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Digimentors @ SXSW 2023
Digimentors VP Neil Parekh spent a weekend in Austin. Here's what he saw.
Sree’s newsletter is produced with Zach Peterson (@zachprague) and, this week, Digimentors VP of Events & Communications Neil Parekh. Image courtesy of South Asian House. Many thanks to our sponsor, Armory Square Ventures.
🗞 @Sree’s Sunday #NYTReadalong: This week’s guest was Andrea Sachs, Founder and Editor of The Insider. We took a look back at three years of Covid, reviewed kid-friendly recipes, and more. You’ll find this week’s recording here, along with three years’ worth of archives, at this link. The Readalong is sponsored by Muck Rack. Interested in sponsorship opportunities? Email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
🎯 NEW BROCHURE! Our company, Digimentors, works to increase the digital footprint and impact of companies and nonprofits around the world. We do this via digital and social consulting, as well as virtual and hybrid events production. See our updated brochure (would love your feedback). Get in touch (no project too big or too small): email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d rather chat, here’s my Calendly.
SXSW is unlike any other conference. It’s the entire town of Austin (unofficial motto: “Keep Austin weird”) being turned into the center of the tech and media universe for 10 days each March. Absolutely worth going at least once in your life. I’ve had the honor of working with Hugh Forrest (@hugh_w_forrest), Co-President & Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, as a member of the Panel Picker team for multiple years — and attending the conference regularly until the world shutdown in 2020. I couldn’t go this year, but my Digimentors colleague, Neil Parekh (@neilparekh) did and he shares his reflections below. In 2024, a bunch of us are going to go together and would love for you to join us (email@example.com to hear more).
My weekend at SXSW: Being a part of history, stepping back into history, Brian Stelter, and the future of work and society.
WITH HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF ATTENDEES, thousands of panels, musical performances and exhibitors, SXSW can be intimidating, and a little overwhelming. After hearing about it for years, and being secretly envious of people who attended and presented, I had a chance to attend this year’s event.
Given the density and range of the SXSW schedule, I figured the easiest thing to do would be to park myself at South Asian House — a two-day side event on the first weekend of SXSW — and just take it all in. I didn’t need an official SXSW badge to attend the panel discussions, film screenings, etc., that were part of South Asian House, so I was able to get in on the action of SXSW but with a more manageable commitment.
Bringing together thought leaders in the business, tech, film, TV, theater, music, and fashion industries representing seven countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka was certainly historic, and South Asia House pulled it off flawlessly.
As Monika Samtani, one of the organizers, put it during the opening session, “This is a moment in history. This is just the beginning.”
Above: Monika Samtani with the founding team of Rohi Mirza Pandya, Kirtana Banskota and Jitin Hingorani.
One of the central themes was representation on screen, on stage, and in the stories we see every day. Filling that gap, particularly for the next generation, motivated people to tell their own stories, and it was really powerful. One of the first “Indian” characters I saw on screen was the character “Ben Jabituya” in Short Circuit, and he wasn’t even Indian.
Rishi Rajani, CEO of the entertainment company Hillman Grad, talked about how not seeing South Asian protagonists impacted his self-worth. “When I was young, reading stories, I imagined the characters were white. That's just wrong. Everything I do is for my 8-13-year-old self. I am making content so people see themselves.” Snighda Sur had a similar motivation for founding The Juggernaut.
One anecdote that stood out for me was shared by S. Mitra Kalita, former Senior Vice President of Digital at CNN and co-founder and CEO of URL Media.
Above: Gitesh Pandya, CEO, BoxOfficeGuru, moderates a panel with S. Mitra Kalita, CEO of URL Media; Atit Shah, CEO, Create Entertainment; and actress Kausar Mohammed (“The Flash”).
She was consulting for a TV show, and someone in the writers’ room said, “Let’s ask Mitra about what it’s like to be a woman of color in media.” A Black woman on the call quickly added, “You know, we can also ask Mitra about Trump, the media industry and any number of other topics.”
I also had the chance to meet and talk with actors like Rizwan Manji (Ray Butani on Schitt’s Creek), Simran Jeet Singh (the opening speaker for the entire conference), and founder and CEO of INK Lakshmi Pratury.
Although I had planned on keeping my first SXSW experience simple, I learned quickly that SXSW is all about serendipity.
On the first morning at SXSW, in line for South Asian House, I met someone named Arnold who said, “I’m part of a cool VR experience. Check it out. Stay Alive, My Son.” A few minutes later he had to leave as he was late for an appearance.
It was a brief conversation, and I only managed to get his first name and the name of the project. I looked it up, and found the ballroom where 40 other VR/AR experiences were being showcased. I talked my way into the room — it was for badge-holders only — and found Arnold’s booth. If I’d planned it out better, I would have gone earlier in the day and left time to visit the other booths.
However, I only had time for “Stay Alive, My Son," a 55-minute experience that immerses users in the harrowing and true story of a family's escape from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Winner of the PGA Innovation Award and created/directed by Victoria Bousis, the experience uses a combination of volumectic capture of real actors, virtual humans based on a real family and virtual 3D worlds based on historical references. It was my first VR experience.
Through the eyes of a young boy, users witness the violence, fear, and desperation of the regime, as well as the love, courage, and resilience of the family members who fight to survive. The experience aims to raise awareness of the ongoing trauma of war and displacement, and to honor the memory of those who have been affected by it.
It turns out that “Arnold” was Arnold Chun. Man in the High Castle fans would recognize him as Kotomichi, assistant to the Trade Minister. Although I’d recently watched the show, I didn’t make the connection until I Googled him later.
That evening, I went to a dinner hosted by Muck Rack, a long-time sponsor of Sree’s Sunday #NYTReadalong. In addition to spending time with co-founder and CEO Greg Galant; VP of Marketing Mike Schneider; and the Muck Rack social media team, another highlight was meeting Brian Stelter, most recently of CNN’s Reliable Sources. I asked him to appear on the #NYTReadalong and he agreed. So, save the date for Sunday, April 16!
On the second evening, I went to a book launch for Future Normal, written by Rohit Bhargava and Henry Coutinho-Mason. The book explores the changing landscape of work, business, and culture in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bhargava argues that the pandemic has accelerated existing trends and created new ones, leading to a "future normal" that is marked by increased uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Through a series of insights and examples, Bhargava offers a roadmap for individuals and organizations to navigate and thrive in this new normal. He emphasizes the importance of adaptability, empathy, and creativity, and provides practical strategies for building resilience and driving innovation in a rapidly-changing world. Ultimately, "Future Normal" is a timely and insightful guide to understanding and shaping the future of work and society.
Honestly, I was a little nervous going into South By, which is how the cool kids refer to SXSW. I generally do well at conferences, but it had been more than three years since I had attended a conference, and I was a bit rusty. If next year is your first time, I wouldn’t try to do too much and I wouldn’t stay too long — dip your toe in the water. Make a plan to attend one or two specific events and leave the rest up to chance. It worked for me and I’m definitely planning to go back next year.
- Neil (@neilparekh)
A Message from Armory Square Ventures
Journalist and ASV Platform Advisor Elizabeth MacBride is reporting a series we sponsor called Deep Dives into Secondary Cities. She has penned a new deep dive, this time in the city of Indianapolis, where our firm recently made an investment and has an office.
"I left Indianapolis feeling that, with a little bit of outside capital, it’s capable of generating a lot of its own economic energy, like the internal combustion engines still produced there." -Elizabeth