It’s truly fascinating, really. When you start thinking about it. That an industry that is built on innovation, disruption and new frontiers can fail so hard when it comes to disrupting and re-inventing its own culture.
I look around and see hard-working, dedicated, passionate people. All focusing on the same thing: building and inventing the future, ”the next Spotify”, ”the next Pinterest”, ”the next Klarna”, ”the next King”. But very few seem to look up to see things from a larger perspective. What kind of culture are we building here? What kind of company cultures are we shaping in our startups? Do people feel included? Excluded? Very few people are counting and keeping track of diversity stats. And in a way, I don’t blame them. If you’re busy building your product, chasing and courting investors, making ends meet while bootstrapping, pitching at conferences, optimizing your user retention by growth hacking, yadi, yadi, yadi (no offense!), there is little time to take a step back to ”see the big picture”. To evaluate the startup and tech culture as a whole.
So let me do it for you.
As a KTH/MIT-engineer-turned-failed entrepreneur-turned-startup-growth-hacker-and-marketing-consultant, I am both in the startup scene and not. I am close enough to the core of the tech and startup scene (and a female immigrant – check!) to feel affected, to hear stories about discrimination and sexual harassment from female peers and to understand that there are problems that need to be solved. Still, I have the luxury of being able to distance myself from all of this, just enough to widen my perspective and say: ”Hey, ok. So I know this is what startup communities and cultures look like in many places, but who says it has to be this way? We can create whatever we want to. We can start something completely new!”
A bit naïve? Possibly. Nonetheless, I refuse to lower my expectations. I refuse to give up my hopes. If Swedes can build hoards of billion dollar businesses from scratch and ”represent 33% of Europe’s billion dollar exits” then building an inclusive and diverse startup scene should be a walk in the park, right? As long as we all want to and take full/shared responsibility. And we do, don’t we? I mean: if 50% of the population can create this, then imagine what including the other half will mean. A trillion dollar market, baby!
Now, here’s a story that makes me a bit sad. It’s a story of how, a few years ago, the people and politicians in charge of the city of Stockholm (among them Stockholm Business Region) were amazing enough to realize that entrepreneurship is great for the city in many different ways, and decided to invest in making the Sthlm startups scene even more fab. So: among other things, they decided to invite this super awesome American consultant and entrepreneur, Tyler Crowley (@steepdecline), who has a great track record of building startup communities around the globe, to spark the Sthlm community by creating events and meeting spaces that will make people meet. So far, so good. The only issue here is that many times you get what you ask for. In other words: great male organizer/host -> lots of other men. This is of course not always the case, but many times it is. (For more on this topic, read e.g. this article in the Atlantic.)
Now, considering how homogenous the Sthlm/Sweden startups scene is (in the article, Creandum claims that there are no women to invest in, but it took me less than three days to collect a list of > 60 female entrepreneurs who are active in Sweden – will share the list later), one would think that encouraging and enabling diversity would be #1 on the list of things to consider when building a new community. Even more so when you are the city of Stockholm and 1) using tax money to support the community building, 2) are representing a diverse group of people (Sthlm citizens) that should all be involved and included on equal terms. Thus, one of the first bullet points on the todo list should be to make sure that diversity and inclusiveness is at the core of everything. Anyone who is hired to be part of building the community should know and fully understand this. It should be in that person’s DNA.
This does not seem to be the case. Now, I don’t want to focus too much on specific events or individuals – we are all part of and responsible for the community that we see – but with ”great power comes great responsibility”. Sthlm Tech Meetup and #sthlmtech has quickly become the leading community/platform for people to meet. It is THE EVENT. Therefore, we – and especially the companies that are supporting it – should all expect more when it comes to diversity. On stage. Off stage. Anywhere. I mean: FOR REAL. Not just a ”lets arrange a separate female event and hand out free tickets” kind of thing. I don’t want to pee on anyones parade, all initiatives that lead in the right direction are GREAT, but if we want to see real change, the main events have to be inclusive and diverse too.
Feel free to read some of the comments from #sthlmtechfest in the slideshow at the bottom. I’ve collected the ones that mention women/men/diversity in one way or another. There are of course hundreds of super positive and excited tweets too, and rightfully so. Still, the tweets below show that it isn’t just me being hateful or overly pessimistic here. It is a real issue. The tweets also show that diversity is more that just CSR. It is more than just counting for the sake of it, or counting because it is politically correct to do so. Lack of diversity has real consequences in that it actually makes people feel that they don’t belong, that the content isn’t relevant for them. They leave. Or even worse: they never show up. Let’s discuss why 1000s of women show up at female tech events such as Women in Tech 2014 (MTGx et al) and Women Create Tech at Klarna and inclusive events such as Hackaway (go Martina Elm et al!) and Startup Day (go Marie Sundström et al!), but a lot fewer show up at good ol’ regular tech and startup events. I think that says everything.
I have stopped counting the amount of (unpaid) hours that I have spent on helping people find women that can talk/pitch/moderate on stage and on helping them understand why they are having issues with attracting women to their events (including Sthlm Tech Fest). I have had meetings, written emails, written blog posts, had more meetings. And now I am exhausted. I really should focus on creating alternatives. And I really should start charging. 😀
Oh, and I actually have a few constructive things to add to all this as well, before I go.
Here are a bunch of other articles that cover this topic (most are in Swedish unfortunately – love Google Translate!):
In hope of a more open and inclusive Sthlm tech scene (Johnny Warström, Mentometer)
Why you should #tackanej to #sthlmtechfest (Michael Kazarnowicz)
Dyrt att inte vara jämställd (Thomas Frostberg, Sydsvenskan)
En bredare kultur av grabbighet (Fredrik Wass, @bisonblog)
Sexskandaler och bitcoinmoln (Digitalpodden, Dagens Industri)
Sthlm Tech lovar policy mot sexism (Linus Larsson, Internetworld)
”Bredda basen” (Cathrine Hofbauer, Dagens Industri)
Det är upp till dig, tech (Tanvir Mansur, Alice Marshall et al)
Hur svårt kan det vara? Techbranschens mansdominans. (Brit Stakston)
Hur attrahera fler kvinnor till tech och IT? Sluta prata om tech och IT! (Joakim Jansson, Digital Journey)
And a little bonus:
This recent and great interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg by the amazing Natalia Brzezinski.
Over and out!