TGI First Friday: African American-oriented networking party grows, changes with the times
The entrance to Preservation Park in Oakland was the place to be seen on a recent Friday night. A line snaked around the corner from the front gates,
where a few dozen black professionals waited in high heels and suits to pay a $5 fee — a small price for high-profile networking, a little mingling and a lot of partying long after sunset.
At an event a lot like this, less than a decade ago, Deanna Roberts landed her first job. She was fresh out of college and looking for the best way to begin her career. During an event called First Fridays in Emeryville, she met executives from UPS and was hired as an account executive shortly thereafter.
This experience inspired Roberts to become an entrepreneur. She started her own event-management company after a few years of organizing First Fridays events with her business partner, Daryle Whyte.
Whyte and Roberts have been organizing for 10 years. First Fridays began locally with 25 members in 1988, but when the initial organizers moved away in the early ’90s, Whyte and Roberts took over. When they first started, the organization had roughly 250 people at each party. Now, they average nearly 1, 000.
Whyte was an employee at Intel in Silicon Valley when he got involved with First Fridays. “I’d go a whole week and not see any professional African Americans,” he said. A friend of his told him about the event, and the first time he went, he says, it was a relief. “I fell in love.”
For 15 years, more than 47 cities have hosted events of First Fridays, the predominantly African American networking organization, which began in New Jersey in 1987 as a happy hour for people in their 30s. Though there have been dozens of spin-offs with the same name (the first Friday of the month has been christened a day for poetry readings, alcohol-free city events and support group meetings as well), First Fridays continues to be an event that successfully mixes business with pleasure.
The Bay Area chapter is a grass-roots organization that promotes small businesses, nonprofits and movers and shakers throughout the professional world. “There’s really no place in the Bay Area where African Americans can go to find other black professionals,” Whyte says. At First Fridays “they can let their hair down and party, too. I think we do a good job of providing that kind of event, where they can network and still enjoy themselves.”
Whether it’s held at Kimball’s East or Geoffrey’s Inner Circle or elsewhere in Oakland, First Fridays happen in three stages. The party moves to a different venue each month to keep rabble-rousers at bay, but the format stays the same. The first two hours are dedicated to mingling, the second two are focused on a meet-and-greet and the last two are meant for partying.
Cheryl Hills and three of her girlfriends, all in their early and mid-40s, come to this growing event every once in a while. Hills is a lawyer who has lived in Oakland all her life; her friends are also professional black women from the Bay Area. They’re standing by an elegant fountain in the middle of Preservation Park, drinks in hand, scanning the crowd for familiar faces.
“I told my friends, ‘Tonight will be the night we’ll meet our husbands,’ ” Hills says, confidently. Her girlfriends laugh. They came early to see old friends and exchange a few business cards, but they’re also eagerly awaiting the indoors party that kicks off at 9 p.m.
Local vendors sell everything from Mary Kay cosmetics to cell phone plans; nonprofit organizations solicit donations and pass out newsletters. Beyond the tables, two bars are set up near a stage, where a band is playing smooth jazz and funk.
The scene is similar at hundreds of venues around the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
It’s hard to envision something so structured being a lot of fun — and the crowd looks so polished that it feels as if church just let out (there’s a strict dress code, and a description of appropriate attire is posted on the Web site). But fostering a professional environment comes first for Whyte and Roberts. By creating a niche for urban professionals in the Bay Area, they provide an invaluable service to both the African American community and the business world.
Some First Fridays constituents, who asked not to be named, said the event can be a little too snooty and exclusive for their taste. At Preservation Park,
some attendees were concerned that the networking aspect of the party wasn’t as important to some as the hope of meeting prospective mates in a certain income bracket. “A lot of people don’t come for the networking part,” one man said. “They come for the club part.”
Dante Douglas, a musician, agreed. “It’s become more of a social environment than anything,” he says. “It brings together a lot of black people,
but the networking is not as good as it could be.”
Still, there were some people making good contacts at this event. Marcella Crosley, a Mary Kay representative selling her products at a table there, said she’s been to several First Fridays and sold phenomenally at each one. And while First Fridays is meant to be professionally focused, the event is really as successful as the people who attend.
“We produce a vehicle for people to meet,” Roberts says. “We can’t make people just network, but we try to just put it out there.”
The demographics of the First Fridays crowd are pretty telling. Many attendees are between 25 and 35 years old; many are established professionals with steady jobs. Even if the event maintains its popularity as a good party instead of providing a businesslike atmosphere, Whyte says, it continues to achieve what it’s meant to.
“We’re not trying to compete with the clubs,” he says. “We just provide a laid-back atmosphere for a mature crowd.”
A number of external factors, such as the recent economic downturn and blacks leaving the Bay Area, has slowed attendance.
“People aren’t coming out as much as they used to,” Whyte said. “Either because they’ve been laid off or they’re not in the mood or this is just a good time for them to get a handle on their finances.”
Whyte and Roberts plan to do their part to boost the economy — they hope to start an electronic job recruitment newsletter by the end of the year and make efforts to get more recruiters to come out to the venues each month.
“You’re looking more at a crowd that’s not just coming out to party,” Whyte said. “We realize it’s a Friday, but we want people to come there to take advantage of the business aspect. We don’t want to err too heavily on either side. We don’t want to be known as a stuffy business, or just a party. You can get your groove on, but you can also network.
“These are things I’ve heard from my constituents that makes me feel like we’re doing the right thing. First Fridays is really what you make it.”
Members will have plenty of opportunities to make it what they want at numerous planned events. There’s a cruise coming up at the end of next month —
from Miami to Belize — which will include members from all over the country. Local First Fridays members will host several smaller events between now and then, including a Kappa Alpha Psi party and a barbecue for sororities and fraternities in San Jose.
The Bay Area First Fridays also plans to form a national alliance with First Fridays from other cities to consolidate the organization’s resources and create a more cohesive vision for future events. They are also planning to create more events geared toward helping those who have been laid off to reinvent themselves and compete.
“We want to foster more community among ourselves and our audience,” Whyte says.
Where to go
For more information on First Fridays: www.1stFriday.com; (510) 297-4903 local event hotline.
E-mail Joshunda Sanders at email@example.com.