Man, the sun rises early in San Francisco in February. Even as I lament that while I lay in bed, reeling from the final day of the second annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit, I realize it is probably for the best. How else would I have been able to successfully rally for a four-day whirlwind of interacting with 1200 queer women and the technology and companies that surround and interact with us? Last year’s inaugural event, recapped by Tech Editor Ali Osworth, drew 800 attendees and I remember being shocked at even that number. It was most definitely a success and, despite some initial apprehension, I would characterize this year as an even bigger win.
The basic four day layout was mostly the same this year with two key differences that really upped the ante. Firstly, one of the most frustrating things last year was navigating the Castro Theater — and I don’t mean that in some sort of metaphorical or socially awkward way. I mean literally moving through the upper atrium was impossible. As much as I like being butt to butt with hundreds of other queers, it’s a lot less effective for networking. This year breakout sessions were hosted in local bars. Even though the bars were busy, they left enough room to actually be able to hear product explanations or talk shop. Without this space, I wouldn’t have been able to try Oculus, a much talked about VR experience that was worth having, even if it made me a little nauseous (but let’s blame the antibiotics shall we?).
Secondly, more emphasis was put on Saturday. Though there were events Thursday through Sunday, Friday really included the bulk of the programming. Last year featured a Hackathon and a bike ride, but little else. This year another set of panels and talks at the Github office proved a more intimate setting for people who wanted more from the day before, as well as more interactivity. It also provided a great opportunity to chill out in their swanky office space, play pool or ping pong, and take pictures in their oval office replica, which I certainly did.
This was, perhaps, one of LWT’s greatest triumphs, and I don’t mean fooling around in a fancy office with free lunch (although yes to that x10) but that it successfully combined learning, networking, strategizing and activism with straight up good times. Despite any apprehensions about using the term “lesbian” or inviting a straight white cis man to the stage, LWT was an incredibly diverse place with some truly inspirational speakers.
Friday’s main stage MCs Erica Anderson and Danielle Moodie Mills injected humor into every intro while moving the packed schedule along quickly. The morning started out strong with a roundtable moderated by Danielle Moodie Mills & Aisha Moodie Mills featuring Tina Lee of Mother Coders and Aliya Rahman, Program Director of Code for Progress, entitled How Badass Women Are Solving Tech’s Diversity Problem. When asked about how to involve more women, queers and POC, Rahman encouraged us to get involved, even if we don’t have Computer Science or Engineering degrees, even if we don’t program perfectly. “It’s easier to teach syntax than racial consciousness,” she said, implying that we should all just jump into technology fields, as intimidating as they may be; you can learn on the job. It was a pitch perfect introduction to the summit as well as one of the throughlines that continued throughout. You can be self-taught, just believe in yourself and jump in. Men do it. You’ll get it. Mentors are available and will help you get there. For someone who is now a Web Developer who was an Art and Gender Studies major, this rings so true.
More morning talks included a fascinating dip into the technology of gun control with Pia Carusone, Former Chief of Staff to Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, some truly great 80s nostalgia in tech from Bronx native Lynne D Johnson and the aforementioned VR (virtual reality) in the Career Lounge. The late morning saw yet more talks from great minds including health plans based on personal genetics, breaking into tech after getting out of the military, stages of brogrammer grief from Dominique DeGuzman (Software Engineer, Twilio). Jesus, we’re only up to lunch here, people.
I attended the Queer Women in Media breakout at QBar (which, lemme tell you, is weird to see in the daytime) which was largely populated by Autostraddle folk, featuring Riese, Alex and Taylor. The panelists talked frankly about the challenges of reporting continually depressing news and how to cope, community, and the role of the user in New Media.
After lunch it was tempting to head back to more breakout sessions but I opted for the main stage once again, mostly so I wouldn’t miss the pitch sessions, which were one of my favorite parts of last year (when Robyn Exton launched Dattch). At this point the endless string of super short 10 min talks were starting to get overwhelming. Even though they have all been interesting and informative I might recommend cutting a couple in order to get some better depth. At the very least, the two minute cue music needs to be a bit subtler, because it was a jarring interruption to the end of almost every speaker.
One speaker that I fervently loved was Angelica Ross, Founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, an apprentice program connecting trans people to jobs that is literally life-saving. The theme of being able to be self-taught and just jump into the tech industry keeps coming back. Ross was excited about how many raised their hands when asked about trans women in the audience and we were all on the edge of tears.
— BAVC Youth Programs (@BAVCNextGen) February 27, 2015
She was certainly more inspiring than former Wal-Mart CMO Cathy Halligan, whose admission that she basically missed her daughter growing up from ages 4 to 9 made me squirm in my seat a little. I’m excited that we have big names wanting to employ queer people, but I’m hoping they’re companies that value all their workers and that give them a decent work-life balance. (Full disclosure: Wal-Mart is on the list of advertisers that Autostraddle will not, under any circumstances, work with.) This moment seemed especially poignant considering this recent article on motherhood in the workplace that is currently making the social media rounds.
This year’s pitches didn’t quite have quite the fervor of last year’s Dattch launch, though I suppose it is difficult to compete with a pitch that can potentially get you laid (or wifed, you do you and all). Although I would have thought wine would be a good contender, Carla McKay‘s Crushed, an app dedicated to all things wine, was just a little too niche to be really lauded. ClipYap was a great millennial gif search tool but a bit too simplistic, at least without the voice of a talented PR person that could have boomed a bit louder than creator Monica Taher. Conversely, DataSnap‘s proximity-triggered engagement through measurement was just a bit too complicated and esoteric to really gain any traction. I’m intrigued by Katy Atkinson‘s product even though I still don’t really get it.
