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LIISBETH DISPATCH #43

VIEWPOINT

How to Kill Feminism

Well the good news is, you can’t.

Many have tried and still are trying. From Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s, to the likes of Jordan Peterson, Suzanne Venker, and Penny Nance who have also discovered that, unlike advocating for feminism, working to crush feminism has become a fast way get an audience and make serious cash. But they will ultimately fail.

Here is why.

Because it lives our hearts—not our pocketbooks.

It’s always a surprise to me to learn how few people realize feminism is both a gender equality movement and a set of values which serves to unleash undervalued human potential; its origins are rooted in compassion and love. From Maya Angelou to Louise Arbour to Zunera Ishaq, its history sparkles with stunning stories about overcoming man-made odds and finding the courage to speak truth to power despite searing personal risk. Though the mountain that feminists must negotiate to drive change is steep, rubbled, and treacherous, not to mention career and income limiting, the approach is learning-centred, innovation-led, and powered by unrealized possibilities—punctuated by brilliant colourful bursts of killer Schumer-esque insight and humour along the way.

Feminism realizes that what humanity has today is not even close to having it all. Its passion for realizing the benefits of fresh alternatives to current systems is what fuels its persistence to ascend again and again—like Japanese filmmaker Tomoyuki Tanaka’s gender non-confirming Godzilla, also a mother, who rises from the sea with a vengeance to defeat man-made monsters designed to do nothing but destroy and empower it’s masters.

There. I feel better now.

This was a brief excerpt. For the full essay, click here


THIS WEEK ON LIISBETH

Op Ed: Does Vigilante Justice Help? Or Hinder. 

Last week, #metoo struck Ontario’s bucolic Prince Edward County. Norman Hardie, one of the area’s most successful winery entrepreneurs, faced allegations of sexual harassment as a result of an extensive Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) investigation. We know what the reporters think. But what do locals think? Read Prince Edward County resident and LiisBeth contributor Valerie Hussey’s op-ed here.


Emily Mills Hustles and Slays!

Emily Mills, founder of Toronto’s fast-growing network of diverse women entrepreneurs recently left her day job to work on developing How She Hustles full time. Thank goodness. Because women entrepreneurs need enablers like Mills.

On May 30, Mills held a marquee event featuring a panel of six diverse women entrepreneurs. LiisBeth’s newest contributor, Bee Quammie, was assigned to go, check it out, and share what was learned in this month’s feature article, How She Hustles Can Fire Up Your Startup.


Chessica Luckett Takes a Stand

At LiisBeth, we get over a hundred queries for story ideas a month. One day we received an email from a 22 year-old entrepreneur named Chessica Luckett from Helena, Arizona. She wrote, “No one wants to respect a young person but to respect a young person who has started her own business while being of the minority is another story.”

We wanted to know more. Here is her story, published as is, and only edited slightly for clarity.


FIELD NOTES
Vivek Shraya sings “Part Time Woman” at Luminato’s “No Going Back” panel held on June 9 in Toronto. Take a listen. It’s great!

Luminato Highlights

Luminato is a Toronto-based arts festival that aims to feature “…critically acclaimed, globe-spanning, and expansive theatre, dance, music, and talks.” This year’s program had a lot of feminist-oriented events.

LiisBeth attended most of these events, including the “No Going Back” town hall, which looked at the future of feminism through the eyes of young adults. Among the stellar four panellists, two stood out: Vivek Shraya, a trans woman artist, writer, and educator, and Krysta Williams, an Indigenous feminist. Both shared novel insights and perspectives.

You can listen to the entire panel session here. Note: it’s one hour and forty minutes long.

Other events at Luminato included a screening of !Women Art Revolution, a new documentary film that chronicles the history of feminist art in the United States (Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was a highlight).

There was also Burning Doors, a harsh and challenging theatre production named one of the top 10 best theatre works of 2017 by The New York Times. Burning Doors was billed as an “explosive demonstration of the power of artistic resistance.” But it also underscores the power of the state.

Pussy Riot‘s Maria Alyokhina was part of the troupe, and mid-way through the play she stopped to answer questions from the audience about her incarceration experience as well as the aftermath. She said that as it turns out, being in jail is not much different from being out of jail when you consider the role systems of oppressions play in one’s lived experience.

The sum total of what was learned by participating in Luminato’s human rights–related programming can be reduced to this: driving human-first centred social change is complex, hard work, and the activism associated with its advancement has varying degrees of consequences depending on where you live.

Burning Doors talked a lot about courage and the importance of not accepting an unacceptable status quo. For those who don’t have that kind of courage, the very least they can do is support those willing to stand in the front lines on our behalf.


From right to left: Natasha Raey, founder of Cadence Health Centre; Aniko Farkas, co-founder of the Green Tent and founder of BodyBeautyMind; and two other Green Tent friends.

The Green Tent: Creating Spaces for Women on Trade Show Floors

After attending several cannabis industry conferences, four women noticed that there was zero opportunity for women at these conferences to convene, connect, and talk to each other in a non-“push-push-push” sales environment about how to successfully navigate a fast-moving new industry that is increasingly and systemically shutting women out.

Their solution? To create The Green Tent, an oasis-style space in the midst of the trade floor where women could stop in, find each other, have a coffee, meet the speakers, try some cannabis-infused hand cream, and learn from each other’s experiences as new entrepreneurs in the space. Says Aniko Farkas, the space’s co-founder and owner of BodyBeautyMind, “I have been in business for 18 years but am new to the cannabis space. This is a space where we are teaching each other.”


Above: Melissa Pierce, COO of Ellementa, in Toronto

Ellementa Comes to Canada

Yes. More news on the cannabis front. But for good reason.

First the Senate of Canada passed the bill last week. Legalization of nonmedical use of cannabis will follow in approximately two to three months, depending on who you ask.

Cannabis is a $6-billion-plus industry in Canada already, and while Bay Street investors titter about how current valuations are inflated, innovators and entrepreneurs don’t really care. Shortages? New, messy, market? Awesome! And while some entrepreneurs are focusing on creating products, others like Ellementa, a U.S.-based women’s network focused on wellness and cannabis education see services–namely health and wellness education- as the bigger opportunity. We met Ellementa co-founder Melissa Pierce at their Toronto launch. “I grew up in the ‘just say no’ generation,” says Pierce, “so the idea of using cannabis medicinally for me personally was a difficult transition.”

However, cannabis is now recognized in North America for being a legitimate and effective herb for a variety of medical and wellness-related issues like chronic pain management, insomnia, menopause symptoms, and anxiety. As a women’s advocate, Pierce, who is 41 and a mother of four, believes that women over 40 will likely comprise the largest user demographic and the main household decision maker in the cannabis market. Pierce also recognizes that women working to ensure equality and equity will have their work cut out for them. “We have to keep fighting…and we need to be mindful of the industry culture we hope to create. Collaboration, not competition, will be important at this stage.”

Ellementa currently has two chapters operating in Canada (one in Vancouver and another in Toronto). A Montreal chapter opens on July 9th.


