Rahul Sood, the General Manager of Microsoft Ventures, isn’t thrilled by the idea of Startup Weekend events exclusively for women, calling them “pointless” in a Tweet this afternoon just days before a women-oriented startup event is to take place in Seattle.
That Tweet caught some at Startup Weekend off guard, with two executives at the Seattle-based non-profit organization saying they were surprised by the remarks.
In an e-mail to GeekWire, Sood backed up his earlier statements and noted that he wants to see greater diversity in the tech industry. In his view, Startup Weekend events should encourage “balanced” teams that have people from a wide variety of backgrounds to work together.
“WRT to my tweet – as long as we draw *extra* or even *exclusive* attention to race and gender separation it will continue to exist,” Sood told GeekWire. “Instead of a startup weekend for women, we should have a startup weekend solving big problems in a particular area that people care about – and we should encourage men & women of all ages to come out and support. To create balanced teams with diversity of thought and background, and I promise you magic will happen.”
While he declined to elaborate on why he tweeted about the issue now, his remarks come eight days before the Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition, a 54-hour long intensive weekend being held Sept. 19-21 in Kirkland. At the event, women-led teams are encouraged to pitch and develop companies based on ideas they bring to the event. The event is designed to bring entrepreneurial women together to create new companies, though men are allowed to attend if they’re brought along by a woman participant. (Tickets for men are limited to ensure a high percentage of female attendees).
Shauna Causey, one of the organizers of the Startup Weekend, didn’t agree with Sood’s assessment.
@rahulsood I organized one. Completely disagree. Have you ever been to one? (Also, they aren't just women, the gender ratio is flipped.)
— Shauna Causey (@ShaunaCausey) September 11, 2014
In an email to GeekWire, Causey said that she thought Sood’s comment showed “a lack of understanding,” and challenged him to attend one of the events before passing judgment on how they affect the tech community.
Causey said that the attendance policy, which is supposed to produce a group of attendees who are roughly 80 percent women and 20 percent men, created “ripples of change” in the tech community. In particular, she called out Adriana Moscatelli, the founder of Play Works Studio, as an alumna who benefited from attending.
“She attended our event in 2012 and continued with her initial idea. Her idea itself is based on the principles of our Startup Weekend Women’s Edition event,” Causey said. “She’s creating games to teach kids science skills with a a specific focus on making the game applicable and interesting for girls.”
Madrona Principal Julie Sandler, who co-led the first Startup Weekend Women’s Edition said that the gender ratio had a positive effect on the event.
“Anyone who has been to a typical hackathon can tell you that in a room of one-hundred-plus participants, you can usually count the number of women in attendance on both, if not one, of your hands,” she wrote. “We found that hosting Startup Weekend Women’s Edition led to an interesting outcome: it brought new faces into this community, who said they might not have otherwise been sparked to participate. A lot of the new participants went on to do subsequent startup weekends.”
When the Startup Weekend for Women event first launched in Seattle just over two years ago, it was met with similar criticism about its attendance policy, with GeekWire columnist Monica Guzman asking whether it was discriminatory to host an event that limits the participation of one group over another.
The event’s focus on women isn’t singular in the tech industry: There are plenty of hackathons, trainings and meetups that only admit women, and/or limit the attendance of men. Almost universally, they are criticized (usually by men) because of their attendance policies.
Sood said he found it “strange” to support a Startup Weekend geared towards women.
“I firmly believe we need to inspire more women to become entrepreneurs, especially in developing startup ecosystems,” he said. “Microsoft Ventures is very active in ecosystems around the world supporting and encouraging women entrepreneurs to come out and work with us and start really cool companies.”
A Startup Weekend event for women just isn’t the best way to achieve those entrepreneurial goals, he believes.