For three days in February, 6,000 of people coursed in and out of the Castro Theater, a 1920s movie palace in San Francisco. They came to hear from Laurene Powell Jobs, Susan Wojcicki, and leaders from Amazon and Uber. They came to network. And a pithy marquee on the theater summed up their unifying mission: “Queer. Inclusive. Badass.”
The sixth-annual Lesbians Who Tech + Allies Summit was the largest LGBTQ event in the world. The attendees were roughly 80 percent queer women–but sexuality was just one element of diversity. Of those who spoke on stage, half were women of color, 30 percent were black or Latinx, and 15 percent transgender or gender non-conforming.
“We are 100 percent about providing value to queer women. We just don’t have this type of community anywhere else in the world,” said Leanne Pittsford, the founder of Lesbians Who Tech. “That we can do this and be visible and also host a damn good tech conference–that inspires people.”
The Summit is not only a place where leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton fly in to speak, but also the physical gathering of just a fraction of the 50,000 members of the parent organization, Lesbians Who Tech, a social enterprise that Pittsford founded in 2013 and which has grown to 42 cities. In 2019, the organization is entering an inflection point, as what was once a conference-media business with a charitable arm aims to become a scalable technology company. “We already work with more than 150 companies looking to retain or recruit diverse talent,” Pittsford said. “Our partners were asking: How do we track hires? How do we actually hold ourselves accountable?” Now, she and LWT are building Include.io, a digital tool that aims to do precisely that.
Before Pittsford dreamed up her organization, she had been analyzing data and building online fundraising tools for a group opposing Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that would have eliminated rights of same-sex couples to marry. She says she was shocked to discover that the people funding the LGBTQ movement were majority white cisgender men, a term that refers to men who identify with the gender with which they were born. “It was a clear wake-up call for me. The people who would benefit from the movement weren’t funding it. Even the women with the money weren’t spending it,” she said.
Simultaneously, she realized that tech events for the queer community in and around San Francisco always seemed to be 90 percent male. “There’s nothing for us,” she said. No cohesive community, no gathering, no movement, no money spending–even for those women who identified as queer in lucrative Silicon Valley jobs. She wondered: could someone or something change that? Could she change that?
Finding a Purpose, and an Audience
Pittsford grew up in a conservative military family in San Diego, and in the early 2000s was living in San Francisco with her brother. As adults, they still struggled with having been taught as kids that all gay people were going to hell. With support from her brother, and working for a pro-LGBTQ human rights organization, Pittsford became more comfortable with her sexuality. Then, one Tuesday morning in 2010 she arrived home to discover that her brother–the only supportive person in her life–had died in his sleep of cardiomyopathy. “My heart was just broken,” she says. “It gave me a sense that I should take risks, give back and do something larger than myself.”
Pittsford’s grief was heavy that year, in which she left her comfortable job doing policy work at Equity California. “I was close to [starting my own venture], but that moment really sped it up for me,” she said. She started working independently, doing data work, and building websites and tools for other businesses.
In the evenings, she subverted her introversion and began networking, and throwing small happy hours for queer women. In 2014 she decided to host what she dubbed a “Summit” for her burgeoning organization, Lesbians Who Tech. It was to be part networking with like-minded people, part technology conference, and part social-justice rally. “I thought it wouldn’t work,” she said. “Because lesbians never show up, they never go out.”
Megan Smith, a vice president at Google who would soon be tapped to be the chief technology officer of the United States by President Barack Obama, walked in the door at 7 a.m. Next, Smith’s then-partner Kara Swisher walked in. Eight hundred people bought tickets–and a few big companies sponsored it. Pittsford was floored: “It was the first time I thought it could be a real thing.”
Over the past six years, the conferences have gained a cult following among queer technologists and executives. LaFawn Davis, the head of inclusion and culture at Twilio, has attended multiple LWT conferences, and adores them so much she jokes they are “lesbian Disneyland.” For her, the long weekends are a chance to immerse herself in a community that is still rare in the tech world. “I get to be surrounded by queer executives! Queer engineers! Imagine!” And over the years she’s also built a network and found job candidates through it.
The Lesbians Who Tech parent organization, though, is an unusual enterprise: it’s part 501(c)(3) and part LLC; a community organization that offers substantial coding scholarships to women, and a mission-driven media business that puts on conferences.
By 2017, Pittsford realized she needed to solve LWT’s messy structural issue. The organization would need real profits to grow, and to give its now-massive network significant value outside of the conferences. “I came from the nonprofit space, and it’s not the most scalable path,” she said.
Holding Tech Accountable
Aside from ticket sales, the conferences generated revenue through sponsors such as Google, Amazon, and Slack, who also would send speakers and attendees to the events. LWT became a natural recruiting tool for them–but it was totally informal. Once executives at these companies started asking Pittsford how they could improve their diversity hiring and retention and track it, she saw the future of her business before her eyes.
LWT could offer a hiring platform featuring its members, which the organization describes as mid-level and executive LGBTQ women, non-binary, and trans techies–many of whom are also people of color–as well as their allies. The platform could help companies track their ongoing progress in diversity hiring. Pittsford envisioned Include.io, which has 10,000 beta users, as a way to “scale access to direct referrals” from a different pool of talent than the existing employees at large tech companies.
“We are trying to find a way to get referrals to, say, the talented self-taught female programmer in New Orleans who might not know anyone in San Francisco,” Pittsford said.
“Things like unconscious bias training aren’t working,” she added. “You have to fight it every day–with intention–and this product lets companies do that.”
Include.io has been in beta since June of 2018, and Pittsford says 200 companies have signed up to use it once it’s live later this year. But she has some structural work to do before launch. The company’s Oakland office hasn’t attracted or retained enough tech talent itself to scale Include.io, so she’s setting up a development team in New York, hoping to add three to five more people to the scrappy staff of nine. She says San Francisco is the “Wild West of talent poaching,” where small organizations can’t compete for developers who can command salaries approaching $200,000.
“This has been the hardest year of my professional life,” she said. She’s running a mission-driven organization at the speed of a startup, trying to figure out how fast it can grow and scale without burning out her team–or herself.
Being part of the solution to tech’s diversity problem, however, is what keeps her going every day. Pittsford says she hopes once Include.io is out to the public, it will make executives more comfortable about their own abilities to recruit, hire, and maintain a diverse workforce.
“I still would love to see a CEO say, ‘we are going to be 30 percent black and Latinx by X year,'” she said. “We really feel like something has got to change. Something has got to give.”