To make conferences more diverse look beyond white men

By Sarah Milstein , written on December 6, 2013

From The News Desk

I’ve hosted many high-profile business conferences, and my events have more really good speakers who are women and/or people of color than most.

It wasn’t always that way. I work primarily on events affiliated with the tech sector, and although the community prides itself on being meritocratic, conference rosters—including some of the events I’ve worked on in the past — tend to be homogenous. Conference hosts like to say that that’s because most of the prominent people they can think of to invite and most of the people who apply to speak are white men. This is true, of course, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Other conference hosts should care about over-representing particular groups for several reasons. 1) Many people will find your event irrelevant or hard to distinguish if all of the speakers look the same to them. A slate with sharp speakers from different communities will draw attendees from different communities. 2) If your event is trying to promote innovation, you yourself should use forward-looking techniques to find speakers—and you will show yourself in the best light when you discover people who have terrific ideas but who are not already stale on the conference circuit. 3) If you believe that the tech sector is meritocratic and that you have benefited from this condition, the righteous thing to do is to perpetuate the meritocracy.

What I’m concerned with isn’t choosing speakers because they’re from under-represented groups. Instead, I care about finding great candidates that you’ll likely miss because people from those groups don’t show up when you rely on traditional methods for finding speakers. Those methods — inviting prominent people and posting a public call for proposals are good at identifying white men who are solid speakers, but they are broken for finding other people, and they are thus not meritocratic overall. Because they naturally limit the pool of people you see, they also prevent you from discovering many of the truly best speakers you could have.

This is a solvable problem. The Lean Startup Conference started in 2009 with a slate that was quite homogenous. Last year, when I joined conference founder, Eric Ries, as a co-host, we looked at ways to change the make up of the roster. Eric was well aware of the problem, and written about hiring decisions in tech in particular. As a result, for last year and this year’s Lean Startup Conference, we’ve created rosters comprising just over 50 percent women and people of color, the quality has remained high or has increased, and event attendance has at least quadrupled since the first year.

Here are the techniques we use, many of which buck conventional wisdom. These approaches often take more time and greater persistence, but if you want to have an impact on your industry, they’re worth it.

1. You don’t need to hire a woman or person of color to find women and people of color. You do need to commit to working on the problem. It’s commonly thought that if you want people from an under-represented group to join you, you need at least one person from that group on your team. Think again: there is nothing magical about having more estrogen than testosterone or a particular skin color or eyes of a certain shape that will help you locate speakers with those same physical attributes. You absolutely need to connect with the networks of those people, which I’ll talk about shortly, but you do not have be one.

2. Embrace quotas. Oh. My. God. Quotas??!? Are you kidding me? Everyone knows they ensure mediocrity and bias! Consider this: Your normal methods for finding speakers will generate good candidates more quickly than your new methods, so if you don’t designate slots for each stage, you will fill them all with people from the over-represented groups, and you will not have any slots to offer to the people from under-represented groups who appear later in the cycle. When you create quotas, you put in place both a measure and a mechanism for a successful, more meritocratic outcome.

If it makes you more comfortable, we can call these reverse quotas—i.e., limiting the number of people you accept up front as a way of compensating for known imbalances in the selection process and sequencing your decision making to ensure that it’s fairer. (You might also start by using quotas for just the widest part of the funnel; that is, you make sure that you simply consider a certain percentage of people from under-represented groups. The NFL calls this the Rooney Rule and uses it for hiring head coaches and senior football operations staff.)

3. Be transparent. If you assume that people are rational, it’s no surprise when women and people of color ignore your call for proposals (actually, what I and a whole lot of organizers find is that about 10 percent of your proposals come from women, and maybe 2 percent from people of color). After all, if you’ve held your conference before, and you fielded a lot of white male speakers, people from under-represented groups can see that they’re not likely to be picked. If your conference is new, and you have no track record, they have no reason to think your event will be any different from others. And while you don’t need a diverse team to find diversity, as I explained earlier, you are sending a signal if your conference hosts and/or selection/advisory committee include no folks from the under-represented groups you’re trying to reach.

There’s a reasonably easy fix for this: write thoughtfully on the conference site and speaker application form. If your conference has a history of homogeneity, own up to what you’ve done in the past, talk about why you want to change it, and lay out the steps you’re taking to change your results. If your conference is new, demonstrate that there’s a problem in your sector, and then describe what you’re doing to ensure that you won’t over-represent particular groups (this is also a good chance to differentiate yourself from your competitors). Then do the stuff you say you’re going to do.

