During the customary pitch session at a recent tech conference in San Francisco, five nonprofit companies were competing for a $5,000 prize. Before a winner was chosen, Kate Kendell stood up and said that everyone in the audience should contribute to each of them. Someone else from the crowd popped up and offered to contribute $2,000. Then Google X Vice President Megan Smith ran from her seat up to the stage, grabbed the mic, and said she would give $5,000 to each company if everyone in the audience agreed to give something every year, too. The crowd roared.
This wasn’t your standard tech conference: It was the first-ever Lesbians Who Tech Summit.
Organized by entrepreneur Leanne Pittsford, whose casual lesbian/tech meetups have grown in popularity, the conference brought 800 women-who-like-women to the city’s Castro neighborhood, making it one of the largest indoor gatherings of lesbians to happen in San Francisco all year (perhaps the largest, aside from Pride week). Pittsford argued there was a need for visibility and support within a community that is a subjugated subculture.
After the panels at the Castro Theatre on Friday, there was a golf day Saturday (yes, lesbians love golf) and an all-day brunch on Sunday. The event — which brought eco-commune-dwelling programmers together with stiletto-wearing execs, and included pre-parties at local gay bars — both playfully confirmed and challenged lesbian stereotypes.
“It reminds me of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. All those women playing music together, the camaraderie,” said Amy Lozano, a senior program manager for a company called MindJet. “And now all these women doing great tech together.”
During her talk, Megan Smith argued that gay people have been an integral part of the history of technology since its inception. (Disclosure: Smith is married to Re/code co-editor Kara Swisher, who also spoke at the event.) Pioneering gay-interest websites like PlanetOut, of which Smith was CEO, and various gay dating sites, initiated wildly influential tech advances — gay people used the Internet to network and find each other early on. But as a male-dominant culture has risen along with the tech boom, the contributions of women, minorities and queer people have largely been left out. On the theater’s screen, Smith showed pictures of Apple’s early years, where women were visible throughout; in the movie version of Steve Jobs’s life, those female characters disappeared. The point of events like Lesbians Who Tech — and the reason these 800 women attended — is to establish visibility.
It was also just a lot of fun: Many attendees weren’t involved in tech at all. Among some of them, the conference earned the nickname “Lesbians Who Lesbian.”
“I don’t know anything about tech. I just got an Instagram account yesterday, but I care deeply about lesbian culture,” said Kendell, who is executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “I want to be where the lesbians are. To be at an event in my town, to have all these lesbians together and know only 20 percent of the lesbians? I’m completely entranced.”
On Friday, an investor panel talked about how risk-averse venture capitalists tend to be — and how investors choose entrepreneurs who look like them.
“A lot of it is about pattern recognition. An investor sees himself as a young man — the fraternities and the final clubs have paid off for them,” said Ali Rosenthal, executive in residence at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners. “As lesbians, you might have to work a little harder. And push on your own network.”
Another round of startups took to the stage to start pitching. After a “Netflix for Lesbians” pitch, it was time to hear about dating app Dattch, a.k.a. “Pinterest meets Tinder for Lesbians.”
Founder Robyn Exton said Dattch wouldn’t be like apps like Grindr and Tinder because women don’t always need to find someone available within minutes. The dating app, which launched last Friday, mimics the hot-or-not Tinder swipe, but makes it a game of “would you rather” (“go hang-gliding” or “go out with this girl”). Each profile looks more like a Pin board. And when you start dating someone, there’s a “girlfriend mode.”
Someone from the audience shouted, “Thank you.”
One of the judges, Jordan Crook, a TechCrunch startup reporter, said she would be channeling some of Rosenthal’s advice about the efficacy of boy’s-club networks.
“Normally when I get pitched, I give people my email address, but you know what?” Crook shouted to the audience. “In the spirit of lesbian networking, I’m going to give you all my cell number.”