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#EveryoneHatesMarketers: 4 Vital Things To Do Before Marketing Your New Startup

“Today I’m joined by my guest Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré, an esteemed SaaS consultant, customer service evangelist, writer and community moderator. Her work has been featured in leading industry media such as HubSpot, Moz, Copy Hackers, Forbes, Canva and more.

Nichole is going to walk us through the four things you need to do before you can start marketing your startup or new business. Founders tend to skip the basics of marketing foundations, and this crucial step can make or break your business. Listen in for Nichole’s four most important pre-marketing initiatives that you need to know for your startup or to refresh the marketing of an existing business.”

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • The importance of marketing foundations
  • Growth hacking pitfalls
  • Customer development work
  • Resources to identify ideal customers
  • Creating your first value proposition
  • Filling success gaps
  • Recommended reading

Transcript on Everyone Hates Marketers

Take the growth out of guesswork and get our Playbook to Grow Your Saas Business With Your Customers.

Creativity, Diversity, Marginalization

Don’t Wait for the President to Make Changes – Bring About Change All Year ft. @RandFish


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found it harder to “not get political” than with this election. Can any two candidates be more polarizing? Can Facebook get any more fraught with zealously divergent opinions? I hope not. But, the election is still several months away, and friends – it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

In the midst of this political mire, it’s easy to forget that we actually have a lot of power to create the changes we want to see. Going to the polls isn’t the only way to vote – and one might argue it’s not even the most impactful. We also vote with how we spend our time, and with how we spend our money.

We also vote with how we spend our time, and with how we spend our money. Click To Tweet

Here are a few of my ideas for how we can bring about positive change in the tech industry all year.

3 Ways I Choose to Contribute to Positive Change

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve become more and more vocal about promoting inclusivity and diversity in tech – for people of color, transgender people, and every other marginalized population. But if you’re not the CEO or hiring manager of your company, you might feel like you have limited say in who gets hired or how they’re treated (or, if you’re a contract worker like me, you have NO say). My answer to you is this: Think outside your box.

Join Fund Club

Anyone can support marginalized people in tech at Join Fund Club. When you become a member, you get a monthly email with Fund Club’s new pick: a project, initiative, event or organization focused on diverse communities in technology. You commit to give $100 to the month’s selection, directly to the recipient project (no middle-men taking a cut). Make no mistake – it IS a commitment, and you don’t get to pick and choose who or what gets your money. But, from my experience, each project chosen has been pretty incredible. Example: CallbackWomen’s mission is to radically expand gender diversity at the podium of professional programmers’ conferences.

Sponsor Model View Media

Model View Culture is a magazine about technology, culture and diversity. In fact, I think their description of their latest issue says it best:

“In this issue, we deconstruct the rhetoric of imposter syndrome, cover the implications of artificial intelligence for queer and trans people, and critique claims behind the 3D printing “revolution.” We look at the cost of the Lean In industry on women in tech, and ponder bots and digital dualism. Plus, unpacking the mythology of indie success in the games industry, and a new organization focused on trans women in software.”

And that’s just ONE issue! You can see why I’m excited. You can support them by purchasing a print subscription or digital subscription, or you can donate a subscription for someone who can’t afford it.

The fact that it’s interesting and well-written is Model View Culture’s biggest selling point – but how does supporting it create positive change?

For this, I go to Becca Edwards, Strategy Director at Rallio, who contributed some words of wisdom on the power of awareness.

“I think awareness is key to bringing about change. A friend or mentor pointing out where you can improve and you taking the time to absorb their criticism. Maybe it’s awareness that there can be a better way. Or that an action or mentality affects more than just you. Or that you’re loved and worth love, no matter what you are or what you do, and that you have a safe space to change. That’s when I would evaluate what I’m doing and take complete stock of the situation. I’m a reader, so I’d look for research and writings on the thing I need to change to get a better understanding of it. After that, it’s setting goals (starting with small steps) and reasonable expectations for meeting those goals.” 

Support Projects on Patreon

Without art and creativity, where would the tech industry be? Probably in someone’s garage, or in an uninspired office park. You don’t have to code to be in tech – and you don’t have to have an aversion to numbers to be an artist, writer or creative. Patreon is a crowdfunding platform, but unlike Kickstarter, the goal isn’t to raise one large lump sum, but to fund creators who create a stream of smaller projects. It’s more like a paid subscription. For $2-$7 a month, you can help support someone’s work and get regular “rewards.” Another difference – you get the goods before you pay, which, if you’ve been burned by Kickstarter projects, is a nice thing.

There is a huge range of artists and creative projects, from Cosplay to independent journalism. One project I find interesting is Egyptoon, an Egyptian cartoon on YouTube that presents social and political issues and current events in Egypt and the Arab world with humor and sarcasm.

Then, with a decidedly more techy bent, there’s Why I Need Diverse Games, which sponsors attendance at gaming conventions, promotes game creators who make diverse games, and highlights the work of underrepresented people in the games industry.

Lauren Van Mullem says she uses Patreon to support the work of a writer who traveled to Sweden to record the stories of Syrian refugees. For $2 per story, she gets a unique glimpse into the refugee situation from their perspective.

How Other Awesome People are Making Positive Change

Creating and supporting positive change is a team effort, so I opened up the question to some of my favorite people in the tech industry. But first, I ran across this post from Erica Joy that I’d love to share with you. My favorite sentence (because it’s hilarious):

The Bay Area is full of photographers. Throw a burrito in any direction in San Francisco and you’ll probably piss someone off for getting queso fresco on their brand new lens. 

And, my favorite part (because it’s pertinent):

Making sure diversity permeates all aspects of the business, voting with dollars to support other companies who value diversity, making diversity the first thought in the decision making process, all these things are how a company builds not only a diverse environment, but an inclusive environment.

With that in mind, check out what these people are doing – small scale and large scale – to make the world a little better and a little kinder for everyone.

Ashe Dryden founded AlterConf. She wants to bring about “critical cultural discussions in tech and gaming.” As the Twitter profile for AlterConf notes, “We’re moving the diversity conversation beyond 101. Coming to a city near you!” Check out the many ways you can participate to support AlterConf.

“My favorite charity is Give Directly. It’s a very data-driven and research-backed approach to maximizing financial contributions to improve people’s lives. Being the contrarian that I am, I also love that it works so well despite so many people disbelieving and fearing its impact.”

— Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz

“1. Get involved with organizations that encourage women/girls and people/kids of color in STEAM subjects. See some groups here.
2. Join HandUp and support unhoused neighbors.
3. Volunteer. Find opportunities here.
4. Continually inform yourself about unconscious bias, privilege, and being an ally instead of expecting lesser-privileged people to educate you. (See some good resources here.)
5. Talk to others about unconscious bias, privilege, and being an ally often.
6. Speak up when you see discrimination, but use your privilege to make room for lesser-privileged voices if they have the energy to say something.
7. Make it a point to expand your circle of contacts to people you don’t normally mix with.
8. When you mess up, apologize for the hurt caused and don’t focus on your own intent.”

— Michelle Glauser, Advocate & organizer of underrep-ed people in tech

I recommend expanding your social network among marginalized people (especially queer/trans people) and spending time donating money to them when in need and also doing rideshares/car pools to help get them to informed consent clinics for hormone therapy. QT people, especially the younger ones, have so many issues with finances due to homelessness and general poverty and are also gatekept from HRT due to ridiculous and transphobic standards that are found at any clinic that is not an informed consent one.”

