How to Crash an All Men Panel

There was a cool story recently about how a man gave up his seat on a panel to a woman and encouraged more men to do the same. But, what if no one offers you a seat?

A few days ago at Shift Conference in Split, Croatia, I was invited to judge one session during the Startup Challenge competition, an international startup competition spanning four sessions over two days with four judges per session.

Yeah, it was awesome.

I got to judge the first session with the awesome Amy Cosper @Entrepreneur, Mike Butcher @TechCrunch, and Nick Grossman @Union Square Ventures.

Session 1

Amy judged during the second session.

Session 2

I noticed there weren’t any female judges the next day (I was surprised they didn’t ask Theresa @Codestarterorg, a speaker on the 2nd day) but I decided not to say anything. Amy and I had judged already, I conceded.

On the second day, however, a male founder on stage made a joke about how data centers were like women.

“They are powerful… and, like women, very expensive…” he joked,

earning a large laugh from the audience and an audible groan from me, and a few others. I wondered if he would have made the same joke if Amy, Theresa, or I had been sitting there, glaring.

Session 3

Then, in the hall, a woman asked me if I was going to judge the fourth session. I replied that I was not. It was a pleasant surprise to see quite a few women pitch during this competition, and I regretted not saying something the day before. I looked on the schedule, and I noticed that only three people were judging the last session:

Fueled by hyper-energy jetlag, I decided instantly to grab my bag and walk backstage. I mingled a bit with Qasar @YC, Aaron @Venrock, and Marcus @Zynga. Smiling through my nerves, I asked if I could take the fourth judging slot. Allan Grant, founder of Hired, had already been asked, I learned.

I considered taking my seat again, but instead, walked over to Allan, leaned over, and whispered, “Mind if I take your spot?” Without hesitation, he agreed.

That was it. Shortly after, I walked on stage.

Session 4

I felt a little uncomfortable walking backstage and inserting myself without an invite, but I’m glad I did. I’m a good judge. I enjoy panels. It would have felt silly to watch this panel from the audience knowing I could have done it.

A few women came up to me during the afterparty and thanked me. They had also seen the empty slot on the schedule and figured I had been asked to join. When I laughed and told them about how I walked backstage and volunteered myself, they were surprised, paused, then said, “Why not?” That’s why I decided to share this story, so that more people will ask themselves, “Why not?” I have struggled with being seen and being heard, and have finally learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I’m really proud to be part of a team at 500 Startups that regularly holds panels that don’t look like others, like our “Black is the New Black” VC panel at PreMoney this year.

At this year’s retreat, I suggested we formally institute a policy not only to aim for 50/50 on our panels, but require at least one woman on all 500-sponsored panels. I got unanimous support from Dave, Christine, and the team, since this is something 500 has been doing for years.

If you see an all-male or all-white or all-anything panel and have the qualifications to contribute, don’t wait for someone to offer you a seat.
Just ask.