At first, I found it strange that the organizing team of the Triangle event I facilitated on June 12-14 pursued a “trailblazers” edition. Initially I had thought the team wanted to create a diversity-themed event similar to the one I had facilitated in Miami just two weeks prior.
I learned quickly that the rationale behind that branding had to do with the perception of the world “diversity” as potentially not ideal. The term “Trailblazers” alluded to the multiple pioneers that have come from all walks of life in North Carolina, but not directly to women, people of color, or other underrepresented peoples.
This move honestly troubled me for two reasons:
Do people actually feel excluded when an event calls for diversity?
Do people not want to be part of an event that prioritizes diversity?
After 10 Startup Weekends as a participant, volunteer, organizer, and facilitator, I’ve come to not only appreciate the diversity of each event – I crave it. The greatest killer of an event is monotony – if it looks and feels the same as it did before, it will lose its luster.
My last two events were among the most memorable because they knew a simple fact:
Diversity improves community. Always.
Below are some key lessons I learned during my time in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill that weekend.
1. History matters, especially from diverse narratives
We’re all familiar of the most famous narrative of innovation out of North Carolina – the location of the famous Wright Brothers’ historic heavier-than-air flight. The state also has a rich history of innovation from lesser-known figures such as:
Sequoyah – creator of the Cherokee alphabet, which allowed for increase communication between and across Native American peoples.
Lunsford Lane – born into slavery and invented a special tobacco that raise enough money to buy his freedom.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner – inventor of 35 products and holder of five patents, granted retroactively as she was denied previously for being a black woman.
I felt it was important to tell these stories as well in Durham at the event. Innovation can truly come from anywhere, but it takes a special drive to push it forward.
2. Diversity strengthens communities on the rise
I was truly captivated by the beauty and sprawl of the downtown Durham innovation sector. Everything from American Underground to the Iron Yard is all within walking distance, and the community is very familiar and well-integrated.
I can see why the Triangle has been selected for the location of the next UP America Summit in September. It has everything the country could want and so much more!
3. You can have a diverse team of literal professionals
In all of my Startup Weekends, I’ve never seen a more impressive, academic, and professional group of people that I did at Triangle Trailblazers. In this photo, I estimate there are at least twelve or thirteen advanced degrees and over one hundred years of professional experience.
Moreover, they ran their even with aplomb. Excellent communication, precision, and consideration for the needs of the community. Great, great work!
4. Diversity is more than just about race or gender
This event was attended by nearly equal parts female and male and predominately people of color, particularly African and Latino American. Also like in the Miami event, the Triangle event brought out another underrepresented group: the differently-abled.
Two teams that hoped to aid the visually-impaired worked from start to finish during this competition, with one app – The Blank App – going on to win the AT&T Special Award for Connectability.
It’s great to see Startup Weekend bring out the best of ourselves, regardless of whether it is convenient or profitable.
5. A new owner, but the same mission for diversity
With the recent Techstars acquisition of UP Global, there are many community leaders such as myself who are left with several questions about the future of the organization. While tax incentives and financial strategies are important, I think the preservation of UP Global’s Burning Man-inspired philosophy of “radical inclusion” should be at the forefront of the discussion.
To me, prioritizing diversity should be self-evident, and it should not ever be a point of contention.
However, until our communities evolve to that point, we’ll just have to stay vigilant. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the Triangle Trailblazers team for inviting me out to be a part of their special event, and I’ll see everyone in September.
Lee Ngo is a community leader and facilitator based in Pittsburgh, PA.
After 9 Startup Weekends in three years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life (in fact, I’ve written previously that I might be addicted to it). However, for some that the journey could be really intense at times, and not everyone makes it to the finish line feeling the same way.
Recently, I facilitated Startup Weekend Miami: Diversity Edition, where I was taught the concept of “la pasión,” which is Spanish for “people in Miami are really, REALLY emotional.” I was tasked to harness la pasión in a community that had a plethora of it, in a way that would make everyone come away from Startup Weekend Miami feeling as wonderful as I had 8 times before.