— Ramona KnivesRamona Vs. Cis People

“There has perhaps never been a more important year in America to join, help spread the word about, and support TurboVote. Go beyond your own vote to help bring about change.”

— Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President, Strategy, NewsCorp

A lot of times when people think of change, they think way too big instead of focusing on the micro-interactions we have with people and the change we can bring through 1-on-1 relationships. I personally know that change won’t happen overnight but I personally commit to providing a positive influence and educating people on a daily basis through my personal interactions.

This also means going out of your way to make time. I try to take at least 30 mins – 1 hour each day to personally mentor or provide guidance to those who need it. Also make sure that your avenue of change is something you’re passionate about. It’s much easier to be dedicated to making change when you’re passionate about what you’re doing. We all have issues that matter more to us.”

— Everette Taylor, Entrepreneur & Marketing Executive

“For me, creating positive impact is about making time to help people in our everyday lives. It’s all about the small things for me, but one big thing I’ve done is co-create the Copy Muse Collective, which helps newer writers learn the ropes of freelancing from established writers. I had a tough start as a content marketer, and I’m passionate about making that path easier for others to follow so that more women can define their own career paths outside of male-dominated spaces.”

— Lauren Van Mullem, Founder of Truer Words

Let’s Get SaaSsy – I’m offering a limited number of SaaS consulting engagements.

Content Marketing, Diversity

Influencer Marketing: I’ve got a bone to pick with you – wanna meet me outside? by @NikkiElizDeMere


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

Joanna Wiebe has this great formula for writing compelling posts. As she puts it, “pick a fight.” Well, there’s been a battle brewing between me and one marketing idea for a very long time: Influencer marketing. It’s hotter than a June bug in July right now. Everyone’s talking about it, and almost everyone’s doing it.

The idea behind influencer marketing isn’t a bad one altogether.

Some have described it as “the opposite of authority marketing” – instead of you being the one drawing people in with your charm and expertise, you’re instead courting others who have already built up their authorities in your niche (or related niche) and asking them to introduce you to their audiences (preferably with a glowing review, or an anchor-text heavy guest post).

A more succinct definition from VisionCritical: Influencer marketing is the practice of “engaging and partnering with people deemed to have online clout.” Bloggers, internet personalities, celebrities and industry experts are all fair game.

The promise?

“Companies expect that influencer marketing will drive sales because bloggers are able to expose the brand to a captive audience and increase brand awareness.” – Elspeth Shek, “Influencer marketing’s big, bad problem, and what companies can do about it,” VisionCritical

So, best case scenario: Your influencer has a large, highly engaged, niche-specific audience that will listen to *anything* s/he says, and buy whatever s/he recommends.

Some influencers have that much power. If you’re a new perfumer and you get Dita Von Teese’s public endorsement? You’ve got it made in the shade. Why? Because her audience is devoted to the point of being fanatical, and she has won their trust through her own integrity of only supporting brands (and scents) she genuinely loves.

But, most influencers don’t have that much sway. They may have large followings, but maybe half are active, and the other half are “lurkers” (and at least one technology researcher and strategist, Alexandra Samuel, contends that “lurkers” are not only less likely to comment and engage, but also less likely to follow recommendations).

Still, the potential benefits of winning an influencer over to your cause are big, juicy, and understandably tempting, spawning a million-and-one articles about how to do influencer marketing. This article  isn’t one of them.

This article is about whether you should use influencer marketing at all, and if you do, how you can benefit other people in addition to your brand. Yes, I could have titled this article “How you can use influencer marketing to make the world a better place,” but I’m not running for Miss America anytime soon.

Big Picture: How Ethical – not to mention effective – is Influencer Marketing?

“The voice of the customer has always been one of the most powerful concepts in marketing, and today’s social media platforms act as one giant megaphone for that voice.” – Kyle Wong, “The Explosive Growth of Influence Marketing and What it Means for You,” Forbes

The theory is that by choosing the right influencers with whom to partner, you’ll get an all-access pass into the minds and hearts of their audience (who is also your target audience). But first, you have to choose your influencer, and there’s a scientific approach to this called “influencer targeting.”

According to Forbes, the winning influencer targeting equation is:

“Influencer = Audience Reach (# of followers) X Brand Affinity (expertise and credibility) X Strength of Relationship with Followers”

I’ve written about The Problem with Influencer Marketing before. My biggest beef is that because of the way influencers are chosen, only the voices that are already the loudest get amplified. Brands who pick influencers based solely on numbers ensure the people who already dominate the conversations continue to do so.

This is problematic when, as I found:

Of the “50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch in 2016,” published by Entrepreneur magazine, you’ll find that:

74% are male

86% are white

This isn’t only an issue of diversity in sex and ethnicity; it’s an issue of differentiation. When the same voices are retweeted by every brand’s social media, every brand starts to sound the same. And that means that, pretty soon, your brand’s social media will have all the impact of white noise. (Get it? White noise? Ha!)

But what if brands chose their influencers differently, and with a weather eye towards diversity?

What if we could change the way brands and influencers and audiences interact altogether?

Mirror, mirror on the wall – who’s the cloutiest of them all?

My theory: Truly effective and impactful influencer marketing can only be built on a foundation of trust, mutual respect, and mutual benefit. And, if you’re building your influencer “network” based on a formula, rather than making genuine person-to-person connections, you won’t have that.

Here are my new and improved formulas for your consideration:


influencer2The only kind of brand/influencer relationship that works in the long-term is one that is not just mutually beneficial, but mutually supportive. I’d like to see brands, marketers and entrepreneurs create circles of authentic relationships that support each other – which is actually far easier than cold-Tweeting influencers with variations on “Hey, can I use you to sell our product to your audience? KThanks!”

In short, Building trust with influencers requires not having the attitude of “What can you do for me?”

Let me share with you one of the nicer requests I’ve received. She starts out great, with lots of compliments (compliments will get you almost anywhere), but her message missed a vital component. Can you guess what it is?

Hi Nichole,

I’ve read your article on “Truly Awesome Tactics to Gain Traffic from Twitter” on Moz and found it very interesting and inspiring.

I especially like your point about storytelling and writing clickbait headlines.
We operate in the Tech/Business space as well, so I’m sure we’ll be able to collaborate.

We’re currently looking to increase our brand awareness, and I really like the quality of your article, I thought I’d reach out to you personally.  Do you think it would be possible to mention [company] on one of your articles on Moz?

We’re a business software directory specializing in the software reviews and deals. You can check out blog to get an idea about the type of topics we cover, here.

I’d be happy to hop on a call for a quick introduction. 🙂

Thank you so much in advance!

Honestly, I get so many similar requests that my responses have become downright terse.

Hi [Marketer], thanks for reaching out, but that doesn’t really sound like a collaboration, and I can’t think of any articles that I’m writing soon for Moz in which “software reviews and deals” fit.


Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

I love to collaborate with great brands, but let’s check that dictionary definition: “to work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something. Synonyms: Join forces, band together, ally.”

Essentially, help each other. This marketer had a firm grasp on how I could help her, but had nothing more meaningful to offer me that a little sweet talk. I like compliments as much as the next human being, but c’mon. And I’m not talking about financial remuneration, though offers are always appreciated. I’m much more interested in forming real partnerships with genuinely good, customer-centric businesses.

And that typically doesn’t result from an unsolicited private message from a marketing department.

Yet this is what influencer marketing encourages: People reach out to influencers without building real relationships, without any real connection, and asking for a one-way exchange.

