I’ve hosted many high-profile business conferences, and my events now have more really good speakers who are women and/or people of color than most such gatherings. It wasn’t always that way. I work primarily on events that are 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 surprisingly 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. Both of those things are perfectly true, but they’ll define your event only if you’re willing to take the easy path and accept conventional, non-disruptive thinking about how to find speakers. Indeed, I’ve found a number of other methods that work well to find stellar speakers from under-represented groups of all kinds. Although I’m focusing here on conference speaker selection, most of these ideas apply to hiring and other business decisions, too, and will work with under-represented groups of all kinds.
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 use only the traditional systems for finding speakers. The approaches you use make all the difference.
Conference hosts usually use two primary methods to find speakers: 1) you brainstorm a list of prominent people you know or know of, and you invite those folks; 2) you hold a public call for speakers, and you sift through the applications to find the most promising candidates. Both of these methods generate some high-quality speakers. And it will feel like you’ve run a fair process—it was open, and it yielded good presentations—but thanks to deep cultural practices and hidden biases we all carry, white men will be overwhelmingly over-represented, not only among the speakers you brainstorm, but also among those who apply and the people you pick from that pool.
Think of it this way: for any conference, there are many more excellent speakers than there are available speaking slots—and there are a lot of women and people of color who would be great speakers for your event, but you won’t be as aware of them (they are less prominent), and they are unlikely to apply through your call for proposals (for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute). So when you use the two methods described above, which nearly all conference hosts do, you will have missed a very big swath of great candidates in your community, people who simply won’t appear in those processes. In other words, the traditional means for finding speakers 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.
It’s a solvable problem. The Lean Startup Conference started in 2009 with a slate that was quite homogenous. Last year, when the conference founder, Eric Ries, and I started talking about my joining as co-host, I said I was willing to work together only if we changed the roster. Eric was totally on board. He was quite aware of the issue and had been writing for a while about hiring decisions in tech in particular. We thought that together, in an area we both cared about a lot and had written about publicly, we could do things differently. For both last year and this year’s Lean Startup Conference, we’ve created rosters comprising just over 50% women and people of color, the quality has remained high or has increased, and event attendance has at least quadrupled since the first year. (Our conference is now medium-sized: the 2013 event takes place in early December with more than 80 speakers and 1,500 attendees over three days.)
Improving the diversity of our speaker roster last year led to a few specific benefits. Because we wrote about what we were doing, we raised the profile of the conference in 2012 and 2013 among other people who care about how speakers are chosen. In both years, many new speaker applicants and a number of attendees from under-represented groups mentioned our efforts as a positive factor in their decisions to participate. And because our speakers include a lot of folks who aren’t regulars on the conference circuit, we’ve been able to distinguish our event from other entrepreneurship gatherings based partly on the lineup.
So I’m here to testify: the techniques below—many that buck conventional wisdom—will help you improve your event by finding better speakers in a more meritocratic manner. These approaches will often take more time and more persistence than you’re used to now, but you aren’t lazy, and you do want to have an impact in your industry. Here are the secrets to game-changing badassery as a conference host.
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.
Everyone in our culture carries hidden biases, including the people who are diminished by them. For instance, a widely circulated study last year found that male and female scientists alike were likely to discriminate significantly against female students. Scientists—people whose careers are based on supposed objectivity—are all subject to bias. You are, too, and so are the people you hire or who are on your selection committee, if you have one, even if they are all women and people of color. People from these groups may be more sensitive to the fact that your conference under-represents them, and you should seek them out as employees because diversity of thought creates the sharpest teams. But they are not inherently better at solving this particular problem. In fact, if white people and men do not take on these issues with equal interest as our colleagues, we will never see the ratios changed.
Eric and I are both white; we didn’t hire anyone to work on the Lean Startup program and find more great candidates who are people of color. We changed our outcomes by committing to finding processes that would lead us to people we weren’t previously aware of. To find speakers beyond the usual suspects, you, too, need to commit using different methods, many of which will take more time than those you’ve been using. You cannot expect people from under-represented groups to change the way they behave to meet your needs for familiarity or quickness. You have to change the way you behave. Happily, doing so pays off.
2. Do have 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.)
For this year’s Lean Startup Conference, my goal was to have no more than 50% white male speakers—a number that reflects the business communities our attendees work in. We have just a few more speakers to add, but the final count looks like it’ll come in around 47% folks who are both white and male. I’m proud to shine a light on those guys—they’re deserving—and equally proud to have saved room for the terrific candidates from under-represented groups whom we found later.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes—whose show tackles political topics and has among its hundreds of guests annually only 43% white men (many fewer than the industry standard)—has a good take on quotas:
You have to say, “We give ourselves this rule,” and that’s going to force us to just be more resourceful. Because I genuinely don’t think there’s another way to do it. If you don’t do that then the inertia and the tide are so strong, unless you are committed as a priority to actively fight against it, you’re going to end up reproducing what everyone else does.
I know of no conference hosts who are in this game to reproduce what everyone else does. Use quotas, or reverse quotas, to help guide yourself toward a roster with amazing speakers whom you’ve drawn from a better pool of serious candidates.
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% of your proposals will come from women, and maybe 2% 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 (bonus: this is a good chance to differentiate yourself from your competitors). Then do the stuff you say you’re going to do.
