I had an interesting experience at Mega Startup Weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited to help judge the startup pitches at the end of the weekend. It’s remarkable how much a dedicated team can accomplish in just 54 hours.
But my most interesting experience took just a few seconds.
During one of the pitches, the all-male team used a gratuitous photograph of leaping bikini-clad women. The bikini-clad women had little to do with the app; I think the entrepreneurs simply thought it would amuse the (extremely sleep-deprived) crowd. But rather than simply flashing the image once, the pitch returned to it several times, and the team even switched to the image as the background for their onstage Q&A at one point.
Gender balance is rare in Silicon Valley, but the Mega Startup Weekend team did a good job of attracting a diverse set of entrepreneurs and audience members, including quite a few women. I watched a few of them during the pitch; while they didn’t display any extreme reactions, I could see at least some signs of (perhaps resigned) discomfort.
So when it was my turn to speak on the judging panel, I took a few seconds to do something really simple. I lifted the microphone and said, “I hate to be a buzzkill, but I just have to point out that using that bikini picture seems inappropriate. It doesn’t have anything to do with your product.”
The whole thing took less than 15 seconds, but even before I finished speaking the women in the audience applauded loudly–and because there were a good number of women in the audience, it brought the proceedings to a brief halt.
Afterwards, several women made their way up to the stage and thanked me for speaking out. They wanted to underline how much it meant to them.
I’m sure that the startup in question had no bad intentions. They didn’t want to offend anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. They simply displayed an image that they liked and thought was entertaining.
The high tech community is undergoing a transition. Traditionally, high tech has been dominated by young Caucasian and Asian males (go back another 20 years, and it was just Caucasian males). Like many other parts of society, entrepreneurship has become more inclusive.
There are far more women and non-East Asian minorities involved now than when I started my own high tech career in 1995, nearly 20 years ago. This is a good thing–we Caucasian/Asian males have no monopoly on ambition or ability. But the traditional demographic still represents a solid majority of participants (I believe the kids these days would call it a “sausage fest”). And it’s still all too easy to forget that other perspectives exist.
If you’re a woman or a minority (and I have to make the distinction because women now make up the majority of college graduates in this country), it’s much harder to speak up when something occurs to make you feel uncomfortable. Were I in the same situation, I’d be worried that I’d be seen as “oversensitive” or “think-skinned.” And with good reason.
Check out the recent Geeklist incident (short version: Shanley Kane (a woman) noticed that Geeklist had made a promo video with a woman in her underwear. She tweeted the company for an explanation and suggested that they take it down, using some profanity. The founders did not respond well). Charles Arthur of The Guardian does a great job of letting the entire tweet stream tell the story. I think it’s pretty clear that the founders of Geeklist acquit themselves poorly and that nothing Kane did was out of line. Yet some of the commenters still defend the company and criticize Kane for her actions.
Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who speak out regardless of the potential fallout. Yet if those of us who aren’t affected speak up, the effect can be even stronger.
Speaking up when you see someone else wronged sends a powerful message. It simultaneously demonstrates the wrongheadedness of the action to the perpetrator while showing support to the wronged party.
And in my case, it didn’t take any special courage or eloquent words to have an impact.
If you see something wrong, speak up. If just a few more of us speak up, in time, none of us will need to.