[This article ran originally on the Harvard Business Review site, January 20, 2013.]
Many business conferences are notable not only for the prominent people on stage, but also for those who are missing. For instance, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland this week, fewer than 18% of the speakers are women. Women’s under-representation at such events gets a lot of attention, but people of color are also relatively rare on conference stages. For conference hosts, however, past performance need not be an indicator of future results.
Since 2012, I’ve co-hosted The Lean Startup Conference with Eric Ries. Eric ran the event with another host for two years before that, and the speakers they drew, though good presenters, were almost all white men. When I began co-hosting, we put an emphasis on finding high-quality speakers who better represented the business world. In 2012 and 2013, not only did our speaker rosters comprise more than 50% women and people of color, but the number of conference attendees doubled each year.
We use the same methods all conferences use to find speakers: We invite people we know or know of, and we have an open call for proposals. But because those processes reliably over-represent white male candidates, we approach them differently than most conference hosts. Below are nine key steps we’ve taken to reduce bias in our selection cycle, convince people we’re serious and thus draw a more diverse group of outstanding speakers. Our conference in December 2013 had roughly 43% as many speakers as Davos does this month, but these ideas apply to events of any size. They also apply to almost any gated decision with a pipeline of applicants, including hiring, venture capital funding, school admissions, and awards.
1. As a leader, commit yourself to improving your selection process. Studies show that bringing in decision-makers from under-represented groups will help your organization attract more similar people. While doing so will likely improve your team and undoubtedly sends a positive signal, it’s not a magic bullet. First, people from under-represented groups can have professional networks like yours and the same selection biases you do. Second, if you make it the job of the under-represented person to draw in others like them, you’ll ensure that person’s priorities for choosing candidates are different than yours—thus inviting conflict and likely marginalizing their work.
The top leaders of your event, regardless of their own identities, need to share a commitment to changing your systems. By way of example, Eric and I are both white, and we have successfully drawn dozens of people of color to give excellent talks at our conferences.
2. Be deeply transparent. Of course, you need to have a sentence saying that you welcome people from groups under-represented in your community. But that statement will do nothing to surface good speaking candidates. Because people can either see that you have a record of excluding speakers like them or will assume, if your event is new, that it will behave like most others, they’ll logically decide not to apply—and a single sentence is not going to convince them otherwise.
Go much further than the sentence, writing in depth about how you’ve contributed to the problem in the past (or if your event is new, showing your understanding of how imbalances arise), and concrete things you’re doing to make change.
3. Look beyond the usual suspects. And tell people that’s what you’re doing. Many potential candidates assume that they have to either know you personally or be on the speaking circuit for you to pick them. If they’re right, you’re simply tapping the existing pool of speakers, and you’re missing opportunities to introduce fresh perspectives to your event.
Most conferences need at least a few marquee names to spark attendee registration. But as a curator, you can provide unique value by finding sharp people that everyone doesn’t already know. To attract those candidates, advertise that you’re seeking new voices and use thoughtful language.
For instance, if you say that you’re looking for people with “advice and expertise to share” rather than “experts,” you avoid suggesting that you’re interested only in people already recognized in the field. (Anecdotally, women are less likely than men to refer to themselves as experts, so as a bonus, you also avoid accidentally excluding them.)
4. Offer speaker training. If you’re trying to attract new speakers, you may well need to provide guidance to help them perform at the level your attendees expect. Even just offering it can draw proposals from strong candidates who are new to public speaking and can prompt managers to encourage promising stars to apply. For efficiency, you can deliver the actual training online and in groups. You can also pair experienced speakers with beginners for coaching sessions.
5. Request help. Once you have a call for proposals with a strong public statement about your process, you can point to it and ask other people to help you find great candidates. Indeed, simply asking people to recommend speakers from under-represented groups often turns up surprising candidates—including people your connectors wouldn’t have thought to mention if you hadn’t made a specific request. In addition, you can ask professional associations that have networks unlike yours to circulate your unusual call for proposals among their members. If your conference includes panels, require that panel organizers include at least one and preferably two people from your under-represented groups.
6. Approach individual people in your under-represented groups. Developing relationships with candidates is a long game, but it’s important, particularly because people who haven’t envisioned themselves at your event may realize they’re a fit only if you brainstorm talk ideas together. Be systematic and, for instance, every quarter, approach two people you want to get to know better and invite them for coffee.
7. Have a farm system. Hold more casual events where you can try out speakers you don’t already know and work with them to develop content and style appropriate for your audience. TEDx events have served this purpose for the flagship TED conference.
8. Save slots — as many as half — for people you find later in the process. The old ways of finding candidates generate good speakers more quickly than the new ways—but, as I noted above, the traditional methods will lead you to traditional candidates. So you have to sequence your decision-making, or you’ll inadvertently recreate the status quo.
One pitfall to avoid is announcing an initial, homogeneous list of speakers. Such an announcement can lead historically under-represented candidates to reasonably question your commitment to giving them fair review and prompt them to steer clear. Convincing people you’re committed is critical; don’t undermine yourself by asking them to trust you despite the evidence.
9. Take chances. Often speakers from under-represented groups don’t behave quite like the established pros you’re used to. They may seem less confident, which you interpret as less authoritative. Or they may use language differently, which you interpret as less professional. In those cases, your gut will often tell you they aren’t a fit for your event. Override your gut. Provide training and set them up to succeed.
After you’ve had a conference with a more diverse lineup of strong speakers, not only will you find it easier to repeat that success, you’ll also be in a better position to expand your attendee base. At Davos this year, just 15% of the participants are women. We can and should do better. Starting with your next event.