“The best way to approach someone in demand is to not approach them! In general, this feels like a shortcut, but it’s not. The opportunity is to create your own sphere of influence, curate your own content, lead your own tribe… it might take longer, but it doesn’t put you at the mercy of the delete key.” – Seth Godin

What I would like to see instead is this:

Brands increasing their brand awareness the right way, by practicing customer success, creating delight, and building an army of brand advocates who will spread the message for them.

Essentially, we’re turning the idea of an influencer on its head.

Instead of reaching out to an established “influencer” – brands can make their own through empowering their most enthusiastic users. Then it’s not based on numbers; it’s based on passion, existing trust, and an existing relationship that will only continue to strengthen and grow.

And if you must have influencers, I recommend this:

  • Choose people based on who you, personally, would love to get to know;
  • Look for voices that are outside of the mainstream (but who still have passionate, engaged audiences);
  • And forge a genuine relationship with them.

Their audience and yours will respond far more positively to authentic relationship-building than a clearly transactional plug. Trust me on this.

Let’s Get SaaSsy – I’m offering a limited number of SaaS consulting engagements.

Diversity, Women in Tech Spotlight

Women in Tech Spotlight: Creatrix Tiara (@creatrixtiara)


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

Writer, performer, producer, researcher, presenter, artist, provocateur, deep-thinker – and dare I say badass – Creatrix Tiara is one phenomenal woman in tech. Her projects act like a galaxy of ideas orbiting around the sun of social change.

One planet might be debunking Ello’s privacy manifesto. A star cluster might be the numerous articles she’s written on topics like pop culture pagans, examining the surprisingly cross-cultural phenomenon of storing sewing kits in cookie tins (who knew?), and pointing out that Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. isn’t far-fetched (it’s already happening).

What does this have to do with tech?

Tiara is one of those rare, wonderful people who take the way we define “tech” and stretch it, re-shape it, and make it better. This isn’t just my opinion. She was invited to the White House LGBTQ in Tech Summit in 2015; she was part of Al-Jazeera’s invitation-only Media in Context Hackathon in 2014; and she’s worked on website content and social media for organizations including Global Fund for Women’s IGNITE project (about women in STEM). Whatever her projects may be, most bridge the very wide gap between art and science, creativity and code, and make the rest of us question why there’s a divide at all.

I asked Creatrix Tiara to talk about tech as a means for social change and got so much more. I’ll let her take it from here in her own words.

Thanks for reaching out. What a pleasant surprise!

So about me: My background is largely in the intersections of arts, media, tech, education, activism, and community cultural development. Unlike most “people in tech” I’m not much of a programmer or even a visual designer, though I have been tinkering around with code since my classes in Pascal when I was 8-9. Rather, I create, educate, and build community online: whether through highly successful blog and social media projects, moderating and managing online communities, helping people figure out best practices for social media, or using social media and blogging as a creative medium as well as a social justice outlet. I grew up on the Internet; it has been integral in so much of my life, from my educational pathways to my careers to even my love life – I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without computers and the Internet, especially as an isolated kid growing up in Malaysia.

I’m really big on the use of technology to create, build, and maintain culture, as well as looking at ways that the tech world can better co-exist with other realms rather than assume it’s solely important on its own. For example, I wrote a piece for Model View Culture’s Quarterly about breaking down the arts/tech divide, after being frustrated at the tech-antagonism of my artist peers as well as techy people thinking I’m only good for marketing. I also co-created the game Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers, which is kind of a parody of Papers Please but shows the tedium of the immigration process from the POV of the applicant – using minigames that are deliberately difficult and mind-numbing to make a point. We (ironically) won the Diplomacy award at the GXDEV Game Jam.

My other areas of interest are:

Ways that cultures and communities are built on the Internet. One of my biggest avenues into tech was fandom – as a teenage fangirl, I learned how to create/code/design/host websites, design graphics and digital art, build & moderate online communities, and even work with social media long before “social media” as we know it was a thing (e.g. Diaryland or Livejournal). I was doing some research into the ways that fandom becomes a gateway for young people to learn and teach themselves particular skills, including techy skills like coding or design, and heard from a lot of fans young and old about how they too built skills in HTML, media editing, or even games development thanks to fandom.

* On a related tangent, mostly in my mind because Homestuck just ended its 7-year run I am super SUPER fascinated by how Homestuck in particular references and uses geek culture to build a sprawling creation myth based around video game conventions. It’s like a time capsule of 90s-Contemporary Millennial culture: data structures, programming nerdery, Con Air, Neverending Story, Pan, Vine, Instagram, Trillian, AIM, god there’s probably a ton more references and allusions in there that’d make sense to anyone who was a nerd of some fashion in the last 30 years. There’s actually a small group of us with similar interests in the academic side of Homestuck getting together to create AcademicStuck, and we’re hoping to experiment with the whole notion of academic writing & publishing throughout the process – so if this appeals to you come join us!

Tech as a means of social change, centering on the needs of marginalized people. Firstly, omg, I am SO TIRED of “disruption” and can’t stand for-profit companies that try to market themselves with “manifestos” and promises of “revolution” (ahem Ello).

But anyway – while I am frustrated at my social justice peers for being just as antagonistic to tech as their artist peers (often one and the same) I can understand why they’re frustrated – it’s because tech culture is mostly dominated by straight/White/cis/guys who think only the concerns they personally face are important to fix and who are very parochial in their mindset.

Last year I got a lot of press for co-founding Screet, a proposed app for on-demand discreet delivery of sexual health products that was going to be feminist and queer-centric. People LOVED the idea, and I got some momentum from it, but due to visa issues I had to leave the US and drop the project. Hopefully it’ll start up again – the response to it, including by typical white-dude investors, showed that people are more than willing to support apps made by and for marginalized folk.

Emphasizing other aspects of interacting with tech that don’t involve coding or visual design. For instance, writing gets really underappreciated, as does research/fact-checking. It all gets thrown under “social media management,” yet in my experience, when I’ve tried to find paid work for similar roles – using the Internet and social media to research, collect, curate, and educate people on particular topics – the only people who are even the slightest bit interested want social media managers to talk solely about the company.

Even some new-media journalism sites expect reporters to also be dab hands at programming – which means that a wealth of stories, information, and knowledge ends up going unreported because the best people to write about them don’t have enough technical knowhow (or interest) to code up an interactive infographic from scratch. But then you also have YouTube channels like PBS Idea Channel or Crash Course work, or even how Metafilter works when people make really deep multi-link posts: they’re both enabled by tech, they probably couldn’t exist without tech, but they’re not often thought of as “being in tech” because they’re mostly informational. (I highly doubt Mike Rugnetta or the Green brothers do any sort of coding to make a YouTube video, and the only code I have to deal with to make a Mefi post is basic HTML.)

Now there seems to be more recognition of online culture mostly through discussions of comment culture and online harassment, as well as the growing concerns about how online-based creatives should get paid for their work (especially when regular paying work that utilizes the same skills can be hard to find – see earlier rant about “social media manager” jobs) – and I’d love to keep that going. 

But, because we (women, human beings, creatives) aren’t just what we do professionally, I wanted to ask Tiara one more burning question: What brings you joy? Her response, well, I think you’ll love it as much as I do.

What brings me joy – there’s a reason my tagline is “signs up for anything that looks interesting”. I seek out or keep an eye open for opportunities and experiences that seem intriguing, whatever the field or topic, and try them out. Sometimes this leads to whole new career paths – for example, my foray into performance art started after taking some burlesque classes on a whim. Sometimes it’s purely academic: one time I got really into perfume design, read a ton of books about the perfume world, and did consider going into perfumery before I found out that I needed a stronger chemistry background. 

