Written by Andrew Seale
Jeanette Stock is well acquainted with the feeling of being at the fringe.
“There are days when I go to startup events and I feel like I might be the only queer person in the room and then there are days where I go to LGBTQA+ events and I feel like I might be the only startup person in the room,” she says. “But the reality is, we have 4,000 startups across the city of various sizes (with) people on those teams saying, ‘am I the only one?’”
With Venture Out, Canada's first conference for LGBTQA+ inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship, Stock, the conference chair, aims to send the message that if you’ve felt that way, you are most certainly not alone.
“It’s all of these little pockets where these conversations have started on a company-wide level,” says Stock who also works as customer development representative at Toronto-based content platform startup Pressly. “We want to elevate it and be the connector between all those different parties.”
The one-day conference, an initiative of Start Proud, Canada's largest LGBTQA+ millennial non-profit, will be held March 27 at MaRS Discovery District.
For the past 10 years, Start Proud has been focused on helping LGBTQA+ students transition from school to career. Stock and the team at Start Proud have been working on the concept for Venture Out over the last two years, testing the waters through talks, events and panels.
Stock had originally hoped for 10 sponsors. That number has swollen to 30 sponsors and exhibitors already including big names in both the startup and tech community like Hubba, Kik, Fundserv, CapitalOne, the City of Toronto, Facebook and TWG.
The support has been overwhelming.
“We walked into a room with Hubba and an hour later Ben Zifkin said ‘I’m in, what do you need? You have Hubba’s backing, you have my backing and we're going to get more people on board,’ ” says Stock.
The aim of Venture Out, she says, is to introduce LGBTQA+ students to careers in tech and to foster the conversation amongst startups, tech companies, incubators and V.C. firms that diversity and inclusion are good for business. According to the Harvard Business Review, firms with a diverse set of leaders are 45% more likely to report market share growth and 70% more likely to secure a new market.
“When you fill a room with people who have been to the same school, have the same life experiences, who think the same way – they all solve problems and approach conflict the same way,” says Stock. “Whereas if you fill a room with people who have different life experiences, different backgrounds… a different story, they are going to approach conflict and solve problems in different ways – that’s where innovation comes from.”
And diversity is going to be a key ingredient as Canada doubles down on tech investment.
“It’s going to be our competitive advantage,” says Stock.
In a lot of ways, it already is. Toronto companies have already embraced the idea of having diverse teams. But it’s inclusion that’s the next step; it’s making sure everyone feels like they have a spot at the table, like their ideas and opinions matter.
“We're Canada’s tech hub, we are one of the most diverse cities in the country but it’s not just that we have so many different people in one place, it’s that we interact and we are building companies together,” she says. “Toronto is waking up to the reality that diversity has made it good – inclusion is going to be what makes us great.”