speaker_conference

Eric Ries, “Lean Startup” thought-leader extraordinaire, has had trouble recruiting speakers for his conference.

“I would ask my friends to speak, and they would be really interested. Then I would say, ‘This is that story you need to tell. Remember that time you really fucked up?’” Ries says. “All of a sudden, they’d be less interested.”

Ries is on a mission: to host a conference that gets down and dirty in the real-world details of entrepreneurship. He doesn’t just want big name speakers with perfect narratives of success. He wants people you’ve never heard of from rapidly growing companies, who can speak to the scaling pains they’re facing now. He wants honesty and storytelling and practical advice.

He wants people to get real about how hard it is to build a startup, betting one’s health, happiness, well-being, and sometimes wealth on a risky idea that, more often than not, will fail.

Most importantly, Ries wants women and minorities represented.

The Lean Startup Method conference, in its fourth year, will run on December 9 and 10. The speaker lineup was just announced today, and it’s a far cry from the typical SV conference scene.

In addition to the big and little names, Ries and his co-organizer Sarah Milstein have gone gangbusters on diversifying the lineup. Forty percent of the speakers are women and 30 percent are people of color, a far cry from the typical all-male whitewashing that SV gets flack for.

Attracting such a wide range of qualified speakers wasn’t an easy task. The story of how they did it is worth telling.

Ries’ co-host, Sarah Milstein, is a consultant who used to run the Web 2.0 Expo and co-wrote “The Twitter Book” with Tim O’Reilly. She brought on Ries for his first public speaking gig at the Expo, before he became a household startup name. “For years after that, I was trying to hire her in various ways and had not been successful,” Ries says.

This year Milstein finally caved to his requests to co-host the Lean Startup conference with him. But she had one big requirement. “I had seen your past conferences and said ‘We can’t do that again,’” Milstein recalls.

Ries openly admits his speaker selection process was flawed. “The first year of the conference, I invited speakers that I knew. It came out all white and all men,” Ries says. It wasn’t something he meant to have happen.

It takes guts for Ries to admit his biases, and it’s worth noting that many other SV conference lineups are planned exactly the same way. The organizer asks colleagues and contacts for recommendations, and what results is a homogenous group of the same famous faces cycled again and again. It’s difficult for outsiders to break in — an unpleasant fact that few would admit.

Ries readily agreed to Milstein’s terms to diversify the conference, but executing it would prove harder than they expected.

“There’s not that much written about how do you actually do that?” Ries says. “For all the talk of Silicon Valley and meritocracy, thinking really hard and having good intentions does not cut it.”

Ries’ background is in systems. That’s the foundation of the lean startup method — a system for iterating a product quickly. So finding qualified, diverse speakers for the conference became a challenge. The system needed to be engineered differently to make it happen.

“I’m a real believer that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, and that meritocracy has bugs,” Ries says. “So this is a debugger.”

Milstein and Ries’ first step was to rewrite the speaker application. They added a clause that said they were keenly interested in getting applications from underrepresented groups. But that wasn’t enough — it didn’t change the diversity of people applying.

So they pivoted and tried a new approach. A fitting step, given that Ries was the one to coin the word “pivot” for describing what a startup does to adapt its course of action.

The duo wrote a transparent blog post explaining that the system was flawed, and they were trying to fix it. They outlined how they had selected speakers in the past, and admitted that the process hadn’t been fair or meritocratic. They hoped that by giving all the details, they would encourage more candidates to apply. “People are not stupid,” Ries says. “They don’t apply to programs that aren’t going to accept them.”

Secondly, they changed the application to read that they were looking for people with stories or advice to give — instead of saying they were looking for “experts.”

“Many men will identify themselves as experts when they aren’t, and women won’t when they are,” Milstein says.

Third, they started asking for recommendations from their contacts, specifically saying they were looking for women and people of color to speak. “We asked, ‘Don’t just think of the most famous people you know. Think about the person who does the most work,’” Ries says. “I was shocked how many of the people supporting the famous, frequently white or male founder are women or people of color.”

And lastly, they picked their speakers blind. They blocked out name and gender information so they could select people simply on the basis of merit.

Now, months in the making, they’ve got one of the most unusual conference lineups you’ll see. There’s Steven Hodas from the NYC Department of Education to Reid Hoffman from LinkedIn. Kimberly Bryant from the non-profit Black Girls Code to Marc Andreessen from Andreessen-Horowitz. Anthony Frasier from The Phat Startup to Cindy Alvarez from Yammer. The lineup is 40 percent women and 30 percent minorities.

“We still hold a very high quality standard, it’s not about compromising for the sake of diversity,” Ries says. “But all the best stories are not necessarily told by white men.”