The SaaS-E[quality] Unconference Experience
Last month we collaborated with SAAS-E[quality] to give away a pair of tickets to this day full of solution development and collaboration. There was a mix of lightning talks, a solveathon, and facilitated discussions to come up with solutions for a more equitable SAAS industry.
We are happy to announce our contest winners were Marlies Farrill, Technical Talent Specialist at Ritual, and Paige Sopik, Marketing Specialist at Hubdoc!
After the conference we spoke to both of them about their experience at the event. They covered topics like:
Getting men involved with D&I efforts
Reflecting on privileges you have
How to avoid tokenising people
Getting senior leaders on board
Interview with Marlies and Paige
Stefan: What was the highlight of the SaaS-E[quality] experience for you?
Marlies: For me it was really the mix of the room. I liked that there were all sorts of people there with differing roles. I could see that the effort was made to have provocative speakers that really pushed you to think about things in a different way. It was apparent that this talk was about something different and it stood apart from other conferences.
Paige: Being newer to the diversity and inclusion discussion, it was rewarding for me to be around people who are so knowledgeable in the field. With such a diverse group of people, it was beneficial for me to see the different ways we can take action in this field.
This was actually my first diversity and inclusion event. At Hubdoc we formed a diversity and inclusion committee, just a few months ago. I am on that committee and I want to learn more about how I can contribute. After this event I brought the takeaways back to our team so we can improve our efforts.
Talks and Discussions
Stefan: Were there some interesting people you met and talked with?
Paige: For me, that opportunity came with the #Solveathon. It was great to be able to get in smaller groups and throw around ideas with different people. I loved the format. ZJ Hadley and Traci Cheng (Head of Operations & People at Zoom.ai) were in my group among a few others.
We decided that one of the biggest issues we wanted to focus on was the importance of business leaders understanding the necessity of diversity and inclusion and tying that with their main business strategies - really creating that link.
We talked about what our vision was, what would the world look like if leaders did this, how this would impact society, and actions that we would take. It is not only the organization that has to make the changes - it has to happen across the whole ecosystem to have impact.
Two notable aspects of that were:
Funding i.e. those who decide which ventures to back have the power to make a lot of change
Having more robust data around the impact of diverse teams including outlining that diverse teams are more agile, adaptable, innovative, and are scaling faster.
Marlies: Lots! I got to speak with Danny Guillory (Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Autodesk), who along with Dr. Sarah Saska (Co-founder and CEO at Feminuity) delivered the opening talk, “Looking for a Head of Diversity & Inclusion: Zealots Need Not Apply.”
I will continue to reflect on their insights. There is this inclination when there are no dedicated resources to promoting diversity and inclusion at your organization to give whatever you have. Yet, you have to realize that this is not enough - funneling the required resources into the effort might be difficult, but it is crucial.
At the same time, there is the hurdle of getting senior leaders on board. That means considering how to properly table the idea and get a dialogue going, to lead to change in your workplace.
Not every organization can afford to bring in someone full-time or even part-time, and would that one role be enough? It's about finding that balance. It has to be done in a way that is sustainable. This is at issue if there are not enough resources.
What Guillory and Dr. Saska underlined about well-intentioned efforts which are inadequate, and even damaging to workplace culture was a really important insight for me.
Stefan: What was your favourite talk at the conference?
Paige: I really liked hearing from ZJ Hadley (Employee Success Business Partner at Tulip, and Co-founder at the People People Group), with her talk, “A personal reflection on Privilege.”
She spoke about what privilege is and her story was so refreshing. Creating a conversation around privilege or lack thereof helps to evoke empathy.
It challenged the listeners to consider how they perceive others. For instance, you might look at her as an entrepreneur. To you, she may not seem to be a member of an underrepresented group due to her position or outward appearance.
But once she started talking about her background, how she got where she is today, and the adversity she overcame, this to me was the perfect representation of how you cannot judge others or understand someone’s experience from appearance alone.
Translating this into organizational action, and diversity and inclusion broadly, you really have to talk to, get to know, and engage with people to understand their experience. If you are excluding certain types of people from your organization without understanding who they are, you do not know what you are missing out on.
Marlies: I would have to say the talk by Irina Dzhambazova, (Head of Content, Diversity and Inclusion at SaaStock). I was originally really taken aback by the title of her talk, "Don't give women free tickets!" and I was unsure what to expect.
The other one that stood out was by Jake Stika (Co-Founder and Executive Director at NextGenMen, and Chief Equity Leader at Equity Leaders). His talk, "Male, Pale & Stale as part of your D.I.E. Strategy" was important because it emphasized how you really have to bring lots of different people into consideration of diversity and inclusion, including men.
