Most conferences feature a seemingly endless array of white men. There are the white men who have written bestselling books. There are the white men who are CEOs. There are the white men who have mastered the academic world. Every few months, an article or a social media post points out the egregiousness of the white male overload at a specific event, and the organizers come back with a familiar defense: They simply couldn’t find anyone to speak who wasn’t a white guy. That’s usually not a lie; people just often fail to look beyond their immediate networks and the usual white male speakers that make the conference rounds.
FRESH Speakers, a new speaker’s bureau created by Vanessa Valenti, Courtney Martin, and John Cary, offers a deep well of speakers who break out of the traditional conference mold. Out of the 27 speakers currently represented by FRESH, only a few are white men. Almost everyone is under 40, and the speakers’ expertise is diverse.
Among the speakers: Catherine Bracy, Code for America’s director of community organizing; Bisi Alimi, the founder of the biggest LGBT charity in Nigeria, and Krista Donaldson, the CEO of nonprofit technology company D-Rev (one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2013).
“One of the things we see as broken on the speaking circuit is a dependence on books. I’m someone who has written three and co-authored more books, but it really doesn’t mean shit in many cases about whether you have expertise to bring to the table,” says Martin. Adds Cary: “On the whole, it’s about people who are undiscovered. From a business standpoint, we see a market in the roughly $10,000 range that most speaker’s bureaus don’t touch.”
The idea for FRESH Speakers came about when Cary and Martin were asked independently to recommend speakers for a conference. Martin recommended a black female environmental justice advocate from Detroit. Cary recommended a well-known white man with experience building Internet companies. Martin’s pick struggled just to get her travel paid for, while Cary’s choice received $15,000 and first-class airfare.
“That experience was exemplary of other experiences we’ve had. Some people are socialized to ask for money and some aren’t. The other really motivating factor for us is that our network is made up of such incredibly brilliant people from such a wide variety of backgrounds, and yet, so many of the conferences we have been to have the same speakers again and again,” says Martin.
Valenti, a co-founder of Feministing, helped turn the idea for a speaker’s bureau into reality. All three founders will work on speaker coaching and support, while Martin will focus on identifying talent and Valenti will handle day to day work.
Since launching earlier this month, FRESH has already received interested from both conference organizers and major media organizations looking for commentators. “This is a deeply solutions-oriented initiative,” says Martin. ” If your network is very white, very elite, it’s not that you individually are a bad person. Here’s a place where you can learn about some people who may not look like the rest of your network, and may not have expertise that your network already has.”