by Perry Eising, Epicodus Instructor
The annual Lesbians Who Tech San Francisco Summit is the organization’s marquee event and its most popular. Now officially celebrating it’s second birthday (the first one was more of a dry run, according to founder Leanne Pittsford), and getting bigger, better, and badder than ever, the Summit is a 3 day extravaganza of tech topics, queer and lesbian activism, self improvement, savvy leadership, community, socializing, dapper fashion, and great hair. Different than probably any other tech conference, the Summit sticks close to it’s roots in the community - events are almost exclusively organized in gay venues around the Castro.
Before my first Lesbians Who Tech Summit, and subsequently attending Epicodus, I was a freshly minted Green Card holder who had once had a tech career, ten or so odd years ago. After coming to the US on a student visa, I was severely limited in my ability to accept employment, and I was desperate for a leg up after finally receiving legal permanent resident status. When an acquaintance mentioned on Facebook that she had a ticket she couldn’t use, I didn’t hesitate. I cashed out my frequent flyer miles, ironed my shirts, texted my friend who had a couch I could crash on in the mission, and flew down to the bay. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be getting into, but I ended up with a lot more than I could ever bargain for. Attending that first Summit changed my career trajectory and my life.
This year, the Summit began on Thursday the 25th of February with a short address by LWT staff in the Castro theatre, before transitioning into a tech crawl of surrounding bars featuring events hosted by local tech companies. Given that this wasn’t my first Summit, there were many, many reunions before my crew and I left the crawl for some much needed dinner - it was amazing to run into so many familiar faces who were equally excited for the Summit as I was.
Friday is traditionally the big day for presentations on the big stage, and this day didn’t disappoint. After one of my favourite moments, Leanne’s kickoff speech, the morning lineup began with an address by Tara Bunch, Vice President of Apple, and was followed Ramona Pierson, whose harrowing story of injury and ambition clearly impressed the crowd. The star of the morning, however, was the legend, the amazing Edie Windsor, the legendary computer scientist for IBM, and plaintiff behind the 2013 repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and her lawyer, the slightly more understated yet equally impressive Roberta Kaplan. Together, with host Danielle Moodie-Mills of politini, Edie and Roberta explored Edie’s career at IBM, relationship to her wife Thea Spyer, and the story about how they came to be representing their case before the Supreme Court - and ultimately winning. It was an incredibly moving moment to hear Edie recount the process that impacted millions of people’s lives, including my own, in such a direct and transformative way, and the crowd went wild when the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship was presented to several ecstatic winners.
Emcees Kiva Wilson and Sara Sperling did an amazing job of keeping the conference moving, while the dark intimacy of the Castro Theatre was punctuated only by the illuminated phone screens, trying to capture some of the power that lit up the stage. The Summit’s specially designed app came in especially handy, and created a way to connect and curate digital content. After the first round of speakers I lined up to get my book signed by Edie. Meeting her and Robbie Kaplan was definitely the highlight of my weekend.
The morning sessions took us through until noon, after which the crowd broke for several different lunch options. The committed stayed in the Castro, and I was lucky and honored to be able to present an ignite talk, which is a short, five minute presentation on the big stage, while others enjoyed events focused on space, the internet of things, art, technology, career growth and more. After my talk, I took the opportunity to take a walk around the Castro, and the area had become awash in signature blue lanyards flapping in the breeze. Over 1,700 of us were taking over the area, and we were seemingly everywhere! Walking down the street, I was enthusiastically greeted by fellow attendees, something that is not unusual at all for LWT. In fact, one of the most impressive tenets of the summit is how welcoming and genuinely community minded the attendees are. We headed back into the dark theatre for the rest of the afternoon, which featured a diverse set of presentations, including a pitch contest, a talk on overcoming imposter syndrome, and a fantastic presentation by actual lesbian rocket scientist Joy Dunn about her work with SpaceX.
As the day wore on, the presentations became more complex and moving, such as a amazing presentation on the implicit racism of mobile phone hardware, presented by the articulate and persuasive Samala, and the panel on leveraging your personal advantages, presented by Lisa Davis of Citigroup - it was her line on celebrating being memorable that had Twitter all fired up.
By the time we reached the evening keynote interview with straight-talker Kara Swisher of Re/Code and the closing words by Leanne Pittsford, the atmosphere had become positively electric - the stories presented on stage were so powerful and the atmosphere so charged, the cheers that punctuated the talks were so genuine, the calls for inclusion of women of color of transgender people were so relevant, so close still the struggle that so many of the speakers touched upon. It became very clear that you should never underestimate the power of a group as committed and focused as people who have been deprived of community.
Saturday is historically the main day for workshops and career fairs, which were all informative and welcoming. The day was well attended and was packed with informative sessions and featured a friendly, enthusiastic, well staffed Career Fair featuring companies like Amazon, Twilio, Lyft, Nasa, Intel, Two Sigma, asana, IBM and more. Organizationally things broke down a little bit - sessions didn’t start on time, and meal schedules were missed - making it very clear how well the stellar LWT team had organized the previous day. Despite some organizational hiccups, I attended an excellent workshop hosted by Jess McPeake on realizing your full potential in life and work, as well as a great session on unconscious bias, presented by Clem Breslin and Dioganhdih Hall, where we discussed the stunning levels of gender inequality in tech. I also attended a panel discussion on code schools and programming education, before heading out early to close the day out with friends at some more social events.
Sunday customarily features some closing events, but little official programming. It is the perfect time to get together with old friends and new co-collaborators, strengthen our community ties, make commitments to the future, and brainstorm ways and means to change the world - including creating a better, more just experience for women, queers and minorities.
Sunday featured a final closing party at Virgil's, and then it was time to leave a community that feels a little like family.
As always, impossible to say goodbye completely. After all is said and done, this is so much more than a tech conference. It is an opportunity to see one’s interests, hopes, desires and choices reflected in other people. It is a space for intergenerational mentoring, the likes of which do not take place in other queer and lesbian communities. It is a deeply political and passionate claiming of space and worth. It is a place of resistance against the rule of norms, and an insistent declaration of independence and resilience. It is the anvil on which clear eyed, hard edged, soft spoken radical entrepreneurs, achievers, organizers and pionesses are sharpened and encouraged. It is the arena and the celebration, the commitment ceremony and the victory lap. It is the LWT summit. As I boarded the plane back up to Portland, I knew the summit had delivered what I had hoped it would - profound inspiration, steadfast community, and a unique opportunity to create with others. Until next year!
Want to see Perry's talk? Perry kicks off the round of Ignite sessions in the video below.