Lesson from 2017: How Inspirefest ruined conferences for me

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Let me begin with an obvious caveat: what I’m about to write is probably obvious to you. I’m totally late to the game. In my opinion, however, it deserves to be pointed out.  Inspirefest has ruined all other conferences for me.

It actually reflected its audience. Female speakers made up more than half of the people on stage. Now, I can’t look at another lineup of white male faces the same way. And that’s coming from a white male.

I go to a lot of conferences as a technology writer. However, after my first Inspirefest, when just about every listed speaker looks like me, I’m going to be disappointed.

The two-day festival organised by Silicon Republic focuses on technology, science and the arts. If you read the online description, you’d think it was like any of the hundreds of tech conferences worldwide each year. Talks ranged from workplace changes as we move more toward automation and freelance work, to design thinking.

It’s the festival’s organisation makes it different. That’s why Inspirefest made such an impact on me.

Inspirefest’s founder Ann O’Dea spoke at our First Friday Brekkie a few months back touting the fact that Insprirefest would have more than 50% female panelists. In June, 2018,  they expect the ratio to be closer to two-thirds female and they are heavily encouraging young people in Dublin to attend with sponsor-funded free tickets.

Often, the microcosm of conferences focuses on big personalities telling hundreds of people what the next big thing will be. When we see multiple panels with only men or four men and one woman, we are essentially limiting the idea pool.

Diversity is not about tokenism. It’s about giving the richest experience possible to your audience. Again, I know it is obvious, but there are so many awe striking women kicking butt throughout the Dublin startup scene. There’s no excuse to not feature them.

As Niamh Bushnell of Tech Ireland put it in one her weekly email blasts, “The future is female and the figures show it.”

In fact, Bushnell and TechIreland released one of the best reports of the year: detailing the state of female-founded Irish startups. The BFF (Brilliant Female Founders) report found 26 companies founded by women in Ireland employ more than 2,700 people.

There will be difficulties in having a diverse speaker list, for sure, but continuing the trend of male-dominated festivals perpetuates the problem. These events have the power to shape the future and encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs.

I know I am not alone in this belief. Last month, mobile journalism evangelist and professional storyteller Yusuf Omar openly called out the film festival where he was presenting. He asked all of his fellow panelists to come up and take a group photo.

The panel was 80% white and 100% male, simply unacceptable in Omar’s opinion.

Omar encouraged people to tweet out that photo. He then showcased amazing female video storytellers, disproving the myth that there simply aren’t enough women to showcase.

Omar gets it. Too few of us men do. Having women on panels doesn’t push men out. It makes the experience better for everyone, men and women alike.

There have already been several articles calling 2017 the year of women. From the Women’s March earlier this year to increased investment in female-founded companies and at least some action being taken against habitual sexual harassers, more and more men are realising issues that we ignored before or never noticed.

TechIreland’s data show many of the most promising Irish female-founded startups are less than five years old. That’s thanks, in part, to a concerted effort by the likes of NDRC, Ryan Academy, and Enterprise Ireland.

The people we listen to, meet and showcase should reflect that rising force. We must all empower that.

I’m late to the party, yes. However, a couple of days in July changed my perspective. I’m inspired to expect more and seek more diverse voices in my work every day now. That’s an incredible impact from one Dublin festival.

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