Post written by Douglas Crets, Developer Evangelist for Microsoft BizSpark
It will go down as BikiniGate. A team of developers flashes images of bikini-clad women on screen during their pitch and Q&A with investors at MEGA Startup Weekend, and one of the investors speaks up. What results is a much-needed and a continual discussion about the role of women in Startuplandia.
As Sharon Vosmek, CEO of ASTIA, told us at the beginning of the weekend, it takes three things to make a successful business and team -- you need imagination; innovation, and women. (Please correct me if I misheard her -- I didn't write it down.)
Here's something I have learned from watching countless people pitching their products to venture capitalists and other experts of industry -- when you are up there pitching a business, you are also pitching the zeitgeist of your culture. You are presenting a movable feast of not only your revenue-shaping idea, but you are tapping into the consciousness that makes your company possible.
It's the same as if you are an artist creating great art. It's the same as if you were recording the next great pop song. You are a channel through which your community speaks.
This is one of the reasons why we feel nervous on stage. We are being judged by our peers. We feel a sense of self-awareness.
One of the great things that happened this weekend was not so great. It left me feeling a little stung. One of the companies pitching their product flashed a couple of pictures of women in bikinis on the overhead screen -- a move that was meant to convey how they provide context in their app to people seeking information about an event. But the move was interpreted by more than a few people as a blatant use of women's bodies to get attention for their idea.
Chris Yeh, one of the investors on the judging panel, called them out on it, and then wrote this blog post about the role everyone needs to play in bringing better thinking about gender into Silicon Valley Startuplandia. Yeh pointed out:
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.
And Adria Richards, Developer Evangelist for SendGram, wrote a really powerful post about her emotional reaction. What she wrote is extremely important for any culture maker or app builder:
"A lot was going on in these few minutes when I realized I had another new feeling – As an attendee and representative for my company was that I felt like I belonged and that the guys on stage were out of place. Amazing! Because of this, I had the courage and better yet, the sense of entitlement, to march right up on stage and thank Chris after all the pitches were done. And that’s what I did!
I was there on behalf of the company I work for because we’re global sponsors along with Microsoft, Google and others. I’m a developer evangelist for SendGrid. I talk with developers about how to integrate and leverage our API. I embrace my inner nerd and am becoming a social geek, especially through conferences. This is my third Startup Weekend. The first one I attended last May in San Francisco was a phenomenal! Steve Blank spoke about entrepreneurship, testing your assumption, failure and being memorable. That event gave me a data point to work from to explore and identify the intersection of passion and purpose."
Passion and Purpose
The two blog posts are getting a lot of attention on the Twitters. You can follow #SWBayMEGA to get the constant updates on it.
What Richards and Yeh are saying is a version of what I felt when I was sitting around at my first Startup Weekend. There was a real nexus of people, power, personality, emotion and purpose going on here. The BizSpark team felt it. You could see people standing on chairs when the winners were called. They must have been feeling it.
BikiniGate issues can hit us in two ways, from two different directions.
They can keep us from seeing how deep our real work is in building startups. But, it's also a positive, because things like BikiniGate also help us express what some of us often would hold back -- our real opinions on what matters to us as individuals and as a community.
As I have written about before, we are culture builders here. We are channeling the thoughts, values and beliefs of our time into the world we are making as developers, entrepreneurs, hackers, programmers, venture capitalists. the work being done here is what makes Silicon Valley and Microsoft BizSpark such a special place. We are distributed all over the world, but something important and culturally necessary is at play here in Silicon Valley.
So, what Yeh and Richards are saying is very important. We need to be thinking about inclusion. Inclusion spawns innovation.