Since 2010, I’ve spoken at a lot of tech conferences, and all shared a particular quality: a lack of diversity in both speakers and attendees. Thus, one of my passion projects has been this: promoting positive change by increasing the pool of female and tech experts of color. I’m all about spreading conceptual contagions. Let me tell you how this one got started.
At FOWA Miami 2009, Kristina Halvorson surprised everyone during her presentation on content strategy with a content easter egg by launching a discussion about the lack of women as speakers in the tech industry. Little did I know it at the time, but Kristina’s questioning lit a spark within me.
How to Rawk SXSW
A year later, I found myself speaking on the panel “How to Rawk SXSW”. The fantastic Min Jung Kim invited me to be on the panel with Ben Huh of ICanHasCheezburger (you know those funny cats pictures? You can thank his site for helping your waste time at work), Jeremy Keith of Clearleft, and Annie Lin. Clearly, the panel was quite diverse, and it was great to be a part of it. However, going from panel to panel during the rest of the conference, it began to hit me how unusual the makeup of this panel actually was.
The thought began to formulate then in my mind, growing the initial spark into a flame. It hit me: diverse speakers need rawk more than just SXSW. We need to rawk the whole web and change what people’s mental image of the face of tech. I bought the domain rawktheweb.com (especially because rocktheweb.com was taken) as soon as I came home from the conference.
My feelings were only solidified as I made manifest my dream of becoming a speaker on the “web conference circuit”. One event after another, I would be one of a handful of women and/or people of color — not only as speakers, but in attendance in general — and in every instance (save for one) the only black woman speaker. Yet, over the course of the year, as I met more women and people of color at conferences, I thought, “we exist! Why aren’t there more of us as the experts that everyone knows about?”
As a speaker who was becoming increasingly known in the industry, I realized that I was in the unique position of being the both the messenger and the message, but I knew the change needed to come from a critical mass of people: this wasn’t something to champion by myself. It was clear that I needed to launch an intiative that others could participate in and be a part of as well: a unifying, motivating philosophy that when put into practice shifts mindsets, alters behavior, and precipitates change.
Start. Stop. Repeat.
By the time SXSW 2011 came around, I reached out to all of the women that I knew attending who were speakers and known in the industry. I gathered them together to put forth my idea of starting a movement to help increase the numbers of women as visible tech experts: speakers and authors, specifically. We had a great meeting: we discussed ideas and ways to structure. I remember feeling overwhelmed, but satisfied to get the ball rolling. These fantastic women were in attendance: Cindy Li, Tiffany Brown, Arianne Stiles, Erica Mauter, Hannah Donovan, Tara Hunt, and Jenifer Hanen.
Upon returning home from world of SXSW, however, life happened: I was totally focused working on getting work, selling my car, starting a relationship, doing more and more speaking engagements, and pivoting from being “the CSS gal” to a Creativity Evangelist. The momentum I initiated at SXSW ground to a screeching halt, until I was invited to speak at the inaugural Girl Geek Dinners Miami meeting in July. I thought: “perfect! I’ll do a talk about Rawk the Web!” and thus hustled, put together a presentation, and kicked off the event. Great!
And then…life continued happening, and I had to push RTW to the back burner – again.
Let Your Life Speak
I had grandiose notions of how I was going to grow the RTW website, community, get sponsorship, conduct video interviews — the whole nine yards. However, I just didn’t have the time, financial resources, or mental bandwidth to get it off the ground as planned. But what happened instead was even better: I started truly putting the principles into practice and lived them.
I steadily grew my own visibility and reputation as a speaker. I volunteered to speak to groups of adolescent girls of color at local schools as a Get Real mentor and taught adolescents HTML at CodeFever Miami events. When people reached out to me with questions about speaking, I mentored them and connected them directly with event organizers. I reached out to mentors myself to help me get to the next level, and hired people for consulting jobs. With every action and at every opportunity, I put my own suggested methods to amplify one’s visibility as an industry expert to work and encouraged others to do so as well.
Fast forward to this year. At the beginning of February, I received an email out of the blue inviting me to mentor at GitHub’s Public Speaking Workshop for Women organized by Julie Horvath at the GitHub HQ in San Francisco. During our chat, I shared my ideas on ways to increase the number of diverse speakers. I suggested that I keynote the event (in addition to mentoring), to share these practices with the attendees. Much to my delight, she agreed!
For me, the event wasn’t just wonderful; it was magical. Have you ever had an instance where you felt like everything that you did in your life culminated in that very moment? That’s how it felt to share Rawk the Web at this event: it was the perfect message for that audience – a divine pairing of information and recipient. All of the women who attended were open, eager for the information, and willing to push their boundaries. It was a great honor to be able to share the thoughts, stories, knowledge and insights I’ve gained over the past few years with everyone. After the two keynotes, several mentors gave lightning talks, we worked in small groups, and at the end of the day, all of the attendees — many whom previously had never dreamed of speaking — developed and presented their own short talks.
Sparking a Contagion of Awesome
The magic of the workshop didn’t end there, however: apparently, I carried it with me into the next day. For brunch, I met up my friend Sarah, a kick-ass product manager at Adobe. She asked me about the workshop, but expressed disdain at the idea of all-women events. I shared with her one of the key examples that I was particularly moved by during my talk (almost to tears, actually), which illustrates why I feel events like this matter:
“It’s like Kid President. Until we had a Black president, African-American children didn’t truly know this was a possibility for them — it was just a nice idea that would probably never happen. Now this kid knows that he can be president one day because he sees himself in Obama.
I’m sitting here in front of you now because I saw Molly Holzschlag speaking at WebVisions in Portland in 2005. When I saw that she and I taught the same content – except that I was confined to a classroom and she was speaking all over the world. Through her example, I saw the possibility that I could be doing the same.
This is what we can do for other women and people of color in the tech industry. We can help them see themselves in us. We can show them what’s possible.”
A few hours later, I checked a tweet notification to find that during the course of our conversation, I had flipped Sarah’s perception of women in tech completely upside down.
How cool is that?!
Get Your Rawk On!
So, now, I’ve officially launched Rawk The Web: an initiative and movement to motivate and equip women and people of color to amplify their visibility in order to become regarded tech experts and correspondingly change the face of the tech industry through personal example, online content, and events. My vision is that not only will up-and-coming speakers and authors benefit, but so will conference organizers looking for a source of potential kick-ass diverse speakers.
So, are you with me? Are you ready to RAWK? Let’s do this!