Last year, when I joined Eric to co-host The Lean Startup Conference, the event was already two years old and had, as I said earlier, a clear bias toward white male speakers. To introduce a new era, we opened the 2012 call for proposals and asked people to nominate speakers, noting that we were particularly keen on finding women and people of color. That approach failed completely, drawing the normal ratios of 10% women and almost no people of color. In other words, we didn’t convince anyone that we were doing anything other than paying lip service to the idea of a meritocratic approach. We may even have made things worse by suggesting that we would favor under-represented groups, thus undermining our credibility (for the reasons cited above), could well have come across as insulting (nobody wants to be picked for anything other than their great ideas), and may have triggered stereotype threat (thus deterring people in under-represented groups from applying at all).
So we retrenched and tried to see things more from the perspective of people who were not already in our address books. That lead us to run another call, this time co-writing a longer post explaining why the event had had a lot of people on stage who looked like Eric, what we were doing differently now, and inviting people to apply especially if we did not already know them. In the second round, more than half of our applicants were women and nearly a quarter were from people of color. That wasn’t the only thing we did, as you’ll see below. But our honesty, we learned from applicants, was a key part of why many people submitted proposals who wouldn’t otherwise have done so.
(Btw, if you’re thinking, “See, you do need to have a woman on the team to get women to apply,” consider: Eric’s previous partner for the conference was a black man, and the roster then was almost completely white. I respect that partner a lot, and there are very good reasons the conference looked the way it did then. By the same token, I have worked on conferences that drew few women. There is no pixie dust generated by women or people of color that attracts more of us.)
4. When you seek speakers, either in writing or in discussion, the language you use matters a lot. If you say that you’re looking for “experts,” “best practices” or if 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.
I’m far from the only conference host to notice that men will often offer to speak publicly about things they know little about, while women tend to be hesitant to speak unless they’re certain that they’re the world’s primary expert on a topic. Back in 2009, I was at an Ignite event in San Francisco where a guy got up and said, “I learned last week about this thing called Lean Startup,” and then proceeded to give a weak talk on it. I’ve been working since 2008 with the man who created the Lean Startup movement, last year and this year co-hosting the conference he founded. If Eric weren’t available, and a group of total novices needed a talk on Lean Startup, I might feel qualified. I would not give a random Ignite presentation on it, because Eric is the world’s primary expert, not me.
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. Do blind reviews where you can, but don’t stop there. The study I mentioned above is not the only one to find that in reviewing resumes and other work, people often discriminate against women and applicants with racially or ethnically distinct names. Conversely, when people review work without any clues about the sex or race of a candidate, they’re more likely to rate women and people of color more favorably. So, yes, if you have a call for proposals, you will automatically make your process more meritocratic if you ensure you have a way to review the ideas without knowing the applicants’ names. Set that up and do it.
But assessing speakers, like assessing job applicants, doesn’t end with written materials. You cannot rely on blind review alone, as you will eventually wind up watching video, talking on the phone, or meeting for an interview to continue your decision-making process.
For conference hosts, the first thing you’ll hit is likely to be video, as that’s increasingly required in applications. This is for good reason: bad writers can be great speakers, and decent writing can be submitted by a PR agent. Video can make a huge difference in helping you figure out who is or could be a terrific presenter. But it can make the playing field far steeper for people who are new speakers, and who, because the conventional processes don’t get them into the pipeline in the first place, are more likely to be women and people of color. So first, rather than ask people to submit video of themselves speaking at another event (as I used to do), require that everyone create a very short video specifically for applying to your event. This not only helps level the playing field, but it also weeds out PR agents, because the candidates cannot apply without being part of the process. Second, know that once you see the videos, your biases will kick in, and you’ll have to compensate with additional tactics. The fact that you’ve just outmaneuvered the PR flacks will give you extra energy for this work.
6. 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.
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.
I’ve been holding these conversations regularly for more than five years, particularly with leaders, investors or otherwise influential and well-connected folks. At first, I felt awkward bringing up the fact that my conferences were trying to create something different. But over time, the conversations became much easier, and I’ve very rarely met silence or resistance. I just state matter of factly what we’re looking for, and people almost always say, “Of course! Good idea.” And then they come back later with at least one good recommendation, or they encourage a different employee to apply, and they ask me to look out for that proposal. I have once cancelled a panel, because the moderator insisted he didn’t know or couldn’t find any women. Given that dozens of other moderators had been able to find very strong panelists from under-represented groups, his inability or unwillingness to do so was a strong signal that he wasn’t of the caliber we needed for that conference. (I have once refused to participate in a panel that didn’t include any people of color.)You will not only draw in other people, but you’ll also get the added benefit of becoming more comfortable bringing up potentially tricky topics.
8. Seek out 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. Not gonna pretend: this process is time-consuming. It requires finding people, some of whom you already know, some of whom you don’t (for instance, you have to attend other conferences, keep an eye on your industry press for names you don’t know, ask around, and so forth); reaching out to explain why you want to schedule a call or coffee; holding the conversation; and then possibly following up. It’s another play in the long game, but it has very high return, as those people not only become speakers, but also help spread the word about your event.
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 many 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 great speaking candidates you wouldn’t otherwise have found. Indeed, conference organizers, take note: I’m willing to speak on the topic.
A shorter version of this piece was published on Pando Daily.
A note on comments: I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race, I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousnes.