Want to fix speaker lineups? Fix sponsored talks!

In 2010, we ran the first Startupfest conference in Montreal. We wanted to launch a different kind of event: Diverse, accessible, inclusive, and, well, fun. One of our constant goals has been to work towards ensuring that half of the people who took to our stages be women. And with the help of a fantastic network of female entrepreneurs and technologists, last year, with a lineup of more than 200 speakers across 8 different Startupfest stages and events, 46% of our speakers were women.

While we focus on women, we know we can be even more inclusive. We’ve had great partners like the BDC and Intuit who’ve helped us create inclusion initiatives, offering free access to thousands of minorities, indigenous entrepreneurs, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups who were able to participate and grow their businesses. It’s been amazing to see the change.

In the near-decade since we started running these events, much has changed in both conferences and society. The #metoo movement has, among other things, led to the widespread recognition that all-male panels and galleries of men are unacceptable.

Having women on stage gives women in the audience power. It shows them that they, too, can build amazing things. As one attendee at an event we ran told us privately, “this actually gives me so much relief that it’s mostly female. It makes me think I can do it, and that I’m likely to make good connections.”

The dirty secret

At Startupfest, we’ve never had sponsored talks. And our speaker ratio is close to 50%. But we don’t just run Startupfest. Some of our events, such as FWD50, feature sponsored speakers. This is common at many conferences: Sponsors pay to take the stage and build their thought leadership.

In these events, the organizers control the editorial content — invited speakers, chosen proposals, and so on — but sponsored talks are a different matter entirely. Sponsors seldom work on making their speakers diverse the way event organizers do. It’s something conference organizers don’t talk about widely, partly because it jeopardizes future revenues. But it has a huge impact on on-stage diversity.

Don’t get me wrong: Sponsors are an integral part of conferences. In many cases, they’re the only reason events exist. They help to pay for the venue, the team, speaker travel, and more. Many events would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. And in many cases, sponsors have useful, informative content to share with participants.

But when the sponsor pays to speak, the sponsor decides who gives a talk and what the content will be. We work closely with them to try and ensure good-quality content, and remind them often of the need to bring a diverse speaking lineup. And sometimes, they listen. But sponsors want to put senior executives on stage — and given the lack of diversity that still plagues modern boardrooms, this undermines the work organizers do elsewhere.

Take FWD50, a conference we recently ran in Ottawa. For that event, invited speakers — those we chose — were 48% female. But the speakers put forward by the sponsors were only 19% female, even though we continuously asked for them to work with us in ensuring diversity across our stages. When I did an (admittedly unscientific) analysis of other major conferences around the world, I found that this difference in ratios is consistent across most conferences with paid sponsored talks (and grounds for some proper research someday!)

So what can we do?

When speaking to sponsors, we already always ask that they help us reflect the diversity we want to see in the industry, and look for speakers from all backgrounds and walks of life, understanding that those backgrounds make conversation and insight more varied and less of an echo chamber. It’s in the content guidelines we deliver to sponsors’ marketing teams.

We recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. Consider how we’re tackling climate change: We set targets, and then set steps that get us towards those targets gradually — carbon credits, electric vehicles, greenhouse gas limits, and so on.

We’ve thought long and hard about this, over several years. We’re considering a similar approach to helping sponsors achieve the diversity we need to see on stage. Here’s what that might look like.

Year one: Your second speaker

Many sponsors have more than one speaker at an event. In some cases, it’s a panel discussion; in others, there’s a keynote talk and a breakout. So when a sponsor supplies more than one speaker, we can require that half of their total speakers are female as a condition of their sponsorship.

It’s important to point out that we definitely recognize diversity takes many forms, and the work we put in on that front is reflected in the speaker lineups we present. At the same time, since half of all humans are women, we’re focusing on women to begin with. That’s the *first* battle we’re choosing. So if a sponsor proposes speakers who are part of other under-represented groups on stage, we’ll eagerly accept those as well.

Year two: Incentives

In the second year of this policy, in addition to our second-speaker rule, we’re going to offer incentives to sponsors who put their speaker diversity front and center. So we’ll offer specific benefits for every sponsor who helps us: Free passes for partners; access to invite-only events; and subsidized tickets for deserving groups in the sponsors’ names.

We haven’t figured out all of the details yet — we’re going to talk to sponsors and see what they’ll find valuable enough to work harder on a lineup we can all be proud of.

Year three: Charging a fee and donating it to charity

By the third year, we’re going to charge sponsors a fee — proportional to their level of sponsorship — when they don’t provide 50% female speakers, which we’ll then donate to an organization that helps diversity in the field related to the conference. We’ll announce this organization, and the money raised through donations, and let sponsors deduct it as a charitable donation. And we’ll waive that fee when the speakers that the sponsor provides are, at minimum, 50% female—we hope that in the case of a single male speaker, the sponsor will join us in raising money for a great cause, too.

We hope this won’t just change the stage, but the boardroom: Once companies know they need senior female executives on stage, we hope that’ll change who they consider for those executive positions. They’ll look harder for the best talent. And we hope other conferences, around the world, will join us in clearly laying out the steps they’re taking to shift the ratio for sponsored talks in the coming years.

We look forward to a time when the stage — and industry — reflect the progressive society in which we’re fortunate enough to live. But that won’t happen by itself. We hope that with contractual policies like these, we can encourage our partners to make this change happen sooner.

What do you think? What’s good or risky about this policy? How could we improve it? What other tactics might work? We’re committed to taking a stance on this and would love your thoughts and feedback — our plan is to try out these three incentives in 2019. We’re a small team and can quickly put these sort of initiatives in place without going through the levels of approval larger organizations might face.

For those of you in the business of running conferences: Are you willing to join us in taking steps like these for the events you run?