Sometimes it’s a dare – a dare from my dad to apply for Harvard’s MBA (he’s a HUGE fanboy) eventually led to me enrolling in HBX CORe, their new 3-month online business fundamentals course (analytics, accounting, economics). I sat for its final exam last week, and somehow, despite having far less direct business experience than my classmates, I’ve built enough of a reputation as a strong and helpful student that my classmates are asking me for help! Yet I probably wouldn’t have even thought about joining HBX CORe if it weren’t for my dad’s snarky suggestion.

The things I sign up for may seem arbitrary on the surface, but there is some kind of internal logic powering them. My therapist called this “following your developing question”: there’s something I’m interested in knowing, which leads to research and exploring that point of inquiry, and through that exploration I find some other branching point to continue on. 

Self-expression and identity is also important: how does this experience allow me to express and develop myself, and how does this experience allow me to change up who I am at will?

I think Creatrix Tiara says it best in the final paragraph of one of my favorite posts: Let’s Lose the Arts/Tech False Dichotomy Already, published in Model View Culture’s Quarterly issue #1, 2015.

“Let’s stop assuming artsy people and tech people are two separate groups. Tech and art should be holistic, creative, all-round ventureslet’s actually make them that way.”

That’s a message all of us in tech need to hear a lot more often.

Creatrix is always looking for more opportunities.

To follow her through all of her projects, check out her website and follower her on Twitter at @creatrixtiara.

Diversity, Women in Tech Spotlight

Women in Tech Spotlight: Tiffany Mikell (@mikellsolution)


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

“What programming does is allow you to build something that addresses a problem,” says Tiffany Mikell in a 2014 interview from Dev Bootcamp. It’s a philosophy she’s adopted on a much wider scale, creating and collaborating with companies that tackle difficult social issues by using technology and spreading awareness among the tech community.

As CEO/CTO of BSMdotCo and Technology Director of Trans*H4CK, Tiffany Mikell uses her experience in software development, education design, and tech entrepreneurship to improve access to education for adult learners and promote the work and needs of gender non-conforming communities.

I would argue that the nature of technology is to make possible what seemed impossible before. Tiffany Mikell takes this idea several steps further, for the people who need it most.

Tiffany Mikell’s current projects

With (formerly BlackStarMedia), she’s built technology and digital media tools to increase the accessibility of education for adult learners, including tools for virtual conferences, virtual hackathons, Twitter chats and virtual business courses. What sets them apart is the focus on building experiential environments that help students engage in distance learning programs.

AerialSpaces™, their flagship virtual learning SaaS offering, is being piloted by the White House ConnectHome digital literacy training initiative. ConnectHome made headlines in 2015 as a pilot program to give free or low-cost internet access to 275,000 homes in 27 cities, along with digital literacy programs like AerialSpaces™.

Then there’s Trans*H4CK, where Tiffany is the Technology Director. It’s a company devoted to creating open source tech products that:

  • Promote economic advancement and financial sustainability for trans, gender non conforming, agender and non-binary people. Since 2013, they’ve had more than 600 transgender developers, designers and aspiring coders presenting at their hackathons and helping to develop products.
  • Promotes attention to and improves services for trans people without homes, who are sex workers, or who are incarcerated.
  • Increases gender safety.
  • And support the overall well-being of the community.

Considering that non gender conforming people are unemployed at twice the national rate (4x for transgender people of color), are more likely to be harassed, discriminated against or fired from their jobs, and one in five transgender people in the U.S. have been discriminated against when seeking a home (one in five transgender people have also experienced homelessness at some point in their lives) – this is life-changing work.

A winding career path

Tiffany Mikell began her career in tech as many great minds seem to – by dropping out of high school. Of her brief stint at a Chicago public high school, she says “the lack of structure and other necessities, such as books, was hugely disappointing.” An autodidact both by nature and necessity, she didn’t let that stop her. She taught herself programming, enrolled in the i.c.stars program, took a 30-day JAVA boot camp and crossed her fingers that she would be hired by Accenture.

Five years later, not only was she an Accenture software engineer, she also devoted her time to the African American Interest Group – which put her back in Chicago public school classrooms as a presenter on her career in tech. She then helped launch Dev Bootcamp in Chicago, one of the first code schools of its kind that gives a complete software development program in 9 intense weeks. She says they had 150 students in their first class, only five of whom were black.

“It was a wakeup call for me because I believed it was all about access. If we can lower the access barrier to technology careers, make it a shorter experience than a 4-year computer science degree, then we would see an increase in diversity. But it has more to do with the culture of traditional educational spaces, and how people of color feel in those spaces. I started to examine the problem of how to create inclusive learning environments and an educational pedagogy that speaks to people of color, specifically.” (Listen to the rest of this interview here.)

That was when Tiffany and BSMdotCo Co-Founder Kortney Ziegler decided to focus their efforts on the technology of education. Her most recent project is creating a series of virtual collaboration tools to make online learning more engaging for all users.

It’s this winding career path that perfectly paved the way for Tiffany to become an “education disrupter,” finding ways to help people teach themselves skills – no brick-and-mortar classroom required.

I was happy to have a Q&A session with Tiffany to gain more insights into her incredible work.

How do your experiences in education vary and overlap with your experiences in tech?

As a self-directed learner, I’ve always rejected the idea that educational opportunities should be limited to classrooms and traditional institutions.  As a young independent scholar, technology was incredibly important to me as both a research and communication tool.  Later in life, the industry itself provided the creative autonomy and flexibility I’d come to demand in my career.  My curiosities and interests drive the projects I start and to which I contribute; very similar to the how I designed educational programs for myself.  Additionally, the constant learning required to stay relevant as a software engineer was ideal for my “always be learning” attitude toward life.    

What are some things that you’ve learned, and some ways that you’ve grown as a person, as a result of being the CEO/CTO of @BSMdotCo and the Technology Director for Trans*H4CK?

Oh wow.  This is a huge question.  I often say that 1 year of running a startup is the equivalent to about 3-5 years in any other professional setting.  It’s amazing how much I’ve grown as a person since the almost 2 years since the launch of BSMdotCo (Formerly BlackStarMedia).  One lesson I’ve had to learn has been to guard my time/mental energy with as much force and intentionality as I do acquiring customers.  Both are equally as critical to my startups’ success.  In my role, I have to say No a lot more than I want to – I’ve learned to do so often and as the default response.  

What was the inspiration for @BSMdotCo and how does it bridge the B2B and educational tech worlds?

Because my cofounder Kortney and I both have extensive education and technology experiences – we wanted to explore creating accessible and inclusive learning environments for people of color specifically.  We started by creating an online learning model similar to that of General Assembly and/or CreativeLive —  for a specific niche of students.   

Although we built traction for our brand, we struggled to successfully monetize our “courses” – as the MOOC space has been saturated. We decided to structure our curriculum in a “virtual conference” format and had a MUCH easier time selling conference tickets than selling course access.  

We then began to evaluate technology that would allow us to broadcast an entire conference online. None of the products we tested served us well, so we hacked together an alternative in a period of 3 weeks.  

Our conference attendees and speakers alike were blown away.  We sold more tickets in the first hour after we opened the doors to our virtual conference center than we had in the entire month prior.  We received several requests from individuals and organizations interested in hosting their own virtual conference on our platform. It was one of our biggest moments of validation.

