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Lesbian Techies Energize SF

by Heather Cassell
Sunday Mar 9, 2014
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There was much excitement after National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, second from left, turned a contest for $5,000 for one of five nonprofits into a flash fundraiser that raised $30,000 to be shared among the groups. Kendell was joined by Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford, left, Astraea Executive Director J. Bob Alotta, and Code 2040 Executive Director Laura Weidman
There was much excitement after National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, second from left, turned a contest for $5,000 for one of five nonprofits into a flash fundraiser that raised $30,000 to be shared among the groups. Kendell was joined by Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford, left, Astraea Executive Director J. Bob Alotta, and Code 2040 Executive Director Laura Weidman  (Source:Jane Philomen Cleland)

Nearly 800 digital dykes and their friends geeked out and were ready to revolutionize the tech industry at the first-ever Lesbians Who Tech Summit at the Castro Theatre.

The energetic conference brought together trailblazing lesbian technology leaders and a new generation of queer women from around the U.S. and abroad.

"It’s the sexiest job there is," said Alice Reeve, a 29-year-old queer woman who recently entered the tech industry after a series of sales jobs.

More than 35 industry leaders representing companies like Google, Facebook, Indiegogo, Pixar, and Golden Seeds were at the February 28 summit.

The women made clear that there wasn’t a singular path or magical formula - in spite of being in the math and engineering fields - to pursuing a career in technology.

Over and over again the speakers encouraged attendees to reach for the stars, not to be afraid of failure, and to be authentic about who they are and tell their story.

Sara Sperling, who built the diversity and inclusion program at Facebook, cheered the crowd on to say "yes" and "fail gloriously" in order to open themselves up to opportunities in life and work.

Sperling told the audience that she knew instinctively, "I was going to have to take gigs that fed my soul or I was going to need a ton and ton of therapy," as the audience laughed.

Her inspirational speech was contrasted by Kathy Levinson, former chief operating officer of E-Trade, and Lisa Sherman, former managing director of Logo, the Viacom-owned LGBT cable channel, who shared their experiences of learning how to come out without committing career suicide.

"I just feel really blessed to come out as my career kicked off in my early 20s," said Erica Anderson, a 29-year-old lesbian who’s now at Twitter after stints with Katie Couric at CBS, MTV, and other networks. "That has nothing to do with me, but more kind of time and place and what was happening with acceptance."

Anderson was most impressed by Sherman learning about what it was like to work in the closet and come out during a not-so-accepting time.

At Twitter, Anderson connects journalists with tools to help them while out in the field as product marketing, pro users of Twitter. She also helped kickoff Twitter Open, the company’s LGBT employee resource group.

Queer women living and working openly and thriving was truly inspiring to attendees who chatted excitedly at the after-party at the Cafe.

"The ambition coming out of these women talking today, just the sheer ambition to be who they are and to succeed shook me a little," said Reeve. "That’s what I was hoping to get out of it, so it was a good experience."

Reeve changed her tune toward the tech industry, dazzled by the "great pursuit of money" and the "sheer ambition and innovation" the industry symbolizes, she told the Bay Area Reporter at the after-party.

She feels for the conflict between longtime San Francisco residents and the insurgence of techies, particularly from Google and Facebook. The tech giants often use buses to transport their San Francisco employees down the Peninsula’s artery, Highway 101, to sprawling campuses in Mountain View and Palo Alto, unlike Twitter and Yelp that are based in San Francisco.

Google Streets

The influx of urban techies has been heating up, reminding longtime residents of the dot-com boom of the 1990s as an uptick in evictions and high rent once again dominate the political landscape.

"I wouldn’t say [it’s] a bad word, but like so many other designations of a group it can get a bad stigma," said Reeve, referring to "techie." "I think that people see the money and there is envy there, see the growth and feel left behind, people can just feel a lot of things."

