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she said. “I want to make sure that we’re having conversations about how we’re pricing ourselves. Last year, someone told me, ‘Hey, every time you undercharge, you’re setting up the next person who comes after you to also be underpaid.’ I really want to empower people to charge what they’re worth, even though it seems like a scary thing.”
She expects the Slack channel also to be a place where speakers share how to market themselves, how to set up a speaker and fee sheet — “all of these things that if you’re new to speaking or you don’t have a platform or you don’t have the privilege of being able to pay someone to make that for you, how can we help people have access to those resources?”
Getting event organizers to go to the directory in the first place takes “intentionality,” Butler said. “I think it’s really easy to fill your panel or your conference with the first people who say yes, or the first people you think of, or the people you know will show up. I encourage people to be really intentional and consistently ask, ‘Whose voice is not represented here? Who is not at the table and who does not see themselves in this panel or conference?’ Because representation is so incredibly important, and it matters so much. The really, really easy question to ask yourself is: ‘Did I actually do justice with this panel? Have I actually represented a wide range of ideas and lived experiences here, or did I fill the panel with the first people who said yes?’
“Sometimes it won’t be the easy answer,” she said. “It will take more conversations. It’ll take talking to more people, it’ll take meeting new people. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is the intentionality — understanding that it doesn’t just happen by accident. You have to set your sights on something, and it takes work.”
Butler’s larger hope is that the Black Speakers Collection will help empower Black speakers to be themselves when presenting to an audience. She is aiming to “decolonize the public speaking space,” she said. “In order to get on a lot of stages, you have to have a certain persona, and that doesn’t mean you’re more or less knowledgeable based on the tone of your voice or how happy you look or how straight your hair is. For me, the way you’re talking to me now,” she said, referring to our Convene interview, “is the same way I get on stages, the same way I get in workshops, the same way I consult. And it’s taken me a long time to get here because for a long time, I leaned into the status quo and the box that society wanted me to lean into because it was palatable.”
Code switching — adjusting one’s style of speech or appearance in ways that will optimize the comfort of others — “happens a lot in the public speaking space because you want people to listen to you without misjudging you or judging you at all,” she said. Most public speaking spaces, she added, “were created for white men, who are still inhabiting these spaces more so than any other people. Being able to show up as your authentic self, for me, makes me a better speaker because I can talk and I sound real — I don’t sound like I’m reading off of the script.
“I really hope that this resource and the Slack group,” she added, “allows people to have the courage and the empowerment to show up as exactly who they are and who they want to be.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene. This story was updated on Jan. 31, 2022.
RELATED: Read a January 2022 update to this story here: There’s No Shortage of Black Speakers