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Curating a Conference While Changing Ratios

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It’s good business, now and going forward. Your sponsors will notice. Your audience will notice. The media will notice. The other panelists will notice—because the conversation will be better, the discourse will be higher, and honestly, the clothes will be better.  - Rachel Sklar on recruiting more women speakers

The recent mid-Atlantic tech and creative festival DCWEEK, co-produced by Tech Cocktail and iStrategy Labs, had over 100 speakers. That’s just the number we curated – many more self-organized events throughout the week hosted additional speakers.

It’s not the number of speakers that’s so important though, it’s who spoke and what they brought to the table. As we’ve seen from coast to coast through the years, the person at the podium holds a certain power, gets attention and is often seen as an expert. The problem has been that most speakers have been a homogenous bunch, primarily of one consituency… that being male and mostly white, particularly in the tech sector.

Unfortunately that can lead to a lack of role models and general representation for the other constituencies who most definitely do exist in our sector and are looking for people to identify and connect with. So when it came time to curating the DCWEEK core conference, it  was decided that we would have a few goals:

  • Find great people from various sectors who really understand the topic at hand but might bring different perspectives
  • Have a strong mix of local speakers but also bring in people from around the country
  • Involve more women and minorities

So how did we do, and what were the challenges?

Our initial plan was good but was still limited. Looking back, I believe the reason was because we were initially looking at people and companies we knew personally, which, no matter how diverse your own network might be, still limits your speaker pool in many ways. It wasn’t good enough, so here are some of the steps we took:

- We reached out to colleagues and asked for specific recommendations, and as we did, diversity increased.

- We reached out to Rachel Sklar’s Change the Ratio organization looking for women interested in talking about a variety of topics. Many talented women traveled to DC to be take part in the various sessions.

- We mined the SXSW public submissions to look for a range of voices out there who were passionate about specific topics. Once we had some candidates, it was pretty easy to research them  a bit more (you know, with the Internet and all).

- The sheer number of speakers involved meant lots of dropouts and last minute changes. Many of the people who cancelled were kind enough to suggest (or even just send) a replacement – and in almost all cases, the replacement was a white male. Lesson learned – have more backup speakers in mind.

- Diversity was much more easily achieved with the Core Conference than with the Opening Keynotes. With the Keynotes we searched for more well known speakers or those who had achieved some higher level of success. We achieved a great diversity in subject expertise and industry, but with the lineup of 8 total speakers we only had two females, including myself (I interviewed one of our speakers on stage). Lesson learned – next year we will start earlier and do better.

Overall, the Core Conference had a male:female ratio of 2:1 with ~83 male speakers and ~40 female speakers, but it was somewhat skewed by content track. We had five content tracks and women tended to dominate the Social Good & Marketing track, but were a minority in the Dev & Design track and Mobile track.  In terms of racial diversity, I hesitate with the best way to report back on that, but my cursory look at white:nonwhite was around 4:1.

Why is this important? 

First, it’s important to the producers of DCWEEK that this festival feel open and inviting to everyone. And as my friend, tech advisor Shireen Mitchell often says, when you walk by a room and everyone in it looks totally different than you, are you more likely to walk in and sit down with them or walk on past? The DC area is already segmented enough – we must make an effort at making everyone feel welcome to join and participate.

Second, I agree with Sklar’s quote at the beginning of this article – it’s just more interesting!  This may be as non-scientific as you get, but because we tried harder to diversify across the board, we had some great speakers and panels that some of us may never have heard otherwise. The positive feedback was validation.

And finally, although some of you may feel like this is a topic that is overdone, I believe it’s important to talk about, share our own experience and put it out in the open so we get feedback and ensure that we remove all of our blinders. It is easier to disregard people then we often believe, and making anyone feel disregarded is a terrible thing – and contrary to our mission.

I felt this acutely during the DCWEEK Opening Keynotes when I was on stage with my fellow co-producers, Frank Gruber and Peter Corbett, as Washington, DC’s Mayor Gray gave our welcoming speech. The Mayor thanked Frank and Peter by name (a few times) and invited them to join him at the podium as he proclaimed November DC Tech Month. I joined as well, even though he didn’t mention my name and disregarded the fact that I was on stage, standing next to him. While I’m sure someone else wrote his speech and didn’t do the proper fact checking, the fact that there were clearly three of us, yet only two were mentioned, was embarrassing and deflating. No violins needed, but it served as a good reminder.

The team at Tech Cocktail and DCWEEK strive to recognize and celebrate the community,and to make everyone feel invited and part of what we do – a true “cocktail” of people uniting over our passion – technology, creativity and innovation.

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About the Author

Jen Consalvo is the COO of Tech Cocktail. She is also an entrepreneur and new media journalist who worked in product development for almost 13 years at AOL for audiences of millions. Follow her on Twitter at: @noreaster.

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