Stefan: Can you share a couple takeaways that really got you thinking?
Marlies: Dzhambazova’s premise was about how event organizers are putting in very minimal inclusive efforts - like just giving free tickets to conferences - and that more needs to be done. She wasn't telling them to take away the tickets, but highlighting that this was only one small step and one dimension of diversity.
Dzhambazova talked about how this does not lead to meaningful dialogue or long-term positive change for underrepresented groups in the tech ecosystem, and that such small efforts can actually be damaging to diversity and inclusion.
Throughout Dzhambazova and Stika’s talks they dig into tokenism, problematic practices in tech, and mentorship:
We should be wary of the appearance of diversity and inclusion efforts versus actual improvements in these areas. Dzhambazova stated that these free tickets can actually further perpetuate the shortcomings in the tech ecosystem.
As an example of why this is not enough to address barriers, those who are not open to considering these issues might assume people are at particular events because of free tickets, rather than on the basis of their merits. It can damage self-perception of the individuals who make use of free tickets.
2. Further legitimization of problematic practices in the tech ecosystem
Another issue that comes with this practice is treating diversity and inclusion as if it is a mere quota to be fulfilled rather than working to meaningfully challenge existing exclusionary practices. In tech generally, we value and want to find quick fixes to problems but diversity and inclusion cannot be viewed or addressed in this manner.
Efforts like this also do little to change the thinking of those who are unwilling to consider these issues, and perpetuates the idea that nothing else needs to be done.
Further, we should consider how accessible the conferences are themselves. Who is excluded? For instance, many of the after-hours networking events involve alcohol. What about nursing mothers or those who do not drink?
One step in the right direction is to offer mentoring. This helps to make members of underrepresented groups feel more comfortable, and promotes inclusion. The process of mentorship drives change and self-reflection for the parties involved, and in the workplace generally.
As for Stika’s talk, he considers diversity and inclusion in the tech ecosystem as "do or die." We don't often think about the male in tech in relation to diversity and inclusion. Largely, men have been in these conversations only in limited means: to say they are part of the problem so to speak. They have been confined to a limited role in these discussions for that reason.
Stika really emphasized that men need to be called in as a part of this dialogue and included in order to foster a fully collaborative effort.
Paige: One thing that was impressed upon me is how important it is to have open, honest, and free dialogue with people in your organization. This means creating a safe space for this to be able to happen.
The conference itself was one big open space. The atmosphere that was cultivated was one of inclusivity and it was safe even with so many different opinions. If you create that kind of space in your organization and encourage that kind of discussion, you can impact how people are learning about diversity and inclusion, and developing understanding around these topics.
Stefan: How did the conference impact you personally?
Marlies: It was good for me in a few different ways. I liked that there was more of a dialogue between the speakers and attendees; this is not the case at many other conferences. With each talk, it was reiterated that a challenging aspect of this work is to come up with concrete action.
Additionally, it is such a performance-focused culture in tech. So the question becomes, how do we convince people to invest in these goals? How do you get those to care who don’t? That is a pervasive difficulty that needs to be overcome, and the hardest part of this.
Additionally, event really impressed upon me that there are so many different types of diversity - for example, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It is clear to me that in tech as a whole, we don't think a lot about it because it's tough to talk about, and that’s what we need to change.
Paige: There were a few different things that I took away from the conference. My top two were probably the importance of using the right language and the importance of having a very deliberate and strategic diversity and inclusion mandate.
The importance of using the right language
Remember that you do may not have to know the best way to tackle diversity and inclusion topics right away. Be comfortable enough to ask people, and do not assume the right way to address others. It’s something you learn through a continual process.
Using the right language was something that happened at the conference through dialogue. It really began right when we walked in to the conference, where we were asked our preferred pronouns for our nametags. This reminded me of the importance of not assuming, and being open to hearing from others.
The importance of having a very deliberate and strategic diversity and inclusion mandate
While the intention might be there, as brought up by Danny Guillory and Dr. Sarah Saska, if you don’t make the diversity and inclusion effort strategically and properly from the outset, it can be harmful rather than helpful. This includes long-term consideration of how you will support the effort, what kind of follow-up, which events, and what type of training you will have.
With diversity and inclusion, you’re always on a learning path and the journey of seeking to learn more. You have to continue to work with communities to discuss these topics to get better and to promote diversity and inclusion. It’s important to remember it is an ongoing process. I’m very excited to see where my organization takes it and what else we can learn.
We would like to thank both of our winners for sharing their reflections of SaaS-E[quality], it was an amazing event and we all learned so much.
Thank you so much for your time Marlies and Paige!
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