After months of experimenting, we’ve been able to not only create radical models for delivering education, but also develop a technology platform that is being used by our customers to shift the delivery of education in ways that matter to them.

What are some of the products that have been created as a result of Trans*H4CK?

Trans*H4CK has become the hub for transgender visibility in tech and entrepreneurship. Our hackathon and speaker series has traveled the country fostering visibility for trans* technologists. As a mini-incubator, we’ve launched dozens of new applications used across the globe; had over three hundred transgender developers, designers, and aspiring coders attend our hackathons; help secure tech employment for 15 attendees and helped to birth several startups and social enterprises: (Some of which are: Trans*Code (UK); TransTech SE (US); RadRemedy (US))

A sample of the apps developed at Trans*H4CK:

  1. YO Restrooms: Send a Yo to YORESTROOMS and find the closest gender safe bathrooms using REFUGE Restrooms data.
  2. Who Did I Miss: Simple to use form site that contacts conference organizers to encourage and recommend diverse speakers.
  3. An app that lets people bypass web filters to access sites about transgender issues and only transgender issues. Check out its feature in WIRED.

We also deliver technology education and product showcase opportunities on the Trans*H4CK {Collaboration} LOFT– a collection of virtual spaces developed internally and designed specifically for collaboration, sharing and building for the trans and gender non conforming community.  Recaps from recent virtual events can be found on our blog.

Who are some of the educational speakers that have been featured at Trans*H4CK and what ideas do they have to share?

Our speaker series has featured the stories of leading transgender executives, innovators, and emerging leaders–stories which were previously absent from the tech landscape.

Here are videos from the online speaker series which profiles transgender developers making important moves in tech and entrepreneurship:

  1. Lynn Cyrin, Founder of Quirrell
  2. Harlan Kellaway, Developer of Refuge Restrooms for iOs
  3. Dr. Vivienne MingScientist

What do you think others can do to help create spaces for transgender tech innovators and entrepreneurs? Are there other communities that we can support in addition to Trans*H4CK?

It’s critical that we support transgender technologists and their work financially.

Trans*H4CK and other communities like it are so important – what are some of the reasons that you think they’re important?

Shortly before deciding to start a company together, I had the opportunity to work with Kortney Ziegler as a Trans*H4CK volunteer when he brought the hackathon series he founded to Chicago. Although I’d spent several years working as a software engineer at the time,   I was blown away by the inclusivity and collaborative (vs competitive) energy felt during the 4 day event. I had never attended a tech focused event that was as warm and welcoming.  Trans*H4CK provides a safe space where individuals from all walk of life can bring their skills and life experiences to the exciting process of building solutions that matter to them through the use of technology.  Trans*H4CK teaches me every day that intentionality and empathy can be the catalyst for shifting the culture of entire communities in incredibly short periods of time.

How do you think the tech community can help amplify the voices of Trans*H4CK community members?

Attend our virtual events.  Engage with us on Twitter.  Support our organization financially.

Here are a few reads that were significant to Tiffany during the last few years while venturing:

  • How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston. I’m such a huge fan of Baratunde’s career. He too follows his passions and is able to bring such a unique and multi disciplinarian approach to digital innovation, problem solving and storytelling.  
  • The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman. Hands down one of the most useful business books I’ve ever read (and re-read).
Curation, Diversity

The Problem with Influencer Marketing by @NikkiElizDeMere


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

Influencer marketing works. How? Influencers are people who are highly active on social media and blogs. They can be brand advocates and niche promoters. Most importantly though, they are people with loud online voices who other people listen to.

Influencer marketing leverages the loud-speaker like qualities of this group to, essentially, create word-of-mouth buzz about a business or product online. But it’s not all about buzz – as Jay Baer says: “True influence drives action, not just awareness.”

When you align with an influencer, you’re entering into a mutually beneficial relationship. You amplify their voice even more by promoting their blog or social media presence; they talk about your company or product. Consumers trust recommendations from them, more than from you, because they’re third parties. They have enough distance from your company to maintain objectivity, and they have enough cache with their audiences to where their recommendations are trusted.

You don’t have to adopt an official influencer spokesperson – the relationship is usually not that formal. Rather, influencer marketing often takes the simple form of trading guest posts, or even “you retweet me, I retweet you.”

It’s surprisingly effective.

But when you look at influencer marketing from a perspective of diversity, it’s not working so well.

Of the “50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch in 2016,” published by Entrepreneur magazine, you’ll find that:

74% are male

86% are white

As far as non-race diversity factors go for this group, they’re anyone’s guess, but I would venture to say that even this remarkably diverse list (you should see some of the other ones), is lacking in a diversity of perspective.

So what happens when brands embrace the same group of influencers, whose voices are already loud and out there, who come from relatively privileged backgrounds?

We get a whole lot of the same.

In the influencer version of “the rich get richer,” the loud and privileged are even more amplified, to the point where they saturate the conversation and drown out voices from marginalized groups.

Pretty soon, everyone’s Twitter feed in the same niche looks identical, because they’re all re-tweeting the same influencers, over and over again. Is there an echo on here?

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A suggestion for a simple solution

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I would suggest that if you’re using influencer marketing, consider sharing content by marginalized people along with your regularly scheduled programming. Then, you’re not leaving them entirely out of the conversation. Stumped for where to begin? I’ve got you covered – try these:

@AlterConf – “An evening of critical culture discussions in tech and gaming. We’re moving the diversity conversation beyond 101. Coming to a city near you!”

@FundBetterTech – “Pledge $100/month to fund tech projects by and for marginalized people.”

@ModelViewMedia – “A magazine about tech + culture + diversity. We tweet articles and news.”

@TransH4CK – “Creating tech for the transgender community & visibility for trans technologists and entrepreneurs.”

Ensuring people who already have massive followings get their messages out there is fine, but it’s not going to add any new insights into the conversation. When you include the intelligent, savvy voices of people we don’t traditionally hear from, you allow the conversation to reach its full potential, creating a richer experience for everyone.

But honestly, just connect with people whose work you love. And if some happen to be influencers, and some don’t, that’s fine.

Curation as a power-tool

My style of Twitter using is curation. It’s what I do. It’s what I love. I’ve also found it to be a powerful tool for supporting, promoting, and amplifying marginalized influencers who deserve far more retweets than they get. For me, curation is a form of self-expression, which is why I share what I love – not what I think others will love.

Ultimately, diversity is so much more beautiful and interesting. Just check out some of the latest tweets by @Odyism, a fantasy illustrator who posted art for Black History Month on his feed.

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Let’s Get SaaSsy – I’m offering a limited number of SaaS consulting engagements.


Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Join Fund Club (@FundBetterTech)

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Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

Sure, we talk a good game about diversity. We say we want more of it. We complain when we don’t get enough. Talk’s cheap. That’s why I have to tell you about Fund Club, an organization that finds diversity-centered projects, initiatives, events and organizations that are focused on supporting diverse communities.

Fund Club asks for a $100/month pledge which you give directly to the recipient project (i.e. there’s no middle man taking a cut). You don’t pay? You don’t play. This ain’t a club for quitters.

And isn’t that kind of commitment exactly what the diversity and inclusion movement needs? Yes!

Anyone working on projects for diversity and inclusion can apply for community funding from Fund Club. So far, funded projects include everything from increasing diversity in games to teaching communities of color web dev and entrepreneurship skills.

Ashe Dryden, creator of AlterConf, a traveling conference series of marginalized voices from the tech and gaming industries, partnered with Shanley Kane of Model View Culture to launch Fund Club last summer and in a very short period of time, they have already supported 8 organizations.