But the two apps that we knew would battle it out in the end were Riana Lynn‘s FoodTrace and Stephanie Lampkin‘s Blendoor. FoodTrace’s idea of giving restaurants, grocers and other food purveyors the tools they need to connect with the freshest and most local farms and then analyze their inventory, sales and other key analytics that would help both their plates and their bottom lines is not just a great way to bring both industries into the 21st century, but also a shrewd way to capitalize on the very in “farm to table” movement. However, FoodTrace needed to talk more about how they would convince these very untechnically savvy industries that they would benefit. They were a special runner up mention to Blendoor’s win. Aside from mirroring the desires of the entire summit itself, Blendoor was also just fun and slick; it’s a mobile job matching app that helps connect tech companies to qualified women, veterans and underrepresented minority candidates. It’s swiping functionality is reminiscent of dating apps and games. And you know how that went last year…
Now it’s that exhausted time of the evening when the two most anticipated keynotes are about to start. Unfortunately my earlier skepticism surrounding Marc Benioff turned out to be largely accurate. It’s not that Salesforce doesn’t do great things in the Bay Area or that LGBT employees are unhappy there (although their diversity numbers are just as abysmal as elsewhere in the industry) it’s just that Benioff really didn’t speak to his audience, nor say much that was substantive.
Fresh off some really big interviews, Swisher was pretty funny if not as hard hitting as she usually is. She didn’t disappoint with quips such as, “You know that Apple’s run by men when they come out with Apple 6 plus and its 5.5 inches,” or when she cited “unconscious bias” as just an excuse for “being lazy and stupid.” Pertinent questions such as why tech is obsessed with itself got non-answers such as, “More and more entrepreneurs are giving back.” The only way I can interpret that answer from Benioff as following would be something akin to believing that if we continue to play into CEO narcissism we can find a way to lure them into philanthropy and diversity hiring? At the same time that seemed to say more than “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican but an American,” or the “crisis of prioritization” which sounded promising but still really didn’t say much when not paired with how to address that problem. Really the best part about this keynote (besides Swisher’s moments of comedic genius) was seeing the significant size difference between the two speakers in the big chairs, Swisher looking looking like a very professional Edith Ann…and that’s the truth…pffft.
Fun fact: his company is only 5% female leadership. Fascinating. #LWTSUMMIT
— ✨Eva Gantz ✨ (@EvaGantz) February 28, 2015
— Morgen (@MorgenBromell) February 28, 2015
The main part of the day rounded out with a fireside chat between Chief Technology Officer of the USA and former head of Google X Megan Smith and Leanne Pittsford. While I didn’t find this talk quite as dynamic as Smith’s talk last year (which synthesized the social history of technology with nostalgia and futuristic planning) there were some gems. One concerned Smith’s assertion that the White House was the most diverse place she has ever worked, which gave me hope for our government (though discouraged me about the private sector).
All these connections, keynotes, workshops and more were amazing but exhausting, so I wouldn’t want to discount the great social events that provided a bit of downtime even as we continued to network. Thursday’s opening happy hour is always a fun way to introduce ourselves to one another with 2-for-1 drinks where veteran powersuit lesbians happily hobnob with genderqueer new graduates on the cusp of their first jobs or startups. Friday evening was a continuation, but the real treat, if you could get through the 2 hour long line, was our invasion of Mango, a hip-hop, dancehall, & Latin grooves party for women wherein Megan Smith herself made an appearance. We managed to get the incredibly friendly big gov lez onto the stage to dance with us (wearing an undone Star Trek bowtie, no less).
It’s just too bad that the closing brunch wasn’t quite as spectacular. It feels nitpicky to criticize the service at an establishment so very far removed from the content of the Summit, but I can’t help whining just a tiny bit because with any conference you want your last event to encapsulate the great weekend, not detract from it. Despite the poor service and incredibly crowded quarters, it was great to have a time to decompress and really talk about what worked and what didn’t over the weekend. Whether we were hungover or just tired, our attire was certainly toned down and talking strategies for next year and other cities with Leanne Pittsford in flannel was a truly engaging and energizing way to end the summit on a high note.
Now despite the appalling length of this recap there was still so much I couldn’t get to about this truly great experience. There were Kate Stayman-London‘s sendup of Cards Against Humanity with Ladies Against Humanity; there was an amazing Saturday morning panel on Tech at Any Age that challenged the notion that you have to be a a Mountain Dew swilling 20-something to be a part of a technological force; there was the breakout star of the weekend Aliya Rahman whose 2 quotes were the most tweeted, whose style was always on fleek, and who gave credit to others as well. The first quote I mentioned earlier but the second was equally powerful: “I believe the best way to hire women and people of colors is to hire them.”
— Sandra Kurt (@SandraKurt) February 28, 2015
But mostly there were critical discussions taking place and friendships being made. And despite the small criticisms I have outlined I want to emphasize that I felt it really succeeded. Last year was a surprising start and this year was even better.
For more info, pictures, tweets and data for those who just can’t get enough, download the LWT app, check out the #LWTSummit Twitter hashtag or my own furious live-tweeting, the official LWT Facebook, or finally a very heartfelt personal recount from Autostraddle’s Djuan Trent.
This has been the one-hundred-twentieth installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to bookmark to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani. Feature image via the future, because holy crap Oculus.