4. When you seek speakers, either in writing or in discussion, the language you use matters. If you say you’re looking for “experts,” “best practices” or you’re vague, you might as well instead say, “Men only need apply, and better if you’re a white guy.” Thanks to cultural pressure for women not to brag and to imposter syndrome, a well-documented phenomenon in which an accomplished person feels like a fraud, many potentially great candidates won’t consider themselves experts or qualified to speak at your conference.

Happily, there’s an easy way to tear down this barrier: simply say that you’re seeking people who have “advice or expertise to share.” You can go farther and clarify with a phrase like, “advice or expertise to share that other people can learn from” or “advice or expertise to share on how to repair any kind of toilet” — or on whatever the focus of your event is. Nearly everyone has advice, and many people consider themselves to have expertise. (I would give an Ignite presentation any time offering advice on how you can apply Lean Startup thinking in young media companies, because I have scads of personal experience with that challenge.) Tap those veins to good effect.

5. Ask groups to help spread the word about your call for proposals. You’ve announced your call for proposals, it’s transparent, and it uses inviting language. If the only people who know about it are people you already know, it may well draw very few new candidates. This is why, as I suggested earlier, you have to build alliances with people in other networks. You can and should reach out to groups like Women 2.0 and NewME Accelerator (or the equivalents in your sector), and see if they’ll tweet a link to your call for proposals or run it on their blog or newsletter. But you have to play the long game, too. Look for leaders in those networks and develop relationships with them, occasionally inviting them for coffee so you can learn what they’re working on and see if you can offer support over time.

Most of you know this already, but it bears emphasis: Building a variety of acquaintances in your sector is a basic business skill, and a crucial one for conference hosts.

6. Seek individual people from under-represented groups in your sector and brainstorm talk ideas with them. After you announce your conference, whether you have a call for proposals or not, you’ll almost certainly get a steady stream of emails from white men suggesting themselves as speakers. While many of them will be good candidates, you will not get a commensurate stream from awesome women and people of color, who may not see themselves as part of your community or who don’t know that they have advice relevant to your community or who are not in the habit of recommending themselves for public speaking roles.

The good news is that taking the time to talk individually with people from your under-represented groups and brainstorming talk possibilities together unearths very good ideas. I’ve found the rate is high, and about three-quarters of them turn out to be solid prospects.

7. Ask individuals to help find new speakers. Beyond your call for proposals, you’ll talk to a number of individuals who want to suggest speakers. Like you, most of these people will be most aware of white men – both among people they know and those they don’t – who could fit your needs. But if you ask them for help in identifying strong candidates from under-represented groups, these individuals often realize they have additional people to recommend. If your event includes panels, you can institutionalize this practice by requesting or requiring that panel organizers include at least one woman and one person of color in the group.

Bonus suggestion: Offer speaker training. This year, in The Lean Startup Conference call for proposals, we emphasized that we were looking for people we didn’t already know, including first-time speakers. To help encourage people not already on the conference circuit, we offered speaker training. We’re still in the throes of this training, and I don’t yet have advice on how to do it well. But I do know that a significant number of people mentioned in their proposals that the offer had motivated them to apply. Nearly all of those people were women. (Interestingly, the people who have participated in the training sessions we’ve had so far have been a very mixed group, and may of our most accomplished speakers have tuned in.)

Oh, and also: Have a published code of conduct, talk about why it’s important and what else you’re doing to create a lively learning atmosphere for everyone who attends, speakers included. A lot of conferences have reputations for their intense party scenes. While that might be fun, people from under-represented groups may not feel included in that kind of socializing, and many women in particular may not feel safe in a crowded room with free-flowing alcohol and a majority of men. If you’ve put together your conference in order to help people learn, rather than to replicate Tailhook, think about the conditions you’ll need to foster to make learning really happen. Then do those things, and talk about them, and let people tell you how awesome you are for focusing on them. Potential speakers will take note.

At this point, I’m beginning to feel like one of the world’s experts on using more meritocratic processes to discover speaking candidates you wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Indeed, conference organizers, take note: I’m willing to speak on the topic.

You can read an unabridged version of this post on Sarah Milstein's blog.

Image via Wikimedia.