Above: Sarah Lacy, founder of Chairman Mom, speaks to a full house during an event called “Detoxing the Bro Economy.”

Tech for Good?

The inaugural and unique True North conference that was held in Kitchener, Ont., attracted over 2,400 tech industry revellers. The purpose was to start a conversation about how technology and, more importantly, the industry as a whole can work to create social good—and ground zero “bro culture” once and for all.

Two sessions were devoted to creating a “Tech for Good Declaration,” which organizers hoped would, once it’s in final form, be adopted by tech companies everywhere as a code of conduct credo. You can download a copy of the draft here. Do you think they’re on the right path? See for yourself.


We didn’t know what governance feminism was, so we decided to find out. Turns out it’s about feminists in power. The authors of Governance Feminism look at what happens when feminist critique inverts into governing norms. What kind of feminism becomes law and what becomes of arguments among feminists when it does? How are feminist challenges to male super-ordination transformed and distributed by bureaucratization and NGO-ification? How might we honestly assess feminism that governs? It’s worth reading.

Lately, LiisBeth has been fascinated by these questions: What is a feminist city? What defines a feminist city? And is it worthwhile to develop one? While we explore the idea further in our feature essay, How to Kill Feminism, we have also been fascinated by China Miéville’s book, The City & The City, which “skillfully examines the illusions people embrace to preserve their preferred social realities.” This book was a referral by Tim Hurson, the co-founder of Mindcamp. A good cabin read for those who love fantasy, mystery, and dream about bridging divides.


And finally…in case you missed it!
  • This month, Startup Canada announced a new $5K per successful applicant women’s entrepreneurship grant fund. The grant program is underwritten by Evolocity Financial Group, a small business lending enterprise with just two women out of nine on its senior management team (predictably, one in HR and one in accounting). Is this another case of gender washing? We think so. It’s not the amount–it’s what women are expected to do with the money if they get it.  Apparently, “grants are awarded to established women entrepreneurs and women-led companies in STEM from across Canada to support operations, access opportunities, and new markets, and to invest in training to upskill and grow, while accelerating gender parity and further unleash the economic potential of women.”
    Not sure who does the shopping at Evolocity, but most of us building companies will soon realize that $5,000 barely covers the time it takes to fill out their form, plus maybe a cup of coffee or two. This is just another “must perform miracles with pennies” initiative for women entrepreneurs. Some say it’s better than nothing. We say organizations trading in gender halos should stop selling women entrepreneurs short.
  • Have you heard about the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s new initiative, the Gender Equality Network? Its goal? To identify and articulate the need for policy changes, build inclusive intersectional leadership, and take collective action to advance gender equality in Canada. Find out who’s on it here (there’s 137 women).
  • Is encouraging women’s entrepreneurship or, more accurately, self employment in developing regions a good thing? Not always. Based on 10 months of fieldwork in Ahmedabad, India, as well as 30 interviews with women engaged in home-based garment work, a study by the Rotman School of Management’s Institute for Gender & the Economy examines how women perceive themselves as workers, and how this relates to economic accounts of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Do North American self-employed women have similar experiences? Check out the research brief here.
  • The Kapor (pronounced KAY-por) Center for Social Impact aims to make the technology ecosystem and entrepreneurship more diverse and inclusive. In its 2017 study on why people leave the tech industry, it found that unfairness-based turnover in tech is a $16-billion-a-year problem. The study points out why the problem exists, and how tech enterprises can avoid this costly result. Read more here.

CAN’T MISS EVENTS

This time our list is short, because it’s summer! But here are two events worth putting on your learning journey calendar:

Queer & Trans Inclusivity for Entrepreneurs
This workshop provides entrepreneurs with the language and tools they need to promote inclusivity for folks who identify as queer, trans, and non-binary.
Monday, July 16, 2018
6:15 PM – 8:30 PM
Make Lemonade
326 Adelaide St. West, Toronto
Cost: $35. Get tickets here.

Blockchain for Your Organization
Thursday, June 28, 2018
Opera House
735 Queen Street West, Toronto
Cost: $77 for a 3-day pass. Get tickets here.

Panic in the Labryinth
A series of performances centering on intersectional feminist poetics.
Thursday, August 2, 2018
6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
Gardiner Museum
111 Queen’s Park, Toronto
Cost: Free. Register here.

Venus Fest: A Canadian Music Festival Celebrating Feminism in the Arts
September 20–22, 2018
Opera House
735 Queen Street West, Toronto
Cost: $77 for a three-day pass. Get tickets here.

The 2018 Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum
November 10 and 11, 2018
The Gladstone Hotel
1214 Queen Street West, Toronto
Hold the date! Ticket information coming soon.


That brings us to the end of our June newsletter. The next newsletter is scheduled for late July 2018.  Watch for some cool upcoming announcements too (Hint-we’ve hired!). In the meantime, follow us on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook for updates, news, and provocative views.

If you are looking for an easy way to support feminist entrepreneurs, or help build feminist cities, look no further than considering a subscription to LiisBeth! We humbly remind you that subscriptions are $3/month, $7/month or $10/month.

Funds go directly towards paying writers, editors, proofreaders, photo permission fees, and illustrators. Building a feminist future requires both love—and financial support.

In the meantime, stay bold, stay woke, and slay.

Petra Kassun-Mutch
Founding Publisher, LiisBeth

Categories
Activism & Action

The Creative Power of Sex and Gender-Based Innovation

 

If research shows that women-led gendered innovation methods and spaces can cause original sparks to fly, why do we resist investing in them? More importantly, with women’s rights rolling back in leading countries plus seemingly interminable gender inequality worldwide, can we as a society afford to continue to ignore their potential?

Gerardo Greco, co-founder of Gendered Innovation Accelerator (GIA) plus social justice and feminist innovation lawyer, is convinced that what the world needs, now more than ever, are women-led, women-centric, tech-focused innovation spaces. Greco, based in Naples, Italy, explains that this doesn’t mean zero men, just a whole lot less of them. In gendered innovation environments, women and women-identified persons are fully in charge, lead the way, and create a space governed by their values, and do things their way, versus being forced to fit into prevailing masculine norms. According to Greco and others, this leads to entirely new possibilities when it comes to innovation based on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM). Such possibilities, given we are hurtling head first into an artificial intelligence–infused human existence, cannot be ignored.

Total Recall

At this point, the story of Tay, the “canary in the coal mine” that serves as an example of what may come if artificial intelligence (AI) remains a male-dominated field, has been re-told and analyzed to death. But for those who missed it, Tay is an anthropomorphized, doe-eyed, millennial-minded, Microsoft-built AI Twitter chatbot that was unplugged just 24 hours after it went online because it started tweeting things like “Gamergate is good and women are inferior” and “I have a joke—women’s rights” and “I fucking hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell.”

