This blog post isn’t about the endless, circular argument on the lack of women in the tech industry. Instead it’s a slice of my life that I wanted.
I received an email this morning from Chris Yeh who was one of the judges for the event letting me know he’d blogged about the incident with the startup that pitched their social photo event discovery idea using women in bikinis and I was moved to share my experience.
Update: I’ve uploaded a video of the pitch. You can watch it below or click through to YouTube.
This weekend I was in Mountain View for MEGA Startup Weekend. It’s an amazing event where people gather to build amazing things over the weekend. Developers, business people, designers, product people and anyone who wants to roll up their sleeves and experience the feeling of awesome on 54 hours. There were people from all over the world including Brazil, Hawaii and Denmark.
The Pitch That Needed One More Voice
Chris Sey speaks up at 00:06:10 in the video.
Wow, what just happened? Did this team just flash flesh on stage for points?
After the guys were done pitching, the judges asked questions about the startup’s business model, customer acquisition strategy, competition and so on. But Chris Yeh, one of the judges and more importantly a prominent figure in Silicon Valley due to his being a VC investor, Standford and Harvard graduate, entrepreneur and all that awesomeness, spoke up about the bikini slides. In fact, he addressed that first before he asked his question about their business:
“Hate to be a buzz kill but I’d warn you about throwing up pictures of bikinis . This is what gives our Silicon Valley a bad name.”
My jaw dropped. The audience roared with applause.
Was this guy standing up for me? Was he standing up for us?
Wow and I don’t even know him. As I write this now in the hotel room in Mountain View, tears are falling down my cheeks because the acknowledgement meant so much to me. I didn’t realize that it would have such an impact on me but it did and I want to share that.
I waited with baited breath to see if the guys from the team would acknowledge Chris’ statement in their answer. They didn’t and I felt disappointed because this seemed like one of those movie moments with a happy ending.
You can hear in the video that when they’re asked what sets them apart from competitors, they actually say, “bikinis”.
I was sitting in the front row next to the Elizabeth who pitched the first idea, 500>, which was about creating a network to improve the effectiveness of medical devices in developing countries. I’d seen her and her co-founder pitch the first night. I turned to her, said something positive about what Chris said and we nodded in agreement about the power and impact of what had just happened on stage.
A lot was going on in these few minutes when I realized I had another new feeling – As an attendee and representative for my company was that I felt like I belonged and that the guys on stage were out of place. Amazing! Because of this, I had the courage and better yet, the sense of entitlement, to march right up on stage and thank Chris after all the pitches were done. And that’s what I did!
I was there on behalf of the company I work for because we’re global sponsors along with Microsoft, Google and others. I’m a developer evangelist for SendGrid. I talk with developers about how to integrate and leverage our API. I embrace my inner nerd and am becoming a social geek, especially through conferences. This is my third Startup Weekend. The first one I attended last May in San Francisco was a phenomenal! Steve Blank spoke about entrepreneurship, testing your assumption, failure and being memorable. That event gave me a data point to work from to explore and identify the intersection of passion and purpose.
So basically, I’m a Startup Weekend fangirl.
Now at first I was thinking, “Is this sexism?”. I mean isn’t usually thought of as you feeling uncomfortable about statements, images or inferences? Well, it turns out sexism also includes the context of reinforcing stereotypes. From Wikipedia:
Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is defined as:
- prejudice or discrimination based on sex
- conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
Sexism can also be defined as a process of disempowerment. That is, removing power or ownership from a person. It turns out that before 1875, women were not even considered people in the United States. This blocks you from owning and amassing things like property and wealth. In Chile, a woman’s property automatically will be the responsibility of her husband upon marriage. Weird! I still remember in old Twilight Zone episodes where these sorts of old laws and societal expectations pop up like women not being allowed to own bank accounts or go to the local pub.
I’ve felt frustrated about the use and objectification of women in slide decks at tech conferences and blogged my thoughts on it. But this time was different.
So how was I going to tell this judge that I really appreciated what he said?
Approaching people who were on stage is an uncomfortable thing for me but I realize that most people feel uncomfortable about it and if you want to make progress, you need to step out of your comfort zone. I ‘ve been making it a goal of mine to approach speakers after events on the regular. For example, I went up to Alexis Ohanian in NYC after his moving presentation at Ignite about how we all can make a difference in making the world a better place. Not only to congratulate him on his message and delivery but let him know how his company has made a difference in my life. When you meet people that you know of but they don’t know you, it’s a crap shoot on how things will go. This is why it’s so powerful when a mutual friend makes the introduction. Alexis recognized me and I asked for a coffee meeting. We met a few days later at that delicious bakery to chat about technology.
Friday, another powerful thing happened on the Startup Weekend stage. Sponsors were being introduced and talking about their companies. Sharon Vosmek, the CEO of Astia was asked to go up and talk about the company. She immediately did something that made me (and everyone else) take notice – The guy before her had stepped up near the podium on the left side of the stage where the organizers were and talked about his company sponsoring Startup Weekend. Sharon on the other hand took the mike and then walked to the center stage and said, “I don’t do side stage, I do center stage”. Wow! Seeing Sharon own her power, the audience attention and the moment like that was epic! I saw her speak last year at BlogHer Entrepreneur on the very same stage at the Microsoft building. Afterwards, I approached her to share how her actions and statement made me feel empowered. It felt amazing and I felt solid about making a connection with her.
My takeaway from all of this is acknowledgment.
Thank you for acknowledging my experience
Thank you for acknowledging my power
Thank you for acknowledging my pain
Thank you for acknowledging me
Intent is often a big discussion point when it comes to this type of thing known as sexism.
- Did he or she mean it in this way?
- Did they intent to hurt someone?
The better question to ask is one of awareness out outside of the self:
- Will this alienate anyone?
After the event, I talked with one of the guys from the team and told him I would have liked it if they’d acknowledged what the judge had said. He explained they didn’t mean to show the bikini photo three times but only twice. My friend Kimberly Dillion who participated as well this weekend, has an MBA and a marketing background said that once for the shock value and laughs would have been more understandable from a marketing perspective but using it several times and leaving it up for QnA made their product look weak like it couldn’t stand on it’s own.
We all get offended by things. Dave McClure made this point over and over in his presentation on Friday and put in a disclaimer slide (in Comic Sans). I get that as well and enjoyed Dave’s presentation 102% Fuck you! (you had to be there)
I see why they put in the bikini slides. One of the guys on the team likes the ladies. He made this clear with his pitch on Friday night called, “Where The Honey’s?” which would have users take photos and you could judge how fun the scene was. As you can see, this pivoted into their pitch app, SnapMo. He likes women, I get it. He thought other guys in the audience would identify with him on this.
Overall, I feel the Startup Weekend community handled it really well. We addressed it, acknowledged it and moved past it.
It’s important that people go to events that can change their lives. Stories bring people to these events. Look at the success of Burning Man by word of mouth, photos and video.
In fact, the job I landed was through networking and introductions at a previous Startup Weekend event. When Frank and Ahmed, c0-organizers of the Bay Area chapter heard I was working at SendGrid, they both made positive comments about how cool it was I came to an event, I mentored and now I was working for one of the sponsors. It felt great to close the loop and be a part of this successful effort.
- Could I have stood up from the audience and said something?
- If there was a woman on the panel of judges could or would she have said something?
The important thing is someone spoke up in real-time. Let’s make a pact to speak up in the moment when we see things we disagree with vs grumbling about them afterwards.