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Activism & Action

Elevating Inclusion and Diversity in the Toronto Tech Scene

Stacey Vetzal is the founder of Mojility, a consulting practice that coaches and mentors software teams 


Stacey Vetzal, a veteran woman tech entrepreneur, heard about a new, three-day tech festival in Toronto called Elevate and thought about attending.

Then the former chapter lead for Ladies Learning Code saw the early bird ticket price of $647 (to be increased to $905 Sept. 1) and laughed, perhaps even more heartily at the regular ticket price of $1,416 if you also want to hobnob at the Spotlight Tech Award. “The average trans person in Ontario is highly educated but has an income of $15,000 a year! What were they thinking?” says Vetzal.

Scrolling down the “Get Tickets” web page in hopes of other options, Vetzal came across a large-type headline that said “Diversity is Our Strength.” It was followed by directions on how to access a block of complimentary diversity tickets (the “D” is capitalized).

“To me this says, ‘Oh look, you’re different and not like us, but come anyway,’” says Vetzal, who is an engineering graduate from McMaster. “A statement like that tells me that nobody like me will be there.”

For a city sponsored tech festival that involves 70 venues and aims to attract 5,000-plus people and has aspirations to become a shining example of inclusivity and diversity, Elevate Toronto is off to a very shaky start. And it’s not just the ticket prices raising hackles.

The execution, including the communications strategy, speaker lineup, and community outreach efforts all demonstrate significant blind spots. Working to advance inclusivity is clearly unfamiliar terrain for festival organizers.

For example, the organization wrote on its website that it “set aside a block of complimentary Diversity tickets for those who need them.” It also offered a handy list of traits to help you determine if you are part of the “Diversity,” set including “body size.” To earn a ticket, applicants are asked to answer the skill-testing question, “What does Diversity mean to you?” The intent behind the diversity ticket comes from the right place, but the execution could have benefited from expert advice, or better yet, lived-experience insight.

Then there is the website. The write-ups beyond the catchy “Diversity is Our Strength” headline don’t add up. If an image is worth a thousand words, they might have wanted to reconsider choosing UK billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson as one of the lead images on its website.

On the upside, the speaker lineup exceeds the 30% gender quota recommended by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and organizations like the 30% Club, which is a great start. However, only six of the 100-plus speakers are racialized women.

Finally, Elevate’s community outreach to tech’s “underrepresented” relied on email blasts to the usual suspects. Beyond starship enterprises like MaRS and OneEleven, many private or community-based organizations who support marginalized and women tech-preneurs were never contacted let alone invited to become a community partner. Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles, a Toronto-based Black women’s entrepreneur network of over 5,000, says, “Nobody contacted me.” Others were contacted but were left hanging. This amazingly includes the 1,000-plus members of SheEO. Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation said they reached out to Elevate to become a community partner, but never heard back. These two organizations should be top of the list for anyone interested in fostering diversity or inclusion.

Not surprisingly, as of August 25, only 147 people have received the free “diversity” tickets even with Elevate’s “all who ask will receive” policy.

So, what is going on here? If Elevate is meant to showcase how Toronto’s tech community does diversity and inclusion, why has it fallen so short?

Elevate Selectively?

Elevate is structured as a new, non-profit startup with ambition to become the largest tech festival in Canada. It is led by Razor Suleman, a Silicon Valley–braised, Toronto tech entrepreneur who successfully exited his last venture for $110 million and is now a partner at private equity firm Alignvest. Elevate Toronto’s leadership team—all volunteers—includes four men, plus Valerie Swatkow, the executive vice president of communications at marketing giant Cossette, and Jodi Kovitz, CEO of Acetech, an elite club for tech CEOs where memberships range from $1,800 to $5,000, as well as the founder of #MoveTheDial, a conference held in January 2017 to advance women working in tech.

In his televised festival announcement, Suleman says, “I think we have made good progress [advancing diversity], but there’s still work to be done…. We can’t afford to keep half of the talent pool not engaged in our industry. We need to access every unique individual…and make them all feel included in our movement.”

The “half” he refers to, supposedly, are women. Terrific. But which women?

Studies show Canadian women entrepreneurs start with half the capital than men, use up more personal savings credit, receive less than 6% of venture capital funding, and pay themselves less as founders. In Canada, they also receive less ecosystem support. According to a June 2017 McKinsey report, Canadian women entrepreneurs experience an exacerbated level of gender inequality compared to their corporate sisters, and it will take 180 years to close that gap at the current rate. Women entrepreneurs are disadvantaged. For racialized women entrepreneurs, the gap is wider still.

We need more women, yes, but not just privileged women. Using an intersectional lens to illuminate more robust inclusivity strategies to attract women attendees would have been advisable.

Elevate Who Else?

The tech industry’s success depends on a functioning and competitive ecosystem which includes an array of professions, such as designers, graphic artists, illustrators, writers, filmmakers, editors, performers, sales professionals, and spreadsheet ninjas. Many work in coffee shops, micro-enterprises, or drive Uber cars to supplement their salaries. If they are self-employed, they tend to work in offbeat co-working spaces, community centres, libraries, or work from home. They are hard to reach. And have no money.

