Venture Out launching first conference in Canada dedicated to LGBTQ+ inclusion in startups

On March 27, 2017, Venture Out will connect both the tech-proficient and the tech-curious in Canada’s first conference for LGBTQA+ students interested in exploring careers in tech and entrepreneurship.

“The conference is an education platform both for younger folks who are newly out or new to tech to learn more about the ecosystem.” – Stefan Palios, VP of sponsorship at Start Proud

The conference will be hosted at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. Venture Out’s founding team hails from Start Proud, an umbrella organization formerly known as Out On Bay Street dedicated to helping students transition to their careers and build a network within the LGBTQA+ community. Start Proud president Albert Lam, VP of sponsorship Stefan Palios, and conference chair Jeanette Stock found that one of their most-attended events at their annual student conference — which puts an emphasis on corporate connections — was actually its entrepreneurship panel.

“One of the biggest pieces of feedback we got this year was from students who were looking for roles, who said, ‘I want a space where I can meet these startup companies that get me and want me,’” said Stock. “Students say ‘this network is amazing, thanks for connecting me with people, but I’m more interested in tech and I’m more of a startup person than a big company person’.”

The team has been quietly working on launching Venture Out for the past nine months, which is launching with sponsors like Facebook, the City of Toronto, and Hubba. The conference will touch on topics like the tangible steps startups can take to foster inclusion, inclusion in product design, and a high-level look at the local startup ecosystem.

The Venture Out team stresses that this conference goes beyond just having a conversation about how good inclusion is, and wants people to think about how to take action through education.

“That education angle of providing actual resources, actual knowledge is a huge part of taking action,” said Palios. “In our community, there is a desire for knowledge of what the next step is. And when you don’t have access to the traditional tech startup meetups, this is a great way to promote access. And for the startups that will be involved — how can we empower all businesses to become inclusive in the long term, so that looking for a job will not quite as much identity-based navigation?”

Moe Laverty Photography-5328

Another part of hosting the conference is to normalize the experience of queer people in the tech industry by, quite simply, letting the world know that they exist. When Stock was doing initial discovery interviews with young people in their 20s — Start Proud’s target audience — Stock assumed that most people would say that they wish they were out earlier in their job or had a mentor who understood the unique experience of being a founder and being queer. But she said, while many did agree that they wish they had a job where they were out earlier, the ask was much simpler than that.

“They said, ‘I want the ability to say, I’m not the only one.’ And that feeling is something that I’ve felt for a long time,” Stock said. “It’s that question: Am I the only person working at a startup of this size, or having this professional experience, who is also queer? I can feel quite often invisible. The goal I have is to connect students with employers and create that network.”

The conference is looking to be as inclusionary as possible by inviting speakers from intersecting marginalized groups, as, according to Stock, the queer space has a history of excluding voices; though there will be a focus on the LGBT experience.

There are a lot of depressing statistics when it comes to diverse representation in the tech space, but companies may not know how to encourage inclusion in their own companies, or what that inclusion looks like. Palios said that it’s not that the tech space isn’t good, it’s just that some spaces aren’t the best. Companies at Venture Out get the opportunity to learn nuances of inclusion from people in marginalized groups and ask questions, without feeling like they’re being attacked for not being inclusive enough.

“There are so many companies that are great places to work but that knowledge is not out there yet,” said Palios. “The conference is an education platform both for younger folks who are newly out or new to tech to learn more about it and learn more about ecosystem, but then also education on the flip side for someone to know that this type of action, simple action, is so, so validating and important to employees.”

Venture Out is currently looking for potential speakers and sponsors, and early bird tickets are already on sale. Use the code BetaKit for 24 percent off.

Disclosure: Stefan Palios is a contributor at BetaKit

Photos by Moe Laverty

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang is BetaKit's News Editor. Follow her on Twitter @jessicagalangg or send her pitches to jessica.galang@betakit.com.