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Industry leaders see lessons, hope after Chicago Techweek gaffe

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Updated: July 9, 2014 6:20AM



Will the Chicago technology community become a national model for encouraging a progressive role for women in the male-dominated field? Perhaps.

Big shots in the community reacted with swift outrage this week over what they deemed a sexist and demeaning promotion for a Techweek Chicago charity event called Black Tie Rave. The emailed invitation featured photos of two women in top hats and form-fitting outfits blowing air kisses, and this controversy occurred after organizers were blasted in the fall for featuring models in bikinis at a Techweek event.

Since the most recent uproar, Chicago event organizers have apologized, held a round-table discussion and canceled the rave. Future conversations about reaching out to women and minorities, who are underrepresented in the field, are scheduled.

Tech author Vivek Wadhwa, known for chronicling the disillusioning immigrant experience in Silicon Valley, told the Sun-Times he was “surprised and delighted” by the reaction.

“The tech industry has had this sexist, often racist culture in which frat-boy (behavior) has been widely accepted,” said Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School.

“This shows how much things have changed,” Wadhwa said. “We have to keep up the pressure, to let it be known we will not tolerate any more . . . ridiculous behavior.”

Noteworthy Chicago tech leaders who publicized their requests to be taken off Techweek’s list of 100 influencers included Paul Lee, a partner at venture fund Lightbank, Google Chicago’s engineering manager Brian Fitzpatrick and Harper Reed, formerly chief technology officer of President Obama’s campaign and now co-founder of retail e-commerce startup Modest.

Dan Sinker, director of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, said he immediately tweeted a screen-grab of the Techweek Chicago invitation because “it looks like an ad for a city strip club” and doesn’t reflect the values of himself or colleagues in the local tech community.

“There is a struggle happening throughout the tech sector everywhere,” he said.

Tiffany Farriss, president, and George DeMet, founder and CEO, of Palantir.net, refuse to speak at events that don’t have a code of conduct. Techweek Chicago had a code of conduct before controversies about its events.

Farriss said she intends to speak at Techweek Chicago, as planned, about creating a “human”-centered organization and company policies that increase diversity, and she is satisfied that organizers “have made a clear and honest commitment that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”

But Techweek’s initial apology left many less than impressed. Iain Shovlin, the group’s chairman, issued a statement saying, “we sincerely apologize if this event or imagery is offensive to you.”

Shovlin later sent a message to members of the Techweek 100 admitting “a serious error in judgment” in choosing the photo.

Yet the leader of Ms. Tech, an influential women’s business networking group, said she wasn’t briefed after Wednesday’s round-table despite Techweek organizers telling her she and her organization would be involved in the next action steps. As a result, Ms. Tech announced Friday that it will host an hourlong forum at 6:30 p.m. June 23 to discuss the “bigger issues” facing the community.

Techweek is hosting another roundtable at 7 p.m. Tuesday at its offices at 222 W. Hubbard.

Meanwhile, more so-called unconferences and anti-trade shows are emerging.

Stephen Saunders, CEO and founder of Light Reading, on June 17-18 will debut the “anti-trade show” Big Telecom Event, where booths will be replaced with company demonstrations and expert talks.

“It makes sense for everyone to reconsider how they approach the ‘live event’ model because everything around it — social media, the Internet — has changed,” said Saunders, who called the Techweek Chicago invitation “a horrendous misstep.”

Email: sguy@suntimes.com

Twitter: @sandraguy



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