Check out the 8 projects funded so far:

About ($9400 raised)

So, cypheroftyr created this hashtag, #INeedDiverseGames. she did it because she’s tired of not seeing herself in the games she’s spent many years playing. She’s tired of being the trope, the joke, the one that gets fridged early in the game to fuel manpain for the PLOT.

She’s also tired of the same.fucking.scruffy.ass.dude protag in 9 out of 10 games released in a given year. She’s tired of “hero dude with tragic backstory saves the world, gets the girl plot lines.”

Oh cypheroftyr,  you had me at “the same.fucking.scruffy.ass.dude protag.” As a woman, all I can say is YES. Right? We’re all tired of being the trope, or the sex object. I Need Diverse Games is doing something about it, like hosting the “Amplifying New Voices Bootcamp” to coach people from under-represented backgrounds on improving their presentation skills within the games industry.

POCIT (People of Color in Tech) ($9000 raised)

“To highlight the current achievements of ‘people of color’ within the sphere of technology and startups, and to inspire the next generation.”

Hey, sounds like our newsletter. But these folks do more than a monthly newsletter. Every week they feature interviews by people of color all over the country, across the industry, including founders, engineers, mobile developers – even software engineer interns. I highly recommend this interview with Slack’s Erica Baker for insights like this:

“It’s not usual to see another person of color in most tech jobs. When I was at Google, if I stayed at my building, I could go literally days without seeing another person of color. That’s just like the standard in tech.  How to put it? It’s not this very tangible thing that you can name. It’s just like, eventually, after a while, it would start wearing on you that you’re the only one there.”

Hands Up United ($7800 raised)

“The revolution will be digitized. Computer programming and web development are 21st century skills that can be used to activate ideas, grow small businesses and build grass-roots movements. As a way to counter cyber warfare and address the issues of economic and educational inequality, Hands Up United will lead technical training workshops in the Furguson/Greater St. Louis area.”

With course titles like “JavaScript Justice,” Hands Up United neatly combines social justice with technology teaching and mentorship in underserved communities.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project ($7800 raised)

“The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is a data-visualization, data analysis, and storytelling collective documenting the dispossession of San Francisco Bay Area residents in the wake of the Tech Boom 2.0.”

We know gentrification is a problem, but knowing it and seeing it through quantitative and qualitative data are two different things. That’s where the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project makes so much impact, because you can see the displacement that’s been happening in recent years in the San Francisco Bay area.

Revision Path ($8200 raised)

“Revision Path was created because the stories of Black designers and developers deserve to be shared and told. And since most mainstream tech and design websites and podcasts don’t share or tell these stories, we’re stepping up to the plate and providing a platform for these creative individuals to shine.”

It’s an award-winning weekly interview podcast that shares the stories of some of the best black designers in the tech industry – graphic designers, web designers and web developers.

Prompt ($7400 raised)

“Prompt is an effort to actually try to improve the lives of developers, especially those who are affected in any way by things like depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness.”

Diversity isn’t just about ethnicity, which is why Prompt is one of my favorite projects funded. They literally “facilitate the conversation” around mental health in the tech industry  by offering speaking opportunities to those affected by mental health issues, getting mental health speakers for conferences, and helping organizations start talking about an issue that doesn’t get much facetime. We’ve all got our challenges, whether it’s depression, anxiety, OCD, or something entirely different. Often, these challenges are also the fuel that makes us great at what we do; but in order to do our best work, a little help and support managing the mental jungle may be in order.

TransTech Social Enterprises ($7000 raised)

“TransTech is an incubator for LGBTQ Talent with a focus on economically empowering the T, transgender people, in our community. TransTech members provide graphics design, web development, social media management, multimedia production and many more services.”

Empowering, educating, and employing trans and gender non-conforming individuals are what TransTech is all about, and to support their work, all you have to do is hire them to do your work. A very neat and tidy system.

#WoCinTech Chat ($6330 raised)

“We are a community of women and non-binary people of color. Some of us are technologists in the making and some of us are technologists by trade. All of us are here to help each other succeed.”

This group, which isn’t even a year old, has already held a NYCTechWalk, sponsored WOC to attend 6 tech conferences, sponsored a data science workshop, hosted the first Women of Color Stock Photo Shoot, among many, many other projects. As so many of the best things do, this started as a Twitter chat, #WOCinTech, but has expanded to real-world actions that connect women of color and non-binary people of color to new opportunities.

If you’d like to support these causes, go directly to their pages – no middle men! And, if you’d like to find out who next month’s Fund Club pick, join Fund Club here.


Discussion: When Policies Don’t Work, What is the Best Way to be a Diverse Company? by @NikkiElizDeMere


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

This is the tweet that blew up the Twitterverse last month when Jeffrey Siminoff left his post as head of diversity and inclusion at Apple to become Twitter’s VP of Diversity & Inclusion – replacing a white woman, for the record. Also, let the record show that Siminoff is a middle-aged white male. Cue Twittersplosions of Inglorious Basterds proportions.

But someone felt good about this decision (besides Siminoff).

TechCrunch reported Siminoff’s latest career move in glowing terms: “Siminoff, who starts in January, seems like a great fit for this role.”

Fortune was just as optimistic: “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has made hiring a diverse workforce a priority.”

One can only imagine that the men sitting around the conference room at Twitter headquarters felt the same way. Their more politically astute users, however, spotted the problem instantly.

How can you say you are making diversity a priority, and acknowledge that you have far too few women in management roles, and replace a white woman with a white man?

And, how can you ignore the fact that the diversity issue is about so much more than the male-to-female ratio. We need more colors of the rainbow in all genders and orientations and abilities. We need, well, actual diversity.

You would think that devoting a VP position to diversity would accomplish something. You would think that drafting diversity policies would be a step in the right direction.

Damned if you do…

Studies are cropping up that show diversity actually suffers from policies and designated positions, such as “VP of diversity.”

The Harvard Business Review put several of these studies into context in the article “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men.”

“Many managers are tasked with the complex goal of ‘managing diversity’ – which can mean anything from ensuring equal employment opportunity compliance, to instituting cultural sensitivity training programs, to focusing on the recruitment and retention of minorities and women.

Are all of these efforts working? In terms of increasing demographic diversity, the answer appears to be not really.”

The authors cite a longitudinal study of 700+ U.S. companies that looked at the efficacy of diversity programs based on 30+ years of data. The study found that diversity training and evaluations do nothing to increase the numbers of white women, black women, and black men in management – and they may even decrease representation of black women.

How do good intentions go awry? The answer lies in another study.

In Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures, researchers found that diversity initiatives, policies and programs within companies caused white-men-in-power (the study calls them “high-status group members”) to feel like they’re in an equal-opportunity environment – even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. Not only that, but they become less sensitive to seeing discrimination, and react more harshly to minorities claiming to have experienced discrimination.

The “Diversity Defense”

People in power feel all warm and fuzzy when there are diversity programs in place – including federal court judges. When Walmart was sued in a 2011 class action case, it used its anti-discrimination policy as a defense against allegations of gender discrimination. The “diversity defense” has been used successfully in several cases, inspiring yet another study.

Your average white male, however, doesn’t get the warm-fuzzies when diversity values are mentioned – he feels threatened: “Two initial studies (N = 322) demonstrate that when imagining applying for a job, whites – and not ethnic/racial minorities – expressed more concerns about being treated unfairly and about anti-white discrimination when the company mentioned (vs. did not mention) its pro-diversity values.”