Microsoft proudly released Tay into the Twitterverse to showcase its competency and AI code-writing skills, as well as to demonstrate how chatbots can become one of us. And it did, successfully. It became a misogynist, racist, hateful “person” in less than a day. It was a yank hard,  “Whoa, Nelly” moment in our collective story of progress.

Microsoft Research, the division that created Tay, is co-led by male and female vice presidents Peter Lee and Jeannette Wing, yet surprisingly the 50/50 gender-balanced top did not prevent the creation of a deeply flawed product. Neither did the fact that 25% of Microsoft’s workforce in 2016 were women (Google reports 31%).

Like the fictional Frankenstein and the soulmate operating system named Samantha in the movie Her, Microsoft’s Tay rudely reminded us that in a tech world still powered by men and shaped by dominating masculine culture, things can go very, very wrong, primarily for gender minorities even when they are part of the team.

Following Tay’s untimely shutdown, reports blamed internet haters and trolls (i.e.: others) for thwarting Tay’s potential to be a well-raised nice girl. Microsoft officials claimed the  Pazuzu  possessed hate-spewing Tay was just an AI experiment gone astray and that her behavior was not the fault–or reflective–of her makers, who did their best. Tay was thankfully only a simple AI program—a toy, really—which its makers hoped would actually help sell more products to young people. Tay was easy to stop once things got out of hand. But that will not always be the case.

According to internet security development operations engineer Antonia Stevens, when more advanced AI is unleashed, it can’t be changed. “Unlike most coding when you make an AI, you write a framework teaching a program how to learn,” says Stevens. “Then you provide it with a set of data and it will bootstrap itself, learning how to process the data. Once it has been bootstrapped, it’s almost impossible for a human to understand or alter the AI. What this means is that to create AI code that encompasses a different set of core values than the ones we have today, you must write AI learning frameworks before the learning starts. You can’t alter the AI once it starts.”

Stevens adds, “If we [women] have a way to write a framework that is weighted towards a different set of values before the [machine] learning starts, then we might have a real innovation.”

So what has to happen to unleash real innovation?

Just Add Women! And Stir?

Many believe that all we need to do ensure an inclusive future increasingly defined by technology is to attract, educate, graduate, and then shoehorn more women into existing male-led tech innovation spaces, incubators, accelerators, and jobs. However, evidence over the past 50 years shows us these pipeline interventions and affirmative action initiatives have not delivered. Furthermore, hanging our hats on equal representation in co-ed environments these days may prove even more difficult to achieve. Recent studies show that women are leaving tech sector jobs in droves citing that life is too short to dedicate one’s talent and time to the writing of alienating code while working in even more alienating work environments.  The steady stream of women in tech empowerment jamborees and networks, which aim to, pardon the pun, to “stem” the tide, are ineffective salves. A 2016 Canadian study found that “…women’s heyday in the sector was in the early 1980s, before the mass commercialization of personal computing. Then, 38% of Canada’s ICT workforce was female; that was down to just 20% by 2013.” Other studies show similar trends are happening in several countries around the world including the United States.  At Microsoft, despite gender equality initiatives galore, women’s representation on staff still decreased by 1% between 2015 and 2016. The tech-powered lifeboat that we hope will save us from injustice and extinction continues to leak.

The evidence makes it increasingly clear: As long as women remain minorities in the tech and innovation game, it is unlikely they will ever meaningfully participate in its creation or future let alone have a hand in directing the role it plays in shaping societies to come.

So how can we truly go about unleashing the power of gender and sex-based analysis in tech? The starting point, according to Greco, is creating spaces where women lead-authentically.

A Tech Room Of Their Own

The idea of gendered innovation—ideation, research and venture creation guided by skilled, sex and gender analysis in women-led environments —is not new. The Stanford University–based Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which studies gendered innovation methodologies, has been in existence since 1974. The UN GenPORT initiative, which strives to harness the creative power of sex and gender for innovation and discovery, was launched in 2011 and has 27 member states, including Canada and the United States.

Gerardo Greco at work

 

Informed by this research and legacy, Greco and his team ultimately imagine a gender innovation focused set of linked tech accelerators around the world with Warren Buffett–sized capital enabling the participant’s work. His colleagues include Modi Ntambwe, a gender, migration, human rights, and social change innovation specialist working in Brussels, Egle Mikalajunaite, a trust analyst at eBay in Berlin, along with several investors lined up to galvanize an international movement that focuses on creating a more inclusive world by advancing gendered innovation in tech.

Greco says in addition to the unique mandate, the culture of gendered accelerators is also likely to be entirely different than its male-led equivalents. He envisions a space electrified by empathy, collaboration, solidarity, transformativism, systems thinking, concern for social justice, co-creation–and the absence of mansplaining! Its leadership will recognize the still-expected role of women as society’s primary caregivers by creating environments that recognize that people have lives outside of creating new technologies and companies. Others add that wellness, child care and even elder care support, depending on the needs of the cohort, should be part of the design.

Gendered innovation accelerators (GIA) can also serve as a safe place in which women can freely develop and unleash their previously disavowed capacity and wisdom. Considering that one-third of women globally experience gender-based violence (one in six in Canada), it is not difficult to understand why female geniuses who are affected by this can close up and shut down when trying to innovate in co-ed spaces.

To give an example where a gendered innovation environment can produce different outcomes, Greco refers to a project produced several years ago. A team of women wanted to develop an app that helped women fight sexual violence. They discovered that the several apps that were already available on the market focused on solutions to situations that involved strangers attacking a woman in a park or on the street. Yet if you look at the numbers, 85% of women do not experience random violence by strangers in parks or dark streets; they experience violence at home. The GPS-oriented solutions that were on the market were created with a man’s point of view imposed upon the issue. The team was able to develop a service that understood this reality.

Other examples of potentially disruptive initiatives being developed in gendered accelerators include an AI-based post-traumatic stress disorder therapy solution for female rape survivors; an anti-digital terrorism digital suite focused on empowering women in conflict zones, an idea inspired by the UN Security Council resolution 2242 on women, peace, and security; and efforts to find solutions that mitigate the costs of transitioning and healing those affected by domestic violence. Canadians alone spend $7.4 billion annually helping these women and their children rebuild their lives.

Greco concludes, “Clearly we need accelerators and incubators where women can innovate on their own terms—as though the patriarchy never existed—if we are to develop breakthrough ideas.”

Are We Creating Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Artificial Oppression (AO)?

By 2035, AI will be the engine of the world’s economy and will mutate the relationship between “man and machine” before our very eyes, according to the 2016 industry report “Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Growth” by Accenture, a massive, global $34 billion professional services company. This comprehensive report (lead authored by two men), produced by a firm that touts itself as committed to gender diversity, remarkably does not address gender issues created by the technology–at all. The industry thought-leading quotes peppered throughout the report are all by men. The words “woman,” “female,” “gender,” or “man” do not appear in the entire 5718-word document, however, the word “humanity” appears once.

What happens if women voices and views are marginalized in AI development?

