Cheergate and the politics of diversity

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but those words are sometimes prone to misinterpretation. I run Wayra in the UK, which is a corporate accelerator backed by Telefonica, one of the world’s largest telcos. I am supported by a team of 11 people, with about 50% of my team being female, and staff members coming from Spain, Saudi Arabia, the US, Estonia, Israel, the US and the UK. We published the first-ever study on diversity in the UK, gathering data about the racial, gender, economic and sexual orientation make-up of the ecosystem, because I didn’t think that enough was really being done about diversity in tech anywhere in the world.

In this context, yesterday we celebrated our demoDay, which is kind of like a graduation ceremony for our existing cohort start-ups. It was a glorious event, but not everyone saw it that way.

Imagine my surprise when, soon after the demoDay ended, my Twitter and Facebook feeds suddenly started to shudder with messages claiming that I was either sexist or tone deaf to gender discrimination, because we’d had cheerleaders at our demoDay. I’d rather expected the coverage to be about the brilliance of our start-ups and what they’d accomplished over the last 10 months. Or perhaps about Martha Lane Fox’s brilliant talk about how gender diversity in the tech ecosystem really hasn’t evolved since her days with lastminute.com. Or even about the Q&A I did with Sol Campbell about how he passionately believes that, had it not been for football, he would still be stuck in an underprivileged neighborhood and that for many people from his background, entrepreneurship is not an option to which they have meaningful access, which is why we’re working together to see if we can open up an entrepreneurship hub in a disadvantaged community. Or maybe the story could have been about our announcement that we’re opening up our Greater Manchester innovation hub in collaboration with the Oldham Council to spread entrepreneurship beyond Central London. Or perhaps it could have even been about the fact that out of 20 start-ups chosen for our next cohort, 6 are led by female founders and 4 by black founders.

I can certainly understand how, taken out of context, a picture of cheerleaders at a tech event could tell a damning story. I’ve been to many events where women are brought in to entertain the male entrepreneurs, and I am not a fan. I am a black gay man that grew up in the Bronx after emigrating from Jamaica. I understand all too well the harms of various “-isms” and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. I truly apologize to anyone who might have been confused of my intentions upon seeing the photo of the cheerleaders. I can easily see how it might have been misinterpreted.

So what were we thinking with the cheerleaders? Well, every major Wayra that we host has a theme to make the event more entertaining and differentiated. When we did the first Pitch@Palace after-party, for example, the theme was “From the Palace to the Streets”, and we had graffiti portraits of the Duke of York done as well as break-dancers and a deejay. At our last demoDay, the theme was “Winter Wonderland” made up to look like a typical NY Christmas scene, and we had break-dancers and a singer there as well. It’s true that the themes always have something to do with the US, since I grew up in NY, and this year the theme was Thanksgiving. Many people asked me about the sweater that I was wearing with a big Y on it. I wore it, because I went to Yale and the weekend before Thanksgiving is the big Harvard-Yale football game. Playing upon that theme, our start-ups started the demoDay in a huddle and yelled “Go Wayra! Demoday!”, as if they were about to play a big game. We ordered a cake with a turkey on it to drive home the Thanksgiving theme, and decorated the Academy with US flags. Since 22 start-ups had to pitch, we divided them into 2 blocks, one before lunch and one after. And we treated the lunch break as the “half-time show”, kind of like what Beyonce did at the Super Bowl.

The “cheerleaders” were part of the half-time show. My sister was a cheerleader in junior high school, and I thought that was awesome. She’s now a doctor, and I don’t think she’s ever viewed her cheerleading days as somehow suspect. Inspired by the movie “Bring it On”, we got 6 dancers to perform dressed as cheerleaders. There were 4 female dancers and 2 male dancers. They coordinated their routines beforehand and decided that the women would do one routine and the men would do another. The men started the session, followed by the women. They then took a break and then each did another set. The whole thing lasted about 20–30 minutes. We had not specifically requested any wardrobe from the women or men. We simply told them the theme was American football/cheerleading and that they were supposed to dance as the half-time entertainment. We had no input as to their wardrobe other than to note that the men and the women needed to look coordinated and like cheerleaders. Someone took a picture of the women and uploaded it. The rest is history.

I can appreciate that without this context, it might look as if we had specifically intended to exploit and sexualize women at a male-dominated tech event. That could not be farther from the truth. The only thing that we wanted to exploit was the fact that it was the day before Thanksgiving and we wanted to recreate the mood in the US, which was, in my experience, usually tied in some way to family, giving thanks and football. The idea of a “big game” was also a nice metaphor for our demoDay. It should also be noted that throughout the day, we also had another female dancer dressed up in a long, flowing white gown that was more of an interpretative dancer and a female singer dressed up as a college student, again to go with the whole college theme. The “cheerleaders” were only 1 of 4 entertainment acts booked for the day, yet none of the others got quite so much social media attention.

The experience of being condemned without so much as an attempt to speak with me or think about who I am, what I believe in and what I’ve actually done to promote gender and racial diversity has convinced me that I will have to be more careful going forward, because, thanks to the Internet, people are quick to judge and personally attack people that they have never met based on one picture taken out of context. Things go viral before any attempt is made to clarify or understand. There’s only time to attack and retweet, and it all ends up feeling so personal.

What I’ve learned is that, perhaps, not everyone has the same cultural cues as me, and that might lead to needless misinterpretation. I’m not from the UK. I am a Jamaican-American who spent most of the last 14 years in Spain, so I’ll need to be more conscious of how my cultural references might not be fully shared. I didn’t appreciate, for example, that there is not the same culture of cheerleaders in the UK, though this is apparently changing, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. Unlike me, maybe a lot of Brits didn’t grow up with friends and family members who were cheerleaders and loved it.

I’ve also learned that many women have been treated so badly within the tech ecosystem that they are vigilant about calling out anything that might be interpreted as sexist, whether or not any sort of sexist intent was actually involved. And perhaps there needs to be more constructive dialogue out there and meaningful action so that we can actually foment social change. In this sense, I’ve hopeful that I can convince The Next Web to work with us to sponsor various events focused on figuring out impactful next steps to address gender discrimination in tech.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that there needs to be more civility in online conversations and less of a mob mentality. I’m not the first to experience this, and I’m sure that I won’t be the last. But a call for diversity should include a diversity of opinions and an atmosphere that fosters real conversations that allow for the sharing of ideas, experiences and points of view. Weighty topics like sexism, racism, classism and homophobism are probably not apt to be discussed via Twitter and Facebook, which are prone to misinterpretation and can alienate people who really are fighting for social justice. None of these issues are black and white, and solving them will undoubtedly require more than 140 characters and a pic.