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How To Achieve True Diversity At Conferences? Embrace Discomfort


On day two of Elevate Toronto, Deepa Kundur, the lone woman but easily the most heavily credentialed expert speaker on a panel of six, sat on a stage in front of a welcoming, mostly male audience of 200. The session titled “Building an AI Ecosystem” lasted for 45 minutes. Kundur spoke for approximately five.

The event was part of Elevate Toronto’s inaugural three-day tech conference touting diversity and inclusion and it promised a “diverse” panel to explore how AI will change the future of work and life. This panel featured the usual: five white men. And there was Kundur, a South Asian woman who also happens to be the chair of the engineering science division at the University of Toronto.

When questioned by the male moderator, Kundur offered a thoughtful response to a knee-jerk comment about a young woman planning to skip university and join a startup directly because she wanted to “do what I want to do” and “university is not going to teach me the tools I want to know.”

After the audience’s muted laughter died down, Kundur spoke: “It’s easy to learn tools. But it’s not easy to build character and be educated about the responsible use of AI. I think character is important and is becoming a very important consideration in building an AI ecosystem. This is going to create stability. It’s important to get out of our comfort zones to develop character.”

It’s fair to say that Elevate Toronto, while promising to promote diversity and inclusion, stayed well within its comfort zone. One attendee, Janice Sousa, vice president of business development at Merit Travel, expected to hear challenging discussions, like how leading tech companies in Toronto are using diversity and inclusion as a lens to work through; honest examinations of the ethical implications of AI; and how the negative implications of AI can be countered.

Needless to say, Sousa left disappointed. “It was more a celebration as opposed to the work to be done,” she said.

By the end of day two, even Elevate Toronto’s CEO Razor Suleman was admitting the conference came up short of its mission. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of finding the champions of diversity.”

Who might those champions of diversity be? And had those champions been invited to Elevate Toronto, what would they have contributed to the conversation?

Kathryn Hume, vice president of product and strategy at and panelist at Elevate Toronto, had some suggestions: Joelle Pineau, who co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab at McGill University; and Fei Fei Li, director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “That’s just a few women, but these are leaders in the field,” says Hume.

Pineau champions the cause of making AI mature. One of the biggest challenges she tackles is the lack of diversity in AI not just in terms of gender, but also demographics, social backgrounds, and cultural communities. The lack of diversity creates narrow AI ecosystems, arguably like those on display at Elevate Toronto.

Renowned AI researchers Fei Fei Li and Olga Russakovsky at Princeton University spearheaded the creation of SAILORS (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab Outreach Summer), a program devoted to increasing financial and cultural diversity in AI. Its junior achievers program focusses on the growth and education of ninth graders by providing them with hands-on AI experience and mentorship. Research shows that the ninth grade is when students are most likely to think seriously about their college majors and their impact on the world.

Deborah Rosati, a corporate director for Sears Canada and the co-founder and CEO of Women Get On Board, is another diversity expert who wasn’t invited to speak at Elevate Toronto. Her area of expertise is corporate governance in the AI startup culture. “AI companies need to have a longer-term view when building boards and structures,” says Rosati, who was recognized by the Canadian Board Diversity Council on its 2014 Diversity 50 list. Often consulted by tech companies on how to build diverse advisory boards, she says these requests often lack foresight and they’re based on an immediate requirement to fill a short-term need. Consideration of issues like sexual harassment and lack of gender diversity are fundamental to AI talent acquisition, and therefore, discussions of it would have to begin at ground zero: the development of long-term AI governance and ethics structures. “It’s a sexy thing to have an .ai domain name. But the field is evolving very quickly, so no one knows what the end game is.” She says long-term governance and ethics committees need to be in place to identify gender gaps in existing tech boards to build teams that are diverse in skills, geography, gender, and accessibility.

To underline Rosati’s point, Osler Law’s 2017 Diversity Disclosure Practices reported that the percentage of women directors at TSX-listed companies moved at a “glacial” pace from 12% in 2015 to 14.5% in 2017. The technology sector lagged even further with only 9% of its governance represented by women directors.

Elevate Toronto had positioned itself as a leading space in the AI revolution in Toronto, which should have entailed not only looking at new discoveries and algorithms but how those innovations impact future unemployment, inequality in wealth distribution, and humanity itself. That consolidated approach to AI would require interdisciplinary panels comprised of sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ethicists, economists, and law makers, in addition to the usual suspects, computer scientists and deep-learning experts.

On that note, some Elevate Toronto panelists, such as Gary Bolles, came across as positively entitled.

Tracey White, a Toronto-based senior HR professional and economist, participated as an audience member and could not believe what she heard when Bolles, who writes and thinks at the intersection of disruptive trends, offered advice to displaced workers in the American manufacturing industry. “Bolles called these people negative externalities,” says White. “It’s as if he means that we should all build lucrative tech businesses and maximize shareholder value while broad swathes of the American population, who have lost their jobs to AI and living in trailer parks, can just be discarded as negative externalities. That kind of thought is unacceptable.”

Bolles is heir to the fortunes of his father, Richard Bolles, who wrote the bestselling career counselling guide, What Color Is Your Parachute? His advice to unemployed workers in the American rust belt who had been displaced by AI automation was more lead balloon, telling them to pull up their bootstraps and become life-long learners by hiring coaches. The rest of the panel did not question him on the socio-economic—or political ramifications—of his off-hand statement. Angry and despairing, those so-called “negative externalities” in the rust belt heard Donald Trump’s promise to bring back their manufacturing jobs and helped make him president.

Perhaps more diverse panels would have challenged Bolles, or challenged Elevate Toronto’s celebration of tech innovation, which too often glossed over the warts and blind spots. As tech thought leaders Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have increasingly been pointing out: technology is not benign.

But there’s always next year. As Julie Hanna, a leading Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and Elevate keynote speaker, says, “Elevate is a profound opportunity. What’s important is to not think about it as an event but an ongoing dialogue; what worked well, what did we learn, what could be done to make this more inclusive.”

Additional Readings:

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.