Last year I was fueled to write an article about the challenges of being a new or expectant mother in a software startup after attending SaaStr Annual 2018.
At the time of the conference, I was 6 months pregnant and despite growing accustomed to being one of only a few females in the sales team I was overwhelmed at how systemic the problem was when I arrived at the conference. As I went through the three-day conference the lack of diversity in software startups was magnified as I looked at the 15,000+ attendees and 250+ speaker lineup. Rather than leaving energized and inspired, I left feeling dejected and lonely as an expectant mother looking to grow her career as a sales leader.
Fast forward to SaaStr Annual 2019 there was a noticeable and impressive change in just one short year. Clearly, SaaStr had taken to heart the conference feedback about a lack of diversity and recognized their responsibility and opportunity to start building a more diverse and inclusive software startup community. I’ve recapped the four key things I observed that SaaStr got right to set the bar for other organizations and events.
Diversity & Inclusion Seat Program
Last year SaaStr announced that they would be giving away 1,000 SaaStr Annual seats to members of minority groups who would be selected through an application process. This in itself is great but it went to a new level when I connected with two different female entrepreneurs who had been given one of those seats and wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend. Not only were these female entrepreneurs who could benefit from the exposure and networking at the event but they both had platforms that were built to enable diversity and inclusion initiatives within companies. The first woman I met was Shirin, an MBA student at UCLA and founder of Evalueme.ai whose platform is designed to call out bias in performance reviews. The second woman I met was Nancy Roberts, Founder and CEO of Umbrella Analytics, a platform that provides HR professionals with actionable insights based on their employee feedback, branding materials, and more to build dashboards to show how the company is doing against industry best and their competition. Both technologies help eliminate subjective viewpoints while providing factual data and guardrails for employers. These women are doing remarkable things and because of the D&I Seat Program they are getting exposure to other companies, leaders, and VCs to help power the meaningful work they are doing to create a more equitable workplace.
Invested In Creating A Balance Of Male And Female Experts
Did you know 51% of the population is female? SaaStr took it one step further with 52% of the speakers this year being female. These women weren’t just in common roles you traditional see female leaders but instead their titles ranged from VP of Sales, VP of Product, Chief Customer Officer, CEO, Founder, and more. This likely wasn’t done without some extra work to find these exceptional women. One thing I’ve learned in running #GirlsClub and my personal experience, women have room for growth when it comes to advocating for ourselves. As a sales leader, I believed that if I worked hard, got results, and took care of my people then the results and morale would speak for itself. The truth is that’s just not the way the world works. But with organizations like #GirlsClub, Girls In Tech, and Women Talk Tech women are getting coaching on how to advocate for themselves as well as their teams and I believe more and more women will be out in front and accessible to share their expertise. In the short term, conferences and companies may have to dig a little harder to find incredible females to speak as subject matter experts but it’s a worthy pursuit.
Facilitated Women and Allies Networking Events
There were two separate events promoted by SaaStr to encourage women and allies (men who advocate for women) to attend. The first was a luncheon sponsored by Greenhouse where SaaStr COO & Co-Founder Mallun Yen hosted an intimate Q&A session with Sallie Crawcheck, a wall street female powerhouse who is now Founder and CEO of Ellevest, a financial investment platform for women. Sallie provided inspiring stories of her career and emphasized the importance of women (and allies) coming together to support one another because that is ultimately how we can make a difference. The second event was a slightly more casual happy hour hosted by Work-Bench and Unusual Ventures, who are both venture firms passionate about supporting female entrepreneurs, where women and allies could come to meet one another and connect. Both events were promoted through SaaStr’s application, registration was included in their daily emails, and it was great to see these type of offerings promoted as part of the conference agenda.
Offered Multiple Diversity and Inclusion Sessions
SaaStr is focused on helping “everyone get from $0 to $100m ARR with less stress and more success”. For the last 4 years, the conference has focused on the majority of priorities for a software company. Things like getting funded, customer success strategy, marketing optimization, sales strategies, how do you become the next rocketship, you get the picture. This year at SaaStr Annual there was an acknowledgment of change that’s been brewing for years now as more and more companies have implemented diversity and inclusion positions within their company. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are becoming table stakes for startups and Molly Ford, Sr. Director, Global Equality Programs at SalesForce summed it up best when she said during her talk to “Start early, start soon” on diversity and inclusion initiatives. The larger you get, the harder it becomes to solve for the problem. Sessions ranged from fireside chats to fishbowl style panels to provide insights and actionable steps founders and startup leaders can take to instill a diverse future for their startup.
SaaStr Annual 2019 was a great step in the right direction. There is still work to be done but this event has helped provide an aspirational example for companies and events to use as a role model for future events. If this much can change in a year I can’t wait to see what it will be like in 2020.