In a nutshell: White men in power love diversity programs – even though they don’t do any good for minorities and make white male job applicants feel like Julia Roberts trying to shop on Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman (the first time).

It turns out, the most dangerous place to be a minority or woman is in a company that has a diversity program.

Case in point: The Dreamforce panel “Building an Inclusive Workplace” in which salesforce founder Parker Harris responded to Kara Swisher’s question on diversity beyond women:

Parker: Well, right now I’m focused on women, you know, and it’s back to Marc’s focus on priorities. I have employees, that are, you know, other types of diversity coming to me and saying well why aren’t we focused on these other areas as well, and I said yes we should focus them but, you know, the phrase we use internally is “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” And we repeat that over and over again. And, we’re trying to figure out how can we move this one thing forward, and you know we don’t have all the answers, so I can’t sit up here and say I’ve got it figured out.

Read: Their big effort is to increase the number of white women. And they feel pretty good about their efforts, too. Erica Joy said it best in #FFFFFF Diversity: “Get in line people of color. Wait for (white) women to get theirs, then we’ll get to you.”

But it’s all okay, because there’s a diversity policy… (that’s sarcasm, if you can’t tell)

Maybe if we phrased it in language the tech industry under$tands…

Rand Fishkin gives the most eloquent statement of why pursuing diversity isn’t just about being a good citizen of the world – it’s good business. In Why I believe in Intentional Efforts to Increase Diversity, he lists out significant improvements to Moz products and Moz as a company that were purely due to having input from a diverse workforce.

“In all of these cases, diversity improved our empathy internally and externally. The variety of people in leadership and decision-making roles, as well as on individual teams helped us make a better, more accessible company and product. I believe diversity isn’t just the right thing to do for the world; it’s also the optimal thing to do for the long-term success of an organization (and there’s plenty others with great data to back that up).”

Important to note is Fishkin’s acknowledgement that diversity isn’t just about gender or ethnic background – he cites improvements made to fonts, kerning, and colors thanks to employees who were color blind or older.

“I recall a design review of the first version of Moz Analytics, one of our software tools. . . . David Mihm (who’s partially colorblind) helped identify a few contrast variations that he literally couldn’t see. Martin York, one of our senior engineers who has dyslexia, commented on form inputs missing auto-corrections for spelling/mistypings. One of the older members of our team noted that she had difficulty in parsing the text because the lines were too close together (aka overly-tight leading).”

While few people are having the ethnic diversity conversation in tech industries, it’s the exceptional founder who addresses age or impairments.

Moz is actually an ideal case study for diversity done thoughtfully. Its initiatives aren’t a separate department, or a veneer laid over existing diversity problems to try to hide the divots. Diversity was a goal from the beginning, and perhaps even more importantly, it was a value promoted and actively pursued by the company’s founder.

Moz isn’t alone – though it’s in the minority (no pun intended).

Wil Reynolds, founder of Seer, “unintentionally” built an online marketing company that’s over 60% women, which he says he didn’t set out to do, “I just set out to hire the people I thought were the best for our team and our clients.” Check out Wil Reynolds and Rand Fishkin discussing their different takes on diversity here.

Pandora, the Oakland-based music company, not only has a nearly 50/50 male-female workforce, they are actively supporting their underrepresented employees with company “communities” like Pandora Women, Pandora PRIDE, and Pandora Mixtape, and with mentorship programs that connect women in different stages of their careers. Like Moz and Seer, they recognize that working to fix their company ratios can only happen when they also contribute to strengthening the “pipeline.” Pandora partners with programs like Little Kids Rock, NYC Ladders for Leaders, The Ally Coalition, Management Leadership for Tomorrow and CODE2040 to contribute to STEM career prep and recruitment outreach.

But aren’t these just more policies? And didn’t we just say policies don’t work?

Seer, very intentionally, does not have a diversity policy. Moz and Pandora have policies, and Pandora has an official “diversity program manager” position (filled by Asian-American Lisa Lee), but in each of these cases, their practices seem to stem from their very DNA as companies. And, it should be noted that while these companies are far ahead of the Silicon Valley pack, they all have a ways to go. But here is what I see them doing well:

Diversity doesn’t start once you enter the building: these companies go out into their communities to create opportunities for underrepresented groups – by ensuring 50% of conference speakers are anything other than white male (MozCon), or working with organizations to help minority students pursue STEM careers. And, supporting diversity doesn’t end once you enter the building either – these companies are making changes to retain their female talent with family-friendly policies.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – diversity policies don’t work when they’re Band-Aids. But when diversity becomes a mission, pursued with passion from the top down, we can move the needle.

What do you think?

Do you feel supported by policies – or do you see them as lip-service (or worse, a convenient legal defense)? Should there be “VPs of diversity” – and if so, should those roles be filled by people of color? How would you like to see companies move the needle towards cultivating more diverse workforces?


The Problem with Ally Panels, and Why We Still Need Them ft. @catehstn

Ally Panels

In 1913, a 7-year-old girl dismantled every alarm clock in her house to see how they worked. When her mother found out, she limited the girl’s exploration to just one clock – a fair compromise. That little girl was Grace Brewster Murray – also known as Rear Admiral Grace Hopper – who became one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944 and continued on to have a 42-year long career developing computer programming for the Navy.

Today, 56% of women in STEM careers leave tech within 10 years, more than twice the dropout rate of men.

From the 1940s to 1980s, women went into programming in much higher numbers than they do today. In fact, the “golden age” of women in Computer Science is considered to be the mid-eighties (37% of CS degrees in America were given to women in 1985). But then, except for a brief spike during the Dot-Com Boom, those numbers dropped.

Why? Essentially, those in power changed the rules of the game. According to Elizabeth Patitsas, a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying diversity in CS, academic institutions were having trouble hiring enough qualified faculty to meet the demand for CS classes and took steps to limit CS enrollment – which disproportionately hit women, minorities, and other non-traditional students:

Steps included adding new GPA requirements for entering CS programmes, requiring more prerequisites, and retooling first-year CS as a weeder course. These actions disproportionately hurt not only female participation in the field, but participation of racial minorities as well. These ‘non-traditional’’ students had disproportionately come to CS via non-traditional paths (such as via psychology or linguistics) and disproportionately lacked the prerequisites as a result. The retooling of first-year CS as a weeder course also resulted in a competitive atmosphere that deterred many women…

Overall, a pattern of cyclical enrolment emerges. Boom times lead to more students, then more enrolment controls; bust times lead to more outreach. Bust times also result in disproportionately many women leaving the field, or not going in at all [6] — indeed, as of 2011, 18% of CS students are female [5].

Clearly, the problem of too few women in computer science and other STEM careers is a candle burning at both ends – there’s the “pipeline” issue of fewer women entering those careers, and a retainment issue of women leaving after a decade.

I’ve written about those issues here, but I’d like to take a closer look into one of the “solutions” currently being proffered:

The ally panel.

An ally panel is a group of people who are in the “majority” – men, Caucasians, able-bodied – speaking about challenges faced by minority groups and, ideally, presenting ideas for how to be more inclusive, diverse, and fair. If you’re seeing inherent problems with this setup, you’re not alone.