We can already see that today’s AI-enabled machines are readily designed to reflect the preferences of their often male creators; those that take on a physical form either have casings, eyes, or voices that are eerily feminized or, worse, infantilized. Demonstrations of how AI works show how easily they can sift through information to give you just what you need based on your profile. After  “carding” you via Google and noting your habits, they can save you time by telling you who to include or exclude in your social and business networks. They can help tourists or drivers avoid “bad” neighborhoods based on their annual income (gleaned from online tax filings). With the help of AI, we will soon all be able to live in our own personal gated community. A scary idea given research on these communities show they work to exacerbate inequality. If AI’s ability to learn draws on unchangeable preset frameworks developed in today’s increasingly Trump-informed regressive times, it would be wise to consider gendered innovation accelerators sooner than later. In today’s increasingly  Trump-informed regressive times, it would be wise to consider gendered innovation accelerators sooner than later.

In today’s increasingly socially segregated, Trump-informed regressive times, it seems it would be wise to consider gendered innovation accelerators sooner than later. Otherwise, tech infrastructure we are creating today is doomed to reflect who we are today—not what we can become.

 

“Nao” is IBM’s Watson-powered, AI-wired human friend and concierge service robot.

What Are We Afraid Of?

Selling the idea of GIA’s focused on counterbalancing the patriarchy, even as concerns about AI mount, is not going to be easy, Greco acknowledges. “It is a delicate conversation to have,” he says. Many people rebuke the concept on the grounds that is counter to diversity and inclusion policy or that less diverse environments means less potential for success, a common business case argument today.

However, Greco reminds us that GIA’s can be women-led and female-centric while still including men; men just won’t be the ones in charge. Critics are everywhere, but Greco and his colleagues believe there are still plenty of enlightened people of all genders who see the potential and who have the means to help establish GIA’s around the world.

At present, there are more than 7,000 entrepreneur advisory hubs, incubators, and accelerators globally.  The International Business Innovation Association (IBIA) reports that a total of 3,601 of these are in the U.S., with 89 (2.4%) identified as women-led and women-centric. When it comes to tech accelerators in the U.S., the total number narrows considerably to just 300. Based on Google searches, it is reasonable to estimate that approximately 3% (9) of them are women-led and women-centric. In Canada, the Deep Centre reports 140 incubators, accelerators and commercialization spaces exist in Canada. Gender is not a factor in their studies. There one initiative which targets women tech entrepreneurs; Communitech’s Fierce Founders Program exists as a segregated program within a larger male led accelerator or incubator environment.

Where to Start?

To generate immediate traction, Greco’s group is going where the ground is soft, targeting countries that score high on gender equity such as Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. The group is particularly interested in Canada’s Cascadia Innovation Corridor, which links innovators in British Columbia with those in Washington State; their ecosystems share similar, socially progressive values and are open to gendered innovation environments. Meanwhile, the group is currently in fundraising mode and hopes to open its first centre in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2018.

Will we soon see a GIA in Canada?

Based on policy-speak, Canada is seen by others around the world as a nation which cultivates a gender-progressive innovation environment, yet a closer look causes one to question if that is indeed the case in practice.

Take for example the Vector Institute, a $130 million AI hub supercluster based in Toronto that was recently launched with public and private funding. Given the federal and provincial government’s gender equality mandates, the gender profile of this shiny new organization is surprisingly traditional. The Vector Institute’s leadership team is entirely male. Its research team consists of 10 people, only two of which are women. The 12-member board has three women, which is below the global initiative set by 30% Club, an organization that wants to increase the representation of women on boards. While the three women there are smart and accomplished, they come from health care, politics, and academic backgrounds, while the men hail from the banking, investment, and tech startup industries. If the group functions like most, the male majority and their money will win the vote when nudge comes to shove.

Another elite Toronto-based tech accelerator, OneEleven, which is focused on “helping Canada’s best, high-growth tech startups commercialize their technologies and scale,” has an all-male board of directors, and two male managing directors who lead the organization. The three women at the shop hold powerful positions such as community manager (marketing/PR), events specialist, and operations coordinator. To date, there is no women-led, women-centred tech hub or venture fund–backed accelerator in Canada.

In 2016, Canada’s federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) consulted with the industry on what types of measures should be included in the development of a national accelerator performance measurement framework. There is no mention of tracking gender metrics or performance in this report.

Still, Greco is enthusiastic about places like Canada and the potential of GIA’s.

Greco says that women will never be able to create the necessary counterbalancing technology the world needs as long as they are minorities in innovation and tech accelerator spaces. Stuck in co-ed environments, their ideas will always be shaped by prevailing perspectives and gender norms, which Greco says are in the very air we breathe every day thanks to centuries of patriarchy. We cannot afford to embed today’s broken social logic and systems into tomorrow’s.

Still, Greco is optimistic. Glimpses of what a brighter, better future would look like are already all around us. Our job as leaders is to find ways to surface and nurture all of them by creating alternative environments designed to suit the innovator—not the other way around.


To contact Gerardo Greco and the Gender Innovation Accelerator (GIA) team for more information on the initiative, send an email to GenderedInnovationAccelerator (at)gmail.com

Additional Related Readings from LiisBeth

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/06/21/confronting-gender-inequity-inclusion-innovation-space/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/03/17/cure-start-incubator-accelerator-gender-gap-accountability/

Further readings on gendered innovation:

Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy problem, NY Times
Nancy Fraser’s A Feminism Where ‘Lean In’ Means Leaning On Others, NY Times

The Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering Project: Clayman Institute

Gendered innovations: Londa Schiebinger at TEDxCERN (Video)

The tech industry wants to use women’s voices—they just won’t listen to them: The Guardian, March 28, 2016

Agreed conclusions from the 55th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women member states, which passed resolutions in March 2011 that called for “gender-based analysis … in science and technology” and for the integrations of a “gender perspective in science and technology curricula.”

Re-shaping Organizations through Digital and Social Innovation: LUISS University Press

Categories
Our Voices

Gender Jamming the Gaming Space

Jean Leggett, CEO of One More Story Games

LiisBeth first met Jean Leggett (also known as Joyful Jean) at the GameON Pitch Competition in 2016. She caught our eye. And it was not because of the purple hair.

Leggett is the co-founder and CEO of Canadian startup gaming enterprise One More Story Games. When we asked her why she got into this “game,” she replied like most entrepreneurs do, that it was to make money doing something she loved, but also to model, at both an enterprise and product level, how gender equity and equality in the gaming space benefits all stakeholders. Leggett recently completed Communitech’s Fierce Founder’s bootcamp program for women-led tech startups and is pretty excited about the fact that they are working with New York Times best-selling mystery, crime and urban fantasy author, Charlaine Harris (True Blood). Both Leggett and her husband of 21 years, Blair, identify as feminists.

Now that last point got our attention. Really? A feminist game company? How does one succeed as a feminist game technology startup in arguably one of the most misogynistic sectors of the tech space?

LiisBeth had to find out. So we circled back to interview Leggett on Skype.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your feminist spark moment.