In Toronto, the average monthly take-home pay per person is $2,963 ($1,927 for women) and monthly rent ranges from $1,200 to $2,000 for a one- or two-bedroom apartment. According to Living in Canada, a website that tracks salaries by job in Canadian cities, Toronto software developers earn, on average, $3,800 net per month. So, even with Elevate Toronto’s selectively promoted 50% discount, the price of admission would still eat up 18% of your monthly net pay if you are a woman, or close to 9% if you are a computer engineer.

That’s akin to asking someone who earns a net $100,000 per annum to pay $9,000 to $18,000 for a three-day conference ticket.

People in the average pay bracket have additional externalities to consider, such as the cost of taking time off work (the event runs from Tuesday to Thursday, 9 to 5 p.m.), and child care for those without a nanny or free after-school care. For single parents, of which more than 80% are women, the costs of attending are 10 times magnified. Travel is another cost of participation that is often overlooked.

For ecosystem players who would like to go, network and learn, the thought of having to find a reason to apply for a “diversity” ticket because you can’t afford the regular ticket price and other external costs is repugnant.

Sanjin Zeco, a recent MA grad and co-founder of BlueScout, a platform that enables people with disabilities to live fuller lives, agrees that the pricing is a barrier. “I’m an entrepreneur who cannot afford to go to this event!” says Zeco, who adds that many tech events are priced beyond the reach of many entrepreneurs, even with the 50% discount code he heard was available-somewhere.

“I applied for Elevate’s complimentary diversity tickets (he identifies as disabled) and hopefully I get one,” he says, though he admits he felt “strange” applying under such a category. “It felt like being singled out, given ‘special’ consideration. It was an unwelcome feeling of being put under a microscope and scrutinized in detail.”

Sanjin Zeco is the co-founder of BlueScout

The lesson? Even a broadly distributed 50% discount on a $647 to $1416 ticket is not going to improve access at an ecosystem level. Here are a few strategies to consider: honour-based tiered pricing, ally ticket options, on-site child care, child care and elder care vouchers for primary caregivers, arrangement of dorm rooms, discounts for backpacker hotels, or a tech-to-tech community billeting strategy to reduce the cost of travel for those outside of Toronto. Innovative access strategies like these would have been more effective at ensuring inclusivity and fostering creative collisions between various enablers in the tech innovation space.

Elevate How?

Jodi Kovitz, a spokesperson for Elevate’s leadership team, is genuinely sincere in her aim to advance inclusion while also covering costs. “We are making every effort to reflect diversity across the festival,” says Kovitz. “But by nature, running a festival is very expensive, and we are doing our best to minimize its cost. We know our prices are in line with the cost of running three-day festivals around the world.”

Kovitz believes the Elevate leadership team enabled access by budgeting for 1,250 free tickets (25% of total tickets), of which 600 was to be distributed by its corporate sponsors and partners to their communities. In addition, it offered discounts for seniors and students, and of course, those “diversity” tickets and discount codes. Organizers hoped that would do it. Kovitz adds that due to the self-imposed tight launch schedule, there wasn’t enough time or hands on deck to handle the communications and outreach required to engage directly with lesser known organizations.

However, that is exactly what is needed if you are looking to re-frame the tech community in Toronto.

Vetzal, who has a lot of experience working with marginalized community groups, says community partnerships can improve communications with systemically marginalized people. “Take Pflag for example. They support LGBTQIA youth, for example, who are terrified about pursuing a career in tech. And think of all the other social services, clubs, and student groups in the city, the First Nations centres, Muslim student groups, and so on. They are trusted by their members, and can help connect you with tech-oriented members of their communities.”

The second lesson? Advancing diversity and inclusion requires a street level sherpa work, authentic connections, and thoughtful invitations. It moves at the speed of human connection and trust, versus the speed of the Internet. No one goes to a party where they feel they don’t belong without a lot of extra encouragement. Relying on tech community–based media and mediated emails to populations who don’t know you, and who are justifiably wary of tech industry spaces and culture, is suboptimal. If Elevate Toronto had recruited one or two people to their leadership team who already have direct relationships with these communities and demographic oriented entrepreneur networks, it might have hastened the process.

Growing Pains

Elevate Toronto is a new festival, so sh*t will happen. Lessons will be learned. And as social entrepreneurs know all too well, succeeding at mixing business outcomes with social innovation goals is demanding. You have to feel for the stones, one at a time, to cross the river.

At its heart, Elevate is the right idea at the right time. There are still 15 days until the start of the festival, which means there’s still time to remedy and tweak the event to improve outcomes.

Says Vetzal: “In tech, we are in the middle of a diversity crisis. We have products being built by monocultures for the planet, and the related problems are beginning to surface everywhere. AI technology, for example, is racist, misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic because the people that train AI don’t know any better. So yes, we need diversity absolutely, but you have to start by making people feel included.”

Adds SheEO founder Vicki Saunders: “One of the challenges we have in the world today is wanting a different result and yet doing things the same way. If you want a festival to be inclusive and diverse and bring a different outcome, then you can’t just design it the way all festivals are designed—in an expensive way—and invite the usual, leading, well-known community partners. You must start at the design level and think, ‘Who is not usually represented? How do I get them involved? How can we bring the brains we need, regardless of social or economic barriers faced, authentically on board?’ This is a big challenge for all of us. We have to think really differently about our business models if we want a different result.”

And that is the third and perhaps most important lesson.

If you are looking for Elevate tickets, you can still find them here.

You can find a 20% discount code on the tech newsletter Betakit.

“Diversity” tickets are still available here.