It wasn’t a long time, but it was certainly a good time when Brad Feld dropped by the Communitech Hub Thursday.
Feld, the 47-year-old Foundry Group managing director, TechStars co-founder, author, marathoner and all-around good guy from Boulder, Colo., was on his first visit to Waterloo Region.
Over about six hours at the Communitech Hub, he toured the space, met entrepreneurs, spoke about how to build a great startup community and helped judge a sold-out Startup Smackdown before returning to Toronto for an early-morning flight out.
Feld left us with much to mull over and plenty to be proud about, which I’ll expand on here in due course. For now, I’ll leave you with what he told me at the end of a long day.
Q - So, what did you think of your day here?
A - I thought Communitech was awesome. I had a great day here.
I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t been to Waterloo before, and I thought the community was extremely vibrant.
There’s a huge amount of people who are working on the right kinds of things, and the energy level is off the charts, which is really, really fun to see.
Q - Did anything in particular stand out from what you usually see in startup communities?
A - I think the concentration of all of the different activities, including the accelerator, the university incubators, co-working space, event space, a bunch of entrepreneurs, the community space, is very powerful.
You see it in some other places, and it’s starting to appear in a more structured way in Chicago at 1871, or in D.C. at 1776, those two buildings. But this is a really mature example of it; it feels really built-out and not just well-organized, but extremely well-run.
It was nice to see, because I think there are a lot of people who aspire to have this at the core of their startup community, but it’s very hard to do, and it’s clear that this has been a lot of hard work over a number of years.
Q - So if you got home and (your wife) Amy asked, ‘How was Waterloo?’, what would you say?)
A - I’d say I had a great time.
I would tell her that I spent the entire time inside one building, so I didn’t really see Waterloo, but I saw Communitech, and I thought it was really cool.
The book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City clearly states the need for inclusiveness as a basic tenant of a good startup community. Since the pipeline of women with STEM degrees has been bursting at the seams for years (except in engineering) one would think these women would be spilling over into our startup community events and activities.
Not so much.
I recently attended an awesome maker/tech event hosted by Zach Kaplan (Inventables) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Google) called ORD Camp in Chicago. It was an amazing example of a Startup Community in action. I noticed something different about this event that I thought was important to share – the guys tried hard to engage women in their vibrant tech entrepreneurial ecosystem. In 2009 when they launched the event they had only 6.6% women participants, but this year that number went up to 26%.
It is not unusual for me to get calls from organizers across the country who are thinking hard about what they can personally do differently to engage women in their tech community. So my advice is simple – learn from Zach and Brian’s work. Before and during the event they took what I would call extraordinary measures to make sure women not only attended, but were fully engaged in leading sessions. I would call this work heavy lifting not for the shy or uncommitted. It is important to note (I am a witness) that many times female entrepreneurs and STEM leaders are invited to events but back out at the last minute. Entrepreneurs are super busy so this isn’t unusual, except the problem here is that there are already so few of them in the STEM areas that when they don’t attend, it leaves few women and you end up having a guys event.
The extraordinary measures these guys took in planning were as follows:
- They invited way more women than they thought would show up, knowing
shrinkage would happen.
- They hired a well known “sitter service” located close to the event and
publicized this to all invitees/attendees. The previous year, women that
canceled, named “sitter problems” as a reason. One man had also
noted this problem so they realized this service may benefit a large
number of attendees.
- They posted a detailed no harassment of any kind notice on their invite. As many in the tech crowd are aware, they are not the first to take this overt action. Tim O’Reilly led this charge for his events a couple of years ago so these guys followed suit. And I mean detailed – do not do this kind of thing with examples. This provides a strong positive signal to women (especially when there are late night events with alcohol).
- They put women on the advisory board to help select and encourage other women to attend once they were invited.
- They made sure that a number of the women attendees were going to come prepared to lead discussions and demonstrations. The young women from Google who led a demonstration of physics and food science was amazing.
- They alerted local police that women and men would be leaving the building late at night.
Feedback from attendees:
This was an un-conference, so at the event, I posted the “how do we get more women into tech” on the wall and waited to see if anyone would vote on it as a topic. They did. Then to see who would show up – a lot of people showed up. Note – six years ago I did this at another well known event and three people showed up in the room all women and one guy. This time we had a large group show up and it was 50% men. I opened the conversation with an overview of all the above observations and asked for ideas about what we were still doing wrong and what we could do more or less of to get more women into the tech/maker network. The women in the session provided the following feedback:
- “I almost didn’t come here because I hadn’t been to this before, I never heard of anyone that had attended, I don’t know any of these guys running it and it looked so crazy I was worried about what I was getting into showing up by myself.”