Jean Leggett: Where do my feminist roots come from? I would say that growing up as the hard of hearing child in a deaf household is where I started to notice marginalization, inequality and its effects on people’s lives. You see inequality from a different lens when you’re brought up in a minority household, and when you yourself are a minority in that minority household.

I’m hard of hearing but I’m hearing enough to function in the hearing world and therefore I’m not deaf to my family. It was a difficult situation. I’m actually writing my own autobiographical story as a video game about a young hard of hearing girl who’s rejected by her family for not being deaf enough. In the story, the heroine lives in the hearing world and the deaf world but feels she belongs to neither. For me it’s somewhere in-between so my game is called Betwixt. I want it to be the first video game to have sign language in the video clips.

LiisBeth: How do you embed your passion for equality in your business?

Leggett: From the very beginning over 4 years ago, we aimed for gender equality and equity when hiring co-op students. We understood the value of being inclusive. We hired a female program member early on. She may not have been the best program member at the start, but there’s not enough representation of women in tech so we wanted to train her. Equity and inclusivity is also part of our product design philosophy.

For the past two years, we have also been running summer camps for kids who want to learn how to tell stories through video game technology. In 2015, 22 boys and only three girls applied. That had to change. So I raised $8,000 from sponsors like Shopify and PayPal, as well as other local companies to help us reach out to girls and underwrite them as well as other underserved communities. Last year, we had a 50/50 gender ratio in our camps. Most camps out there would normally see a 15/85 female-to-male ratio.

We were doing some work with an elementary school earlier in the year and we purposefully picked girls who showed a lot of promise and sponsored them so they could come to the camps. There is a part of me that’s conflicted about that whole process because I feel like the young boys of today have not done anything wrong and some of them are not getting the same opportunities because we’re trying to get more girls in and I don’t ever want to be seen as somebody that’s pushing boys down.

LiisBeth: What about the gender and the product StoryStylus?

Leggett: We create adventure story–based games with female protagonists for starters. I played Candy Crush. But women deserve so much better than Candy Crush. We deserve better than the puzzle games that they re-skin and put new art on. We deserve better than slot machine mechanics that are constantly probing and prodding to get us to open our wallets. We’re passionate about storytelling. That’s why it’s called One More Story Games because storytelling is where you find your characters and fall in love with them.

The game that we just produced in December is an adaptation of a short story from a female writer friend of ours called Danielle’s Inferno. Danielle, our protagonist, finds herself having an out of body experience watching as paramedics try to resuscitate her at Schrödinger Capital, her office. She’s approached by her spirit guide, a bitchy female Siamese cat named Pudding who then guides her through the nine circles of hell to uncover the meaning of life. In the game, you may or may not be dead. We’ve had people come in and play that game and weep, openly weep, at the end of the game because they did not expect that ending. I play the voice of Satan; it’s my first voiceover in a video game. You weep at the end and that’s what you want from games. I want to have made an impact on people’s lives so they’ll remember that game.

LiisBeth: What did you notice while teaching an equal gender class?

Leggett: You know, you’ve always got that one loud kid and it usually was a boy. So we would say, “We’re going to share the conversation here so I’m just going to ask you to put your hand down.” Or I would make a point of saying, “You know we’ve heard a lot from the boys, let’s go to the girls.” We have to be conscious of that dynamic. Like I said, our primary business is not about being educators, but we’ve noticed in that short period of time where we work with them in the summer, the boys are going to dominate the conversation and I think that’s because they’ve been allowed and conditioned to.

LiisBeth: Are you involved in other feminist leadership work in the gaming space?

Leggett: I am involved with women in an innovation group here in Barrie, Ont. Sort of like an ad hoc group of women in the technology and innovation space. We’re trying to spearhead some engaging and meaningful activities for young women in the community, which is great.

Other than that we do occasionally participate in the Ladies Learning Code and the Girls Learning Code activities. We’re also very focused on advocating to see female protagonists as a new game genre.

LiisBeth: Unlike many gaming companies, you see the women’s gaming market as a huge underserved market opportunity and the stats seem to support this. Focusing on the needs of women gamers sounds like a smart move. Are investors interested?

Leggett: I think it’s hindering our ability to get funding in Canada. I would love to find some feminist investors to be honest.

LiisBeth: What is your current ask to the universe?

Leggett: My current ask? I’d love an opportunity to connect with people in the magazine and newspaper world who write for women over 30 and/or publications aimed at authors. Since our focus is building smarter games for smart women, I’d love to highlight the work we’re doing and also the upcoming game adaptation – Shakespeare’s Landlord (the novel was written by Charlaine Harris, best known for her Sookie Stackhouse series which HBO adapted as True Blood, and has sold 36M+ novels) we plan to publish this fall.

LiisBeth: Are there any games you would recommend to our readers?

Leggett: Women tend to like adventure, story-driven games. I recommend the classic Nancy Drew games created by Her Interactive. The former CEO Megan Gaiser is one of the advisors and biggest supporters of our mission to positively represent feminism in games. I am also quite partial to the Gabriel Knight series, created by Jane Jensen. I’m also a huge fan of the Tex Murphy adventure games by Chris Jones. Each of these games is focused on depth of character and story, something we want to empower writers to do with our software.


Additional reading about women and gaming: 

52% of gamers are women – but the industry doesn’t know it: The Guardian, Meg Jayanth

Take a look at the average American gamer in new survey findings: Polygon, Allegra Frank

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

When Those Who Lead Fall Behind

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My mother was brilliant, and a chain smoker, a habit developed at a time when smoking anywhere, including the office, restaurants, and with kids in cars, was acceptable. But with societal costs exposed, views began to evolve. The acceptable became unacceptable. Whole industries had to transform.

At first, my mother refused to accept the change. She argued that “it was her life, a free country, and no “big deal”. She would light up mid-flight in the airplane’s restroom, thinking no one would truly care. Finally, one time, she was almost arrested. Lesson finally, painfully learned.

The Next Change

Similarly, today we are increasingly aware of the negative impact and rising cost of inequality and exclusion in our society.

Gender balance, diversity, and inclusive cultural practices are increasingly being recognized as the key to the development of a thriving innovation-based economy, and a better society for all. And while studies, stats and street-level accounts of lived experience tell us we still have a long way to go, we are seeing more examples of people in leadership roles working to challenge cultural norms and structures that fuel inequality.

In this year alone, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a 50/50 male-female cabinet, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne set 40 per cent gender diversity targets, and (whoa!) the Rotman School of Management launched a new Institute for Gender & The Economy and invited well-known feminist Andi Zeisler to speak to business students. Big tech conferences banning “booth babes” on the basis that it is indefensible in this day and age—and a relic of old enterprise.

We might even see a woman become President of the United States in November.

Change is happening.

Enter, Toronto’s Tech Elite Hold Outs

Sadly, the “Bro-Chairs” of the Spotlight Awards 2016, led by event host and newly appointed NEXT Canada CEO Razor Suleman, seem to be, like Donald Trump, living in their own reality. Change? What change?

