Female speakers at Nebraska Code Camp

I try not to get caught up in internet flame wars, regardless of which side of the topic I happen to land on. However, I do find the whole “Why are there no female speakers at Nebraska Code Camp” to be an interesting lesson in a bunch of things.

The short version is this: Nebraska Code Camp, a volunteer-run conference focusing on all things software development in Nebraska, made a call for speakers and then published the lineup: 48 men and 0 women. Subsequently a bit of a storm erupted on social media.

Today, Matthew Hansen at the Omaha World-Herald chimed in on the subject, and I thought I might add my thoughts as well. As someone who has organized a few events of all shapes and sizes, I feel like I have a unique perspective.

I’ve been in their situation

For many years at our flagship conference, Big Omaha, people would comment on the lack of female speakers. As everyone knows, the pool of available female entrepreneurs isn’t big to begin with. Add to it the fact that Big Omaha aims to have only the best presenters – those who are notable or have notable companies – and all of a sudden that pool is even smaller.

Eventually, someone pointed out to us that as an organizing group, we were just a bunch of white dudes. How could we be expected to select “strong female” speakers? For 6 years I ran Big Omaha, and will be the first to admit that in the first few years we didn’t give any thought to diversity. We were just a bunch of volunteer guys passionate about startups and tech. 

But I’m also the first to admit that at the top, we were wrong in our approach. In a field that is heavily weighted in one way, not prioritizing diversity yields a fairly predictable outcome.

We shifted our selection committee to include more women – some were employees and some were just members of the community. And we shifted our thinking to favor diversity in all forms. It’s not just white guys. It’s not just tech. It’s not just entrepreneurs. It’s a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

I’m incredibly proud to say that through a conscious effort on our part, Big Omaha 2014 is probably one of the most diverse lineups of speakers at a startup/tech event that you’ll see. And it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake. We know that difference in perspective that comes from a variety of backgrounds is what makes the conference unique, and what allows us to draw such an amazing crowd. It’s one of the reasons people walk away having such great experiences.

It’s 100% possible

I have long been one of the most vocal supporters of not only the Midwest startup community, but the Midwest tech community in general. We’re very grateful and supportive of all of the folks who are working to build and grow these communities, especially those who do it in a volunteer capacity. However, communities are strongest when they are vibrant and diverse. This is not an indictment of the organizers of the event – they’re working hard and making good progress. But as a community we should aim to be better, and strive to be an example of how a community *should* act and not how one *should not*.

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