- “I am too busy to go to something that looks like it involves late night boozing with people I don’t know. If I didn’t know other people who had attended and told me it was amazing, I never would have showed up. If you think the 1950’s are over you are wrong, the young tech guy crowd still treat women as second class citizens and I don’t want to spend a weekend having to shout to get a word in the conversation.”
- “I work at (insert well known company) as an engineer and attended last year, I learned a lot here and it has created a broader support community for my work. This year I nominated other women to attend and then followed up with them to make sure they understood the purpose of the event and what to expect. They all showed up! I hate being separated into the boys and girls clubs so I am doing my job of bringing women into what have been predominately men’s fields, but actually finding women engineers is hard.”
The session was not only productive because of the honesty of the participants, but also because they came up with great ideas about specific things happening on the ground in their city and what they could all do (both men and women) to bring more women into the pipeline and into leadership roles. Bless the men that took an hour and attended this session and are carrying out their acts of support today.
If you really want to engage women (and that is the topic of this post) in your startup community – it requires an effort.
According to Zach, ORD Camp is a meritocracy and they knew there was a large pipeline of highly qualified women in the community that weren’t being represented. They needed to get these women involved in the same way they needed to get leaders from the Ruby community AND the Python Community from companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. This wasn’t about lowering the bar for women it was about getting women involved that earned the right to be there.
Look around at your next Startup Community event/program and see if the majority of the faces are all men. We know there is a large pipeline of highly qualified women, so if you don’t have many at your event and you want to change that – you may need to change what you are doing.
If you are organizing events focused in an area that is already devoid of women in the pipeline – you need to find a woman willing to be your co–organizer so that right up front it is obvious that this isn’t an all male event. I personally think this is vastly more important in the middle of the U.S. than on the coasts simply due to the small number of women tech entrepreneurs. CA, Boston and NY already have a lot of women leading or co–leading startup community programs/events/gatherings and they have been working hard at this for years.
Hats off to all of them.
In the next week we’ll be having Startup Communities events in Utah, Chicago, Des Moines, and Boulder. In general, you can follow along with the public events on the Feld Thoughts public events calendar but we’ll try to toss them up here as well as on the Startup Revolution Hub when we know about them.
Monday 10/8: Startup Utah event. I’m Skyping (or Google Hangouting) in for this one. I was originally going to be there in person but I cancelled running the St. George Marathon on Saturday because I’m still a little beat up from my bike crash in Slovenia.
Tuesday 10/9: Startup America Regional Summit in Chicago. I’ll be there all day and we’ll have a special reception at night that is still coming together. I’ll tweet out any logistics.
Monday 10/15: Silicon Flatirons Crash Course in Boulder. This will be the first public event in Boulder. I’m psyched my friends at Silicon Flatirons are hosting – they’ve played a critical part in the Boulder Startup Community over the years.
Troy Henikoff, one of the founders of Excelerate Labs and one of the leaders of Chicago’s startup community sent me an update on what’s going on in Chicago. It’s pretty awesome and is a great example of what happens when entrepreneurs take a long term view to building their startup community. Here are a few of the things going on that Troy mentioned.
BuiltInChicago – just over a year old and has over 6,000 entrepreneurs and 15 – 20 blog posts a day on what is happening in Chicago
Technori Pitch – sells out a 500 seat auditorium each month to hear 4 – 5 startups pitch
TechWeek Conference – a week-long festival celebrating the technology, web and interactive communities
Entrepreneurs Unpluggd – Awesome event each month to hear from 3 entrepreneurs on a variety of topics
CodeAcademy – a 90 day intense in person curriculum that teaches people to be coders
1871 – a new 50,000 sq ft co-working space opening next month it is totally entrepreneur focused and is a 501(c)3
FireStarter Fund – 42 successful digital tech entrepreneurs start an innovative fund to help early stage Chicago companies with capital and access to mentorship
The BuiltInChicago site has a great summary of 2011 along with a list of Chicago companies. It seems like it’s time for me to get my butt to the airport, hop on a United flight, and spend a few days in Chicago.