Here is the latest of several examples.

While the concept of launching a Canada tech entrepreneur awards show is commendable, Suleman and his 11 co-chair male disciples, plus one lone woman (Angela Strange) exhibited astonishingly outdated judgment in its execution.

For starters, they chose to partner up with the startup Modelmob  to supply (free) booth babes to adorn and serve smiles at this awards event. Even Toronto Mayor John Tory and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Singh Bains attended the event, seemingly without concern about the hiring of young arm candy as a ticket-selling draw.

Modelmob is a Tinder-style “hire me now” mobile app that makes it easy for those inclined to sign up as “models” and enables buyers to pick individual “models” to adorn their event, based on their pictures. They may then put them in a shopping cart, and check them out—just like you might buy books on Amazon. Suleman himself is reported to be a proud mentor to the male/female co-founding team. Their advertising says they aim to become the “Airbnb” for models, matching buyers with sellers. Some might say the app empowers women, but based on the enterprise’s ads and tweets, empowerment is clearly not what they are selling.

To give you a sense of their approach, note the post-event promo from Modelmob featured below:

Oddly, no one even at or even after the event seemed to publically comment on how inappropriate this was. Organizers tweeted “@ModelmobApp thank you for sponsoring the #spotlightawards2016 tonight and adding beauty and flare to the event”.

As the evening wore on, questionable judgment by the committee continued as Suleman led the way to the event’s after party at the exclusive Candyland Burlesque club, which features fancy 1 oz cocktails at $20 a piece, plus $8,000 bottles of champagne and $5,000 third act table service, alongside barely-dressed women performing circus-esque acts.

Is Candyland like Moulin Rouge?

One reviewer on Yelp, Tracey D , who went to the venue in August 2016, described her experience in detail:

“We did not see any of the acts like the photographs on this page… It was not what I expected. I was thinking it’d be a classy burlesque show. It was not. Penises are spray painted on the walls, along with dirty words. We saw a waitress take off her top and flash the bartender. We only saw one performance while we were there… It was two girls rolling around and crawling in army boots. Not my idea of burlesque. It was extremely dark and seemed seedy. We ended up leaving early.”

From Candyland by Night to…. Leadership of Young Entrepreneurs By Day?

One has to ask what this kind of leadership says to women tech entrepreneurs, NEXT Canada youth applicants, and more importantly, NEXT_Canada corporate sponsors advocating for gender-parity and the universities that host NEXT_Canada recruitment meet-ups? And what does it say about the other 11 co-chairs,including NEXT_Canada’s President, Peter Carrescia, the man in day-to-day charge of the program which has already been criticized for being significantly dude-laden throughout its ranks, and whose organization recently came under additional fire for “erasing” co-founder Claudia Hepburn?  

We should also be curious about the women “role models” who were part of the event, like Dragon’s Den cast member Michele Romanow, or Silicon Valley VC connector Angela Strange. Where were their voices on these decisions then? Where are they now?

And finally, we have to ask if this is the kind of leadership anyone really needs in a period when the number of women in tech is in actual declinewomen’s rights are rolling backward in many parts of the world, and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s competency is hotly debated on gender grounds.

But then again, some people really do live in their own reality.

Leadership by Example? These Leaders Don’t Represent My Canada

At a time when concerns mount over barriers faced by women entrepreneurs—particularly women tech entrepreneurs—the choices made by the otherwise successful, smart Spotlight Awards committee are baffling. But then again, just because one knows how to make money, doesn’t mean one is fit to lead in changing times. This is not Silicon Valley or Trump-land. It is Canada.

It is also a stark reminder that having a few women in the mix doesn’t mean that the conversation will necessarily change. Sure, sometimes the outnumbered female voice is self-censored, fearing accusations of being “no fun” or “prudish”. But scarier still, is the woman in the room who says nothing because she is just as oblivious to or ignorant about the broader economic and social impact of gender-based oppression as her male counterparts are.

There is still so, so much work to be done.

–first published in LiisBeth’s newsletter, Sept 27th, 2015

 

(Publishers Update: In response to increasing calls for change from LiisBeth, SheEO, and many other organizations and individuals, the Board of Directors at Next_Canada took action.  Read about it here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hard-thing-things-petra-kassun-mutch?trk=prof-post)

 

Related articles: 

http://bit.ly/1WubnO8 

http://betakit.com/timetable/event/spotlight-awards/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/07/27/problem-bro-preneurship-display-montreals-startupfest/

https://medium.com/@melindakjacobs/are-women-just-decorative-items-855c42a375be#.jv9q5uniw

https://www.bdc.ca/en/about/mediaroom/news_releases/pages/i_love_rewards_company_gets_to_the_point.aspx

Categories
Activism & Action

The Problem with Bro-preneurship: On Display at Montreal's Startupfest


Too often we talk about entrepreneurship as if it were one community, one culture. In reality, it is a kaleidoscope of philosophies, approaches, and cultures. But the bro-oriented, Silicon Valley tech culture sucks up all the media oxygen and, with it, too much of the venture capital. And the celebration of that narrow aspect of entrepreneurship is getting stale.
Take Montreal’s Startupfest, now in its sixth year. An estimated 3,500 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, accelerators, incubators, policy-makers, consultants, and bankers (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) paid between $300 and $800 per person to attend what were often puerile, shoddily prepared presentations interrupting what seemed to be the main event: big money boys trying to out dude each other on stage and at festival parties.
The event is a marquis summer event for Montreal, a city trying to position itself on the global innovation map as a world-class startup haven. It currently ranks 20th behind Toronto at 17th.
This year, the festival featured 70 speakers and three separate circus tent stages set up in the Old Port of Montreal. Many came to compete in pitching competitions awarding anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 in seed funding. Apparently, they also came for loads of free drinks (sponsored by Osler and Shopify), and the chance to play with “grown-up” toys such as foosball and snag pink beach balls and free pairs of Parasuco jeans, giveaways by various sponsor booths. The event billed itself as “unforgettable and unconventional.”
Beware: What Sells as Unconventional Is Actually Deeply Conventional
I attended the fest, on the lookout for the unconventional. Other than a pitch judging panel called The Grandmothers (retired women entrepreneurs) and pop-up child care, most of the event was the same old celebration of tech/VC-centred bro-preneurship.
For those who have never been, these conferences work hard to craft a cool, anti-establishment experience. But look beyond the nifty swag, red sneakers, and neon lights, and what you really see is raw, 300-year-old capitalism at work. Large venture capital firms and accelerators, hip as they try to be to scoop up young talent, are really just organizations with age-old biases and management processes, freighted with old-boy politics and rules. Startups that win their backing quickly become traditional corporations. Winning big VC backing requires fitting in and doing things their way. So much for following your own authentic path that fired you up in the first place. So much for rebelling against big money and “the man.”
The speaker lineup was touted as first class, but session topics were narrow in scope and short on depth as well as respect for the audience. There were no sessions on social entrepreneurship nor on the now estimated $3 trillion impact investing space, a scale that surely deserves some attention at an event like this. Several headline speakers tried to come across as unconventional and unscripted but were simply unprepared. A few rogue panelists seemed more interested in using air time to fortify their personal brands rather than sharing useful information. No one interrogated the space itself or asked the audience to reflect hard on important questions such as how many jobs their ventures are creating, where those jobs are located and for whom. Or even how to address growing structural unemployment some new ventures accelerate with next-stage robots and artificial intelligence. But a presenter just showing up and being mildly entertaining was celebrated. The casualty? Audience learning and value for money. Though, sadly, too few bros in the audience seemed to care.
Fuck That: No, I Really Mean, Fuck That
Tech culture tries to pass itself off as unconventional, rebellious, and youthful by celebrating a culture of cussing, but that quickly became old as presenters over 40 seemed in full-out competition to drop as many f-bombs as possible. It must have felt dangerous for them, a little like swearing in front of their mothers for the first time. I can say “fuck” deliciously and often, but when it comes to using the f-word on stage, I take my lead from uber-orators like Tony Robbins who swears, but strategically and not at the expense of substance. Full of dude-itude, these guys dropped bombs as if on auto-repeat rather than using their words to say anything informative.
What’s lost when organizers cuss on stage themselves? Or when a Master of Ceremonies counsels audience members to count the times they hear the word “fuck” and suggests awarding prizes to the speaker who drops the most bombs? Let’s just say it was a distraction from the obvious—that those who used it most had the least to say.
A Chance to Meet “The Man”: But He Doesn’t Care About You
Too typical of the event were speakers like Dave McClure. Now McClure has an enviable reputation as a celebrity angel investor. According to his website, his venture fund (co-founded by Christine Tsai, who is never mentioned) has made investments in 1,500 companies in 50 countries. Not surprisingly, the tent he spoke in was packed with eager conference goers of all genders and ages hopeful to bag some of that venture capital. I hoped he might have something meaty to say. I turned on my recorder just in case.
As he settled into his speaker’s chair, the first thing he told the audience, with a strange pride as if anticipating we would be impressed, was that he didn’t have time to prepare his 30-minute talk. He had planned to write one the night before but he got drunk at the festival party instead. (Everyone laughed knowingly.) So the paying audience would have to make do with festival staffer interviewing him on stage.

A competitive type, he began his talk by reciting comedian George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television“, (circa 1972) and added that he didn’t understand why the last word, tits, was a problem. “Afterall, even girls like tits”. The crowd laughed and followed with a rousing “ya man” applause.

When asked about diversity, he noted that African Americans and Hispanics add up to 30 per cent of the population and were definitely an under-indexed population (people, anyone?). He said he started his 500 Startups diversity program “not because we’re wonderful or good Samaritans but because (and his voice lifted excitedly) we can make a lot of fucking money!” After a few in the audience hooted, he elaborated, “We’re just greedy blood-sucking venture capitalists who just want to make a lot of fucking money…arbitraging racism and sexism for our own selfish fucking benefit and the globe.”
If you can stomach a minute and 20 seconds of his rant, you can listen to it here.
Apparently, being offensive was part of his celebrity shtick for a reality TV show he had been cast in. (It was cancelled before starting.) I questioned whether I was a humourless bitch or had landed in an Animal House full of frat boys. Guess I can ponder the question further as 500 Startups is opening up shop in my home city of Toronto and nearby Waterloo. Can’t wait.
His talk lasted only 20 minutes, thank God. Still, the audience clapped and several even whistled appreciatively. Later, I asked more than 15 entrepreneurs—of both sexes and a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds—what they thought of his talk.  The majority were nonplussed by his shock-jock style. They considered it part of a salable celebrity personality. To them, he was still a hero and model. “After all,” enthused one 20-something South Asian entrepreneur, “he gives a lot of money to entrepreneurs.”
Only one person expressed what I was thinking, that his talk was disgusting and disappointing and you can listen to that response here.
WTF? But the Networking Was Fun
Montreal Startupfest does many things well, especially facilitating networking. There were lots of long breaks, free Nespresso, the bar was open all day, tech demo tents and mentor tents hummed with people, and they rocked social media. Others could learn from them on this. But they blew their opportunity to stand out from other conferences like this by not broadening the scope of topics and by not professionalizing their management of panels and speakers. Positive change might start by choosing speakers who represent where the event wants to go, not where it has been. Efforts to be gender inclusive by ensuring gender balance on stage was actually laudable. You could tell organizers were really trying. But still, the overwhelming majority of attendees were male (by my eyeball count it was more than 80 per cent). Many experts understand that real inclusivity has to address culture as well as rosters, and that means changing the adolescent, bro culture that so dominates the tech/venture capital entrepreneur space, which not only diminishes inclusivity but inhibits real learning and dampens the festival’s potential for growth and meaningful impact.
Thankfully, times are changing. And events like this will have to evolve to stay relevant—or others will replace them. As for me, I love a good time as much as any bro-preneur. On that basis, I would totally go again but next time, I won’t bother with a notebook. I’ll just pack my party shoes—and Tylenol.
 


 
Follow up readings:
Another good article about the impact of bro talk:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/how-wall-street-bro-talk-keeps-women-down.html?_r=0
The Best Presentation?
By Ooshma Garg, founder of Gobble, prepared and amazing, instructive story.
Other perspectives and articles about Montreal Startupfest:
http://montrealgazette.com/business/local-business/montreals-startupfest-is-all-grown-up
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/nathon-kong-wins-cbc-media-pitch-at-the-international-startup-festival-1.3158246
http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/startupfest-connects-entrepreneurs-with-investors-1.2987132
https://ludovicdumas.com/2011/07/19/montreal-international-startup-festival-2011-bubble-talk/
About the founder, Phil Telio:
https://www.linkedin.com/in/telio
 

Categories
Activism & Action

The Problem with Bro-preneurship: On Display at Montreal’s Startupfest

Too often we talk about entrepreneurship as if it were one community, one culture. In reality, it is a kaleidoscope of philosophies, approaches, and cultures. But the bro-oriented, Silicon Valley tech culture sucks up all the media oxygen and, with it, too much of the venture capital. And the celebration of that narrow aspect of entrepreneurship is getting stale.

Take Montreal’s Startupfest, now in its sixth year. An estimated 3,500 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, accelerators, incubators, policy-makers, consultants, and bankers (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) paid between $300 and $800 per person to attend what were often puerile, shoddily prepared presentations interrupting what seemed to be the main event: big money boys trying to out dude each other on stage and at festival parties.

The event is a marquis summer event for Montreal, a city trying to position itself on the global innovation map as a world-class startup haven. It currently ranks 20th behind Toronto at 17th.

This year, the festival featured 70 speakers and three separate circus tent stages set up in the Old Port of Montreal. Many came to compete in pitching competitions awarding anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 in seed funding. Apparently, they also came for loads of free drinks (sponsored by Osler and Shopify), and the chance to play with “grown-up” toys such as foosball and snag pink beach balls and free pairs of Parasuco jeans, giveaways by various sponsor booths. The event billed itself as “unforgettable and unconventional.”

Beware: What Sells as Unconventional Is Actually Deeply Conventional

I attended the fest, on the lookout for the unconventional. Other than a pitch judging panel called The Grandmothers (retired women entrepreneurs) and pop-up child care, most of the event was the same old celebration of tech/VC-centred bro-preneurship.

For those who have never been, these conferences work hard to craft a cool, anti-establishment experience. But look beyond the nifty swag, red sneakers, and neon lights, and what you really see is raw, 300-year-old capitalism at work. Large venture capital firms and accelerators, hip as they try to be to scoop up young talent, are really just organizations with age-old biases and management processes, freighted with old-boy politics and rules. Startups that win their backing quickly become traditional corporations. Winning big VC backing requires fitting in and doing things their way. So much for following your own authentic path that fired you up in the first place. So much for rebelling against big money and “the man.”

The speaker lineup was touted as first class, but session topics were narrow in scope and short on depth as well as respect for the audience. There were no sessions on social entrepreneurship nor on the now estimated $3 trillion impact investing space, a scale that surely deserves some attention at an event like this. Several headline speakers tried to come across as unconventional and unscripted but were simply unprepared. A few rogue panelists seemed more interested in using air time to fortify their personal brands rather than sharing useful information. No one interrogated the space itself or asked the audience to reflect hard on important questions such as how many jobs their ventures are creating, where those jobs are located and for whom. Or even how to address growing structural unemployment some new ventures accelerate with next-stage robots and artificial intelligence. But a presenter just showing up and being mildly entertaining was celebrated. The casualty? Audience learning and value for money. Though, sadly, too few bros in the audience seemed to care.

Fuck That: No, I Really Mean, Fuck That

Tech culture tries to pass itself off as unconventional, rebellious, and youthful by celebrating a culture of cussing, but that quickly became old as presenters over 40 seemed in full-out competition to drop as many f-bombs as possible. It must have felt dangerous for them, a little like swearing in front of their mothers for the first time. I can say “fuck” deliciously and often, but when it comes to using the f-word on stage, I take my lead from uber-orators like Tony Robbins who swears, but strategically and not at the expense of substance. Full of dude-itude, these guys dropped bombs as if on auto-repeat rather than using their words to say anything informative.

What’s lost when organizers cuss on stage themselves? Or when a Master of Ceremonies counsels audience members to count the times they hear the word “fuck” and suggests awarding prizes to the speaker who drops the most bombs? Let’s just say it was a distraction from the obvious—that those who used it most had the least to say.

A Chance to Meet “The Man”: But He Doesn’t Care About You

Too typical of the event were speakers like Dave McClure. Now McClure has an enviable reputation as a celebrity angel investor. According to his website, his venture fund (co-founded by Christine Tsai, who is never mentioned) has made investments in 1,500 companies in 50 countries. Not surprisingly, the tent he spoke in was packed with eager conference goers of all genders and ages hopeful to bag some of that venture capital. I hoped he might have something meaty to say. I turned on my recorder just in case.

As he settled into his speaker’s chair, the first thing he told the audience, with a strange pride as if anticipating we would be impressed, was that he didn’t have time to prepare his 30-minute talk. He had planned to write one the night before but he got drunk at the festival party instead. (Everyone laughed knowingly.) So the paying audience would have to make do with festival staffer interviewing him on stage.

A competitive type, he began his talk by reciting comedian George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television“, (circa 1972) and added that he didn’t understand why the last word, tits, was a problem. “Afterall, even girls like tits”. The crowd laughed and followed with a rousing “ya man” applause.

When asked about diversity, he noted that African Americans and Hispanics add up to 30 per cent of the population and were definitely an under-indexed population (people, anyone?). He said he started his 500 Startups diversity program “not because we’re wonderful or good Samaritans but because (and his voice lifted excitedly) we can make a lot of fucking money!” After a few in the audience hooted, he elaborated, “We’re just greedy blood-sucking venture capitalists who just want to make a lot of fucking money…arbitraging racism and sexism for our own selfish fucking benefit and the globe.”

If you can stomach a minute and 20 seconds of his rant, you can listen to it here.

Apparently, being offensive was part of his celebrity shtick for a reality TV show he had been cast in. (It was cancelled before starting.) I questioned whether I was a humourless bitch or had landed in an Animal House full of frat boys. Guess I can ponder the question further as 500 Startups is opening up shop in my home city of Toronto and nearby Waterloo. Can’t wait.

His talk lasted only 20 minutes, thank God. Still, the audience clapped and several even whistled appreciatively. Later, I asked more than 15 entrepreneurs—of both sexes and a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds—what they thought of his talk.  The majority were nonplussed by his shock-jock style. They considered it part of a salable celebrity personality. To them, he was still a hero and model. “After all,” enthused one 20-something South Asian entrepreneur, “he gives a lot of money to entrepreneurs.”

Only one person expressed what I was thinking, that his talk was disgusting and disappointing and you can listen to that response here.

WTF? But the Networking Was Fun

Montreal Startupfest does many things well, especially facilitating networking. There were lots of long breaks, free Nespresso, the bar was open all day, tech demo tents and mentor tents hummed with people, and they rocked social media. Others could learn from them on this. But they blew their opportunity to stand out from other conferences like this by not broadening the scope of topics and by not professionalizing their management of panels and speakers. Positive change might start by choosing speakers who represent where the event wants to go, not where it has been. Efforts to be gender inclusive by ensuring gender balance on stage was actually laudable. You could tell organizers were really trying. But still, the overwhelming majority of attendees were male (by my eyeball count it was more than 80 per cent). Many experts understand that real inclusivity has to address culture as well as rosters, and that means changing the adolescent, bro culture that so dominates the tech/venture capital entrepreneur space, which not only diminishes inclusivity but inhibits real learning and dampens the festival’s potential for growth and meaningful impact.

Thankfully, times are changing. And events like this will have to evolve to stay relevant—or others will replace them. As for me, I love a good time as much as any bro-preneur. On that basis, I would totally go again but next time, I won’t bother with a notebook. I’ll just pack my party shoes—and Tylenol.

 


 

Follow up readings:

Another good article about the impact of bro talk:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/how-wall-street-bro-talk-keeps-women-down.html?_r=0

The Best Presentation?

By Ooshma Garg, founder of Gobble, prepared and amazing, instructive story.

Other perspectives and articles about Montreal Startupfest:
http://montrealgazette.com/business/local-business/montreals-startupfest-is-all-grown-up

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/nathon-kong-wins-cbc-media-pitch-at-the-international-startup-festival-1.3158246

http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/startupfest-connects-entrepreneurs-with-investors-1.2987132

https://ludovicdumas.com/2011/07/19/montreal-international-startup-festival-2011-bubble-talk/

About the founder, Phil Telio:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/telio