HOW ONE EMAIL, ONE HASHTAG, AND ONE COMMITTED WOMAN LAUNCHED A MOVEMENT, A COMMUNITY, AND A PROMISING NEW BUSINESS.
When sexism happens on the Internet or in a high-profile setting, Rachel Sklar usually gets a “bat signal” in the form of an email, text, or hashtag alert. If a high-profile company event lacks female representation, she goes if she can. Someone just made a biased statement about women or diversity? Don’t worry. She’s on it.
“You would be shocked at how many of my days are derailed by a conflagration on Twitter,” she says.
Sklar a former lawyer who writes about media, politics, culture, and tech, became the poster-woman for gender equality when she created the hashtag #changetheratio. The effort was in response to a 2010 New York magazine story about tech entrepreneurs that featured mostly men.
After noting that one of the few women in the photos had her face obscured by the startup owner’s foot as he was being held upside down, “I just thought that was a problem,” she says. She sent an email to 20 women she respected stating it was time to get in front of these stories and make sure women are represented.
What started an email chain turned into a listserv of like-minded women and soon grew into a movement. What started as a call for change became a tight-knit community of women supporting women.
On Twitter, #changetheratio took on a life of its own and has become somewhat of a battle cry whenever gender inequality rears its head. It’s also used by Black Girls Code, which promotes technology education among young women of color, which makes Sklar proud.
Becoming the voice for gender equality in tech and elsewhere was eating up most of her time. The number of women on the list grew and managing it was nearly a full-time job. The women and their allies have helped each other land startup funding, provided counsel, and introduced each other to important contacts.
When one member lost her SXSW event sponsor at the last minute, another swept in and replaced it. Sklar and cofounder Glynnis MacNicol, a writer and former editor atBusiness Insider, began developing TheLi.st into a profitable business with a purpose: fostering diversity and inclusion in the tech sector and beyond.
“I realized I had already done much of the work to launch a startup without actually realizing I was doing it, which is kind of the best way because then when you launch you’re already ahead,” she says.
Not willing to be bound by the “gender discount”–that belief that women should work for free to benefit the world–Sklar sees room for both empowerment and profit within the partners’ vision. Revenue will come from membership fees, events, and other areas still being developed. TheLi.st is still in beta now, but will have its offerings finalized by later this year. It has recently re-launched its newsletter with a new look and user-friendly format to get its word out to a wider audience.
The community is now roughly 500 strong, including its waiting list, has attracted a few angel investors. Sklar and MacNicol have given equity stakes to some of its advisors, walking their talk in changing the ratio of women who own startup equity. And the company’s call for equality extends beyond gender to race, ethnicity, and other areas.
The tide is turning in new ways in part because of efforts like #changetheratio and TheLi.st. Most recently, when the Wall Street Journal’s WSJDLive conference announced its all-male 17-speaker lineup in April 2014, it encountered pushback from online and social media outlets. Sklar says even WSJ insiders were embarrassed and unhappy.
“We switched over from the default being a tech and new media conference featuring all white dudes to when a conference lineup like that is posted there is universal outcry from everywhere and from everyone,” she says.
Bottom Line: Sklar says that a mantra at TheLi.st is a quote by list member Cindy Gallop: “There’s a lot of money to be made by taking women seriously.” She and MacNicol are committed to feeding the hunger that exists for diversity and inclusion initiatives, including gender, race, ethnicity, and other areas. TheLi.st makes the case that inclusion is good for the bottom line. The world is changing and homogeneous leadership approaches and business strategies aren’t going to work anymore.
“We look at it as our responsibility to fly in the face of that and be proudly focused on creating something profitable and sustainable and ascribing value to what women do,” Sklar says.
[Image: Flickr user Kenny Louie]