Last summer, I got invited to speak at the Women in Technology International (WITI) Summit, an annual gathering of professional women working in tech, hosted in the heart of Silicon Valley. I recently wrote a book that profiles millennials working with purpose, and the conference organizers asked if I could speak on the topic of "how millennial women are rocking the tech industry." "Sure," I emailed the organizers back, but "I’d like to invite a few women I know who are infinitely more qualified to speak on the subject than I am." They said yes, and the panel turned out to be excellent.
It wasn’t hard for me to find talented female speakers to join me. It took me 10 minutes and three emails. The reason why is amazingly simple: I already had the network to do that.
The fact that not everyone does both reflects and exacerbates the tech world's diversity problems. While my network probably could have filled the entire Hilton Doubletree in San Jose, let alone a four-person panel, with badass millennial women we know who are "rocking the tech industry," I invited three women with very different backgrounds, each of whom is creating positive social change every day.
I invited Jessica Semaan, who was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. to attend Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. As an early employee at Airbnb, she helped scale its operations worldwide and launch the company's first ever global conference. Jessica recently left her job to run her startup, The Passion Co., which has helped hundreds of people find their passion and turn it into a business. Since Jessica was unable to make the conference, she passed the invitation on to Jessica Brown, The Passion Co.’s program director, who's working toward her Masters in Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
I also brought Nikita T. Mitchell and Clemantine Wamariya. Nikita recently completed her MBA at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and upon graduation began working at Cisco as chief of staff for the newly formed Americas Consulting Team. During her two years at Haas, Nikita served as the 2014 MBA Association president (becoming the first African-American woman to hold the position) and was a principal for the $2.5 million Haas Socially Responsible Investment Fund.
Clemantine is a storyteller and human-rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, Clemantine was 6 years old when the Rwandan genocide broke out. Her older sister Claire led their miraculous escape. During the next six years, Claire and Clemantine lived in refugee camps, separated from parents and relatives, in seven different countries in eastern and southern Africa. For the past eight years, Clemantine has shared her experiences as both a survivor of genocide and as a refugee. She serves on the board of Women for Women International, and was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Holocaust Museum Board.
These are stories that need to be told, voices that need to be heard. But they often aren't, because conferences all too often feature an all-male or all-white lineup of panelists. I’m sharing this not to prove how nice of a guy I am, or to argue that talented, diverse women (or anyone, really) need male patrons to offer them a platform. The point instead is that anyone organizing a conference—indeed, anyone committed to widening the debate in the tech sector or any other, by any means—first needs to pause and reflect on whom to invite. And that includes admitting when your network isn't wide enough to do that.
In the past few weeks, I’ve received multiple keynote invitations for conferences in 2016, and I’m starting to realize that the speaker circuit is really just that: a circuit. If we don’t change the itinerary or add new faces, we won’t learn anything new. We don’t get innovation or inspiration or impact; we end up at the same place where we started.
Maybe all it takes is an email to say, "We had a lot of white dudes last year, and the year before that, and the year before that—how about we get someone other than that white dude everyone always books?" (I’m saying this as a white dude that everyone always books.) Or, "We always book brilliant women for the ‘women in entrepreneurship’ panel—how about we get brilliant women to speak on the ‘entrepreneurship’ panel?"
A year ago, I helped run a leadership development program for purpose-driven millennial entrepreneurs in San Francisco, in which all of the keynote speakers were men, despite the fact that half of our 100 participants were women. During the feedback session, a female participant stood up and said, "You can do better." At our next event four months later, the majority of speakers were women.
Speaking up matters. Calling attention to how speakers get booked and who gets booked matters.
Even at the WITI Summit—which is unique from most business conferences since 90% of the speakers are female (but not in other ways, since 90% of the speakers are white)—there's always room to do better. It’s not about optics or statistics, so much as ensuring that all voices are heard. It’s not about the panel photo-op; it’s about empowering everyone to share their story.
Who leads today determines who leads tomorrow. I’m glad I got to invite three friends to speak, but I know I couldn't have done that if we hadn't known each other in the first place. So ask yourself: Who do you know?
Then pass that question on and let others answer it. Next time, I’d like to know who Jessica, Nikita, and Clemantine would like to see on stage. I’d like to know who their friends, colleagues, and communities want to listen to, and I’m excited to hear what they have to say.