Cate Huston, the brilliant blogger behind Accidentally In Code, attended the 2014 Grace Hopper Conference (yes, named after that Grace Hopper) and saw its Male Allies Plenary Panel in action. Here’s the official description of the ally panel:

In any social change movement, the appropriate partnership between the minority group advocating for change, and the majority group holding power and privilege, is crucial. In pursuing our mission to ensure that women are fully present at the innovation table, the role of male allies in our change efforts is key. In this panel, we will hear from men who have been advocates for women technologists, who have been on the front-lines of culture change in technology-based companies. They will share what they have learned as they have leaned in to the challenge of creating workplaces that are fair and equitable.

Huston then wrote one of my favorite articles ever to appear in The Daily Beast: Tech’s Male ‘Feminists” Aren’t Helping – in which she notes the disparity between what ally panelists claimed as values, and their actual numbers, actions, and words.

Women at the conference were disappointed by the content of the panel, where unconscious bias training was lauded despite there being no evidence demonstrating efficacy. Women were told to “just work harder” because they could “make a big difference. . . . At the same conference, women were outraged by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who advocated that women shouldn’t ask for raises but trust in karma.

This is an example of how an “ally” panel goes wrong:

  • When, “allies” are really people who have never faced your challenges tell you how to act, think, or feel.
  • When “allies” are there to pat themselves on the back for minor improvements (GoDaddy bragged about a 1% increase in women in tech, which is statistically insignificant).
  • When “allies” talk about one side of the issue, while completely ignoring the side of the issue they may be complicit in. (ie. Talking about the pipeline and forgetting about what happens once women are in the pipeline).

But, this ally panel, and the reaction to it by Cate Huston and others, spurred a much better idea. Alan Eustace, a senior Vice President at Google, suggested a reverse ally panel.

Alan Eustace‏ @alan_eustace #ghcmanwatch. Let’s reverse the male allies panel. You talk. I listen. Telle gave me West 201 board room at 2pm today at GHC.

This is how an ally panel goes right.

When the people in power not only listen to, but seek to understand and then take real, measurable, statistically significant action – that is an ally panel.

But Huston has a few other improvements she’d like to make, as she told me:

The problem with the ally panel is: Where is it and what are they saying? Where does it take place? The value of a group of men talking about women in tech to a women’s conference isn’t that high; they’re preaching to the choir and taking the place of a woman speaker.

Effective ally panels should listen to those with whom they are allies, but they should also talk to those who aren’t. These panels need to take place where the message of equality and the reinforcement of diverse culture is most needed.

None of us are saying ally panels are bad. After all, if women and minorities were going to fix the diversity problem, we already would have. We do need allies who are in power and who are willing to make changes, set priorities, and invest in creating inclusive work cultures.

Most importantly, we need allies to lead the way for those who don’t even yet realize there’s a problem.

Many thanks to Cate Huston for her help with this article. You can read more of her work on and follow her on Twitter @catehstn.

You can read more about the first women of American programming in books like:

Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World


Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age


#ILookLikeAnEngineer and Ashe Dryden’s (@AsheDryden) Programming Diversity


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

What does an engineer look like? Isis Wenger, an engineer at OneLogin, sadly had to supply some visual aids to a few people online recently. She was featured in a recruiting ad wearing some truly stunning glasses and a OneLogin Engineering t-shirt, which somehow inspired comments like:

“This is some weird haphazard branding. I think they want to appeal to women, but are probably just appealing to dudes. Perhaps that’s the intention all along. But I’m curious people with brains find this quote remotely plausible and if women in particular buy this image of what a female software engineer looks like. Idk. Weird.”

I need to take a deep breath here, because what I’d really like to write is a string of very strong words, none of which are pertinent to my point.

Wenger’s response (a far better one than mine) was to start a campaign that brought together anyone and everyone who didn’t fit the white-boy-with-glasses mold of an engineer:


Prepare yourself to see some really awesome ladies before you hit “Play.”

I think this is a timely moment to share with you one of my favorite presentations: Ashe Dryden’s Programming Diversity.

Ashe Dryden is a programmer, consultant and speaker about diversity and inclusivity in tech. What I love about her speech how she builds a foundation of definitions, moves into statistics that make you wonder what the heck happened, and finishes by acknowledging attrition as a central reason why there aren’t more women in tech.

Here are some highlights of her 34 minute talk.

Diversity isn’t a code word for “Where are the women;” it’s a much larger issue than that, including factors like ability, language, physical and mental health, sexuality, age, gender, immigration status, socioeconomic status, race and education.

Intersectionality, definition: How the interactions of biological, social and cultural traits define your experience as a human being on the planet. Ie. Women earn about 80.9% of what men do in the U.S., but Latina women earn 59% of what white men do. You can see how much adding just one more factor drastically changes the percentage.

Privilege, definition: Unearned advantages you get due to who you are and where you’re from. Privilege can mean access to better education, access to technology at younger ages, higher pay, assumed competency, and, most importantly, being seen as a skill set instead of a set of uncontrollable factors. Essentially, privilege means you are judged based on what you can do and have done, rather than what what you look like, where you’ve come from, or assumptions people make about you.

Stereotype threat, defintion: Most people know what a stereotype is, but a stereotype threat is a bit different. It’s the fear a person has that they will confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.

Imposter syndrome, definition: When you’re unable to internalize your accomplishments, as in feeling like you don’t deserve your accolades and successes and fearing you’ll be “found out.” This is especially evident in groups that have a negative stereotype. They’re less likely to attend a conference, much less speak at a conference, and they’re less likely to apply for jobs that require proof of competency.

Marginalized, definition: A minority or sub-group being excluded, their needs or desires ignored.

Then she moves into some statistics that fascinated me:

  • 8% of computer science graduates are women in India.
  • 17% of CS grads are women in the U.S.
  • 2% of CS grads are women in the U.K.
  • 20% of CS grads are women in Brazil and South Africa.
  • 73% of CS grads are women in Bulgaria.

One of these is not like the other!

I’d actually like to take a detour here from Ashe Dryden’s talk to look a little closer at Bulgaria. What is going on there that is so different from what happened here and in many other places around the world?

It turns out, the difference isn’t pink or blue – it’s red. In 1982, under the communist dictatorship of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s computer industry boomed, leaving the Soviet Union, Germany, and other Western countries in the dust. They reverse-engineered the Apple II and created cheap, mass-produced personal computers giving access to technology to just about everyone. Bulgaria also began a high school education program in programming languages. It also doesn’t hurt that most teachers at an undergraduate level are women. And, as a society, there is a strong push for children of both genders to go into the sciences. Access + society + female role models = women computer science graduates.

Who knew?

(We all did)

Then Ashe Dryden goes on to explain all of the positive outcomes of diverse teams (innovation, more creativity, better decision making, more profit), and the sources of the diversity problem:

  • The pipeline (In the context of how minorities are treated while in the pipeline.)
  • Lack of role-models (For a very interesting 7-minute story on Forgotten Female Programmers, check out the NPR story here.)
  • Different access to technology at young ages and in different socio-economic groups
  • Stigma of “geekiness”
  • And, my favorite, Attrition. Ashe actually addresses what I see as one of the biggest, and least discussed issues about diversity, which is the attrition rate of women in tech. Fifty-six percent of women leave tech within 10 years (that’s twice the attrition rate of men, and that number accounts for those women who leave to have kids). I wrote an entire post about my take on this phenomenon here.

She ends her speech with some very solid advice for how to improve diversity and promote inclusive culture, which is well worth the listen. But for me, #ILookLikeAnEngineer pretty much sums it up.

Follow Ashe Dryden @ashedryden

Support Ashe Dryden’s Diversity Work here;

Follow Isis Wenger @isisAnchalee and follow the #ILookLikeAnEngineer conversation here.