At the same time, Reeve isn’t opposed to progress that comes with the tech industry. She’s just not happy with the bumpy road to balance as she brushes away the fumes spewed into her face from the employee buses that traverse the Castro, where she lives.

"The fact that there is not a high speed train between the Peninsula and San Francisco is just retarded," said Reeve.

She’s not alone. Leanne Pittsford, a 32-year-old bicoastal lesbian who founded Lesbians Who Tech, the organization that hosted the summit, agreed.

"It’s very tough," said Pittsford. "It’s a very multifaceted in terms of the conversation, obviously."

There are two conversations happening around housing and transportation.

Pittsford’s fiancee and business partner, Leah Neaderthal, said that she always had a difficult time finding a place in the city that was affordable and would allow their two dogs. But in a single year since they relocated to San Francisco they saw rent for an apartment similar to their old one jump by $800 and cameras put up around their old building where two of their former neighbors were evicted, she said.

Pittsford, who also is the CEO and founder of Start Somewhere Communications, splits her time between the couple’s apartments in the West Village in New York, and the Mission district in San Francisco.

With the hike in rents Pittsford noted, "We’ve definitely lost some of our diversity," pointing to the money "flowing in the technology world right now."

Pittsford loves technology, but at the same times she’s a social justice advocate who hopes a balance can be struck.

In December 2012, the former Equality California senior director launched Lesbians Who Tech as a monthly happy hour for queer women in tech in San Francisco that exploded from 30 attendees to up to 200. The gathering spread to 12 other cities across the U.S. and three international cities. Lesbians Who Tech now has a list of 3,500 subscribers, she said.

Pittsford pointed out that "people in technology believe they can solve the world’s problems and that they are building something to help everyone."

Megan Smith, 49, a vice president of Google and a former executive at the now-defunct Planet out, also talked about balance.

"You don’t want to change your city or destroy the culture of our city, so part of our job is to collaborate together to do extraordinary things to keep the astonishing city that we have in the way that we have it," said Smith, talking about ideas from U.C. Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti’s book, The Geography of Jobs .

"We need to work really collaboratively to get incredibly creative about how to solve," the transportation issue, continued Smith, who drives her partner, Kara Swisher, and her two boys to school before heading down to Mountain View every morning.

Swisher, who is founder and co-executive editor of recode.net, spoke at the summit about journalists marrying entrepreneurialism with their journalistic training and technology in the new media world.

Smith pointed out that with each technology or bioscience job five other jobs are created.

"It’s [an] amazing economic engine for us to pay taxes and fund our schools," said Smith, stating that urban and transportation planners, politicians, tech industry leaders, and communities can collaborate to solve San Francisco’s modern problems.

"Let’s get really smart about the community we want to be in and evolve together and design together," she said.

At around the same time as the summit, Google announced it would provide $6.8 million to the city to provide two years of Muni passes to San Francisco youth.

Pittsford put her beliefs into action at the summit by bringing technology and social justice together with a panel discussion about how LGBT nonprofits are using the digital revolution to revolutionize the world.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, hijacked the fundraising portion of the panel discussion, "Social Good Pitches," moderated by Courtney Cuff, CEO of the Gill Foundation. Kendell not only got each of the five organizations on the panel to receive $1,000 each of the $5,000 donation that was on the table but started a donation bid ending with Smith plopping down $25,000. Together, Kendell and Smith challenged everyone in the room to match the donation to be shared among the organizations to great applause and cheers.

The business pitches weren’t as lively as four seedling tech companies competed for $2,500. In a Shark Tank-type of presentation Dattch, a lesbian dating app based in England, but which launched in San Francisco the day of the summit, won the prize for being the most innovative tech pitch.

The other companies competing included Oakland-based HellaRides, a rideshare app; Section II, a queer-movie-on-demand program; and YadaZing, English as a Second Language learning software.


For more information on Lesbian Who Tech, visit http://lesbianswhotech.org

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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