When Maureen Erokwu found out there was a summit called Lesbians Who Tech in San Francisco, she knew she had to find a way to attend.
About two years prior, she had founded Map Mersion as part of Google Street View Maps team. She was successful, but as a woman of color, she often felt lonely in the tech industry.
So the fact that there was an organization that tapped into her gender and racial identity, as well as her sexual identity as a queer woman — well, that was all the information she needed.
Erokwu had no expectations when she arrived at the summit, which drew more than 1,200 women. What she found surprised and inspired her. The women, both those who attended and who spoke on stage, were leaders in their fields. There was a camaraderie that was unparalleled to anything she had ever witnessed.
“That moment was when I knew that this is where I needed to be,” she said. “My relationship with these folks needed to continue…It felt okay to be who you were, and that’s what mattered.”
She was determined to meet the woman who had put the event on, and that day, she did. She introduced herself to Leanne Pittsford, who started Lesbians Who Tech in 2012. The for-profit company is a community of 10,000 LGBTQ women worldwide, with chapters in 25 cities.
Each chapter hosts happy hours where LGBTQ women who work in tech have a chance to network in a comfortable atmosphere. Lesbians Who Tech also hosts summits; its second annual San Francisco summit was in March, and later this year it will host a European one in Berlin and an East Coast US one in New York.
In June, Lesbians Who Tech was awarded a $165,000 grant from the Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation, starting a nonprofit arm of Lesbians Who Tech.
The grant money will be used for two pilot programs. One is “Bring a Lesbian To Work Day,” where participants are matched with mentors in the tech field for a one-day on-site program focused on showing them what it takes to be leaders in whatever field they’re interested in.
“It’s supposed to be funny,” Pittsford said. “A lot of people are like, should I laugh, is that offensive? We’re trying to make it accessible.”
That lightheartedness is key for her, as she wants to use this program and others to build relationships. And relationships are built easier when people are more comfortable.
“We are in the business of building solid relationships because that’s how people get the most value out of our community,” she added. “In Silicon Valley, it’s hard to get into those worlds, so we can start bridging the gap one by one, matching people up. Over time, that will make a big difference.”
The second part of the nonprofit grant is a coding scholarship fund, which will subsidize tuition for women who need financial assistance to attend coding academies. Though it’s not clear how many people the money will be able to fund, Pittsford hopes to partner with schools, organizations, and classes to figure out the best places for women to learn.
Now that she has for-profit and nonprofit sides to Lesbians Who Tech, Pittsford wants to create educational programs to provide more value not only to the LGBTQ community, but the tech community as a whole.
Pittsford spent years working for gay rights organizations, and one of her key learnings was the importance of economic power. She saw that the biggest donors, those who had power and influence and gave a lot more money, were mostly men. She thought that if she could build a business, and give back financially, that’s what she should shoot for.
She also saw that most LGBT events were 80 to 90% male. When she moved into the tech industry by starting her own digital consulting agency, she saw that tech conferences were even worse. She knew there were lesbians and queer women there but, obviously, it was difficult to tell. Since that was the case, the way she built a community had to be intentional.
She hosted the first Lesbians Who Tech meetup in San Francisco in 2012, and 40 women showed up. By the third meetup, there were more than 100. After six months, it was clear there was a big opportunity.
“We needed to focus on building a community, something outside of bars, during the day, and having it be tech focused and having visibility was a big goal,” she said.
She asked people at the happy hours who were queer women in tech they wanted to hear speak? Some offered Megan Smith, the US CTO, and Kara Swisher, founder of Re/code, perhaps the two most well-known lesbians in tech, but most couldn’t think of one name.
“A mainstream name like Sheryl Sandberg is no easy feat, and we don’t even have a lot of women who have done that well,” Pittsford said. “It’s a challenge women and queer women in tech and business need to be more intentional about.”
That led to the first Lesbians Who Tech Summit in 2014, with the goal of highlighting women like Smith and Swisher, but also finding the incredible women doing things no one had ever heard about. Close to 50% of the speakers were women of color, and about 80% were queer women. Swisher even interviewed Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who recently publicly advocated advancing gay rights, at the summit.
Pittsford wanted to use one speaker spot to get a great leader in tech, and Benioff is not only one of the most respected leaders in technology, but is also an ally for LGBTQ and gender equality. Having an ally like him show up and support the conference meant a lot to the community.
“We can’t have these conversations in silos,” she said.
People are still surprised by the name Lesbians Who Tech — it gives most some sticker shock when they see the t-shirts. People are more comfortable with “women in tech,” Pittsford said. Even seeing the word “lesbian” throws many people off.
“We want to be sticky, memorable,” she said. “The term is kind of dying in some spaces…but it’s our word and it’s important to claim it and build positivity around it. There are 100 women in tech groups, but one [of us.]”
She added the tagline “queer women in tech” after bisexual, transgender, and queer women wanted the title to be more inclusive. Lesbians Who Tech is also open to straight allies and men.
Pittsford has heard opposition against Lesbians Who Tech from people who say there’s no need for such a specific network. Sure, she said, there is overlap with LGBT organizations and women in tech organizations, but she knows many women who opted out of those because they were male-dominated and not focused on issues that were important to queer women — specifically, families.
“I truly believe in authentic relationships — it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do,” Erokwu said. “If you’re going to move on and grow, it’s going to be done by people who want to see you grow, which means you have to build those.”
She’s built relationships and grown as both a person and in her career through the organization. Recently, Erokwu pitched her company at NY Tech Meetup, through contacts she had made with Lesbians Who Tech. Her confidence to do so was sparked by Pittsford.
“She doesn’t believe it should believe one environment or one community, for women in color in tech, lesbians who tech, whether you identify as lesbian [or not], she wants to create that space for us,” she added.
More critical than the programs, the meetups, and the conferences, is Pittsford’s greater mission to advance not only gay rights, but gender rights as well. She wants more data about LGBTQ men and women in the workplace, and she wants to use that data to bring gender equality to the gay rights agenda.
At its core, Lesbians Who Tech is about being comfortable with sexuality, and bringing those uncomfortable conversations with both men and women — whether they’re in the gay community or not — to the forefront of the conversations.
“How are we going to continue this movement if we aren’t comfortable ourselves bringing this to the table?” Pittsford said. “If you’re going to focus on helping a community, start with what you know and who you are.”