Below is a list of lessons and tips for a facilitator, organizer, or volunteer to apply that would help maintain a sense of stability to an otherwise potentially chaotic event.
1. If you’re an organizer or volunteer, your mission is to execute the event as orderly as possible
In Startup Weekend, Murphy’s Law generally applies – anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It is vital that every organizer and volunteer is informed of the weekend’s tasks and can easily communicate with one another to correct any situation that arises.
Best practice: Print up a universal task list that specifies each delegation and giving a copy to all your volunteers. That way, even if they don’t have an assignment, they can look at the list to see if someone else needs help with something.
2. If you’re the facilitator, your first priority is to take care of the lead organizer
Generally, lead organizers shoulder the most burden, and the stress can be overwhelming. They should be acknowledged especially for their months of hard work leading up to the big show.
Facilitators should check in with them hourly and make sure they’re fed, hydrated, and as relaxed as you can get them. If necessary, give them a hug (more on that later).
3. Communicate to people on their level – perhaps even in their language
Startup Weekend is an educational event at its core, and the most effective way to teach is to contextualize it with abstract reasoning that they understand. Learn more about them to understand their thinking processes.
An added challenge for me: most of the attendees of Startup Weekend Miami speak Spanish as their first language. I do not – except for what I’ve learned on TV – so when people weren’t looking, I’d review my Dora The Explorer Lessons on YouTube and bust that out randomly. You’re welcome, mi amigo/as.
4. If teams are arguing without end, facilitate a scrum
Inevitably, disagreements occur in a competition, but they become difficult to resolve when people are not talking in a respectful, orderly fashion.
To resolve this, get them to stand up and talk in a circle, one at a time. Here’s a quick video to teach you how to run a proper scrum – a very popular method of coordinating large, diverse teams.
(The key lesson starts at 6:32)
I did this with one team in particular. More on that later.
5. Have a quiet space – one for volunteers, one for participants
We all need to decompress, so give your people a place to rest, nap, socialize, and blow off some steam. Don’t go so far as create a distracting place such as a game session – you still want people to focus on on the main goal.
6. Throw in a dance session or two (you’ll have to start it)
It was a foregone conclusion that I’d be dancing in Miami. It was just a matter of how often. I like to keep the music playing in a common area for attendees to come out, relax, and practice their salsa.
Dancing is a great way to stay loose and relaxed, and it’s probably less terrifying than, say, public speaking.
7. Prevent “hanger” by providing snacks and insist that everyone drink water frequently
Startup Weekend is a high-energy competition, and with brains working on overdrive, they’ll need to be replenished. I try to have a bottle of water and a protein-rich snack on my person at all times. Keep your people well-fed, and they’ll be well-tempered, too.
8. Give out hugs and high-fives whenever possible
At a hyper-networking event like Startup Weekend, these physical embraces lead to lasting connections that you’ll appreciate long after this experience.
9. Plan to finish your event as soon as possible…
- Links only: Instead of letting people present and demo on their own laptops with varying file types, have them send cloud-based links to both and put them in a single document. This moves things along quickly in between Q&A sessions.
- 4:3 presentation model: Limit presentations to 4 minutes with a loose 3 minutes for judges’ Q&A works well, too. Judges average about 45 seconds per question, so a group of 3-5 judges works well.
Why do we do this?
10. … so that everyone will go to the after-party
I love the idea of an after-party, but often Startup Weekends run too late, and who can really stick around to party on a Sunday night? However, if you aim to end your event around 8pm or earlier, and your event was a rousing success, you’ll have a great time.
Also, try to have ALL of your parties in Miami, regardless of your own location. Here’s why:
When a team that nearly imploded on Saturday night…
Team BreakinBread was a fun project for me. Constantly bickering in Spanish over every single detail, I was positive that they would implode and disband by Saturday night.
To fix this, I made them do a scrum. By getting them to talk in turn and truly listen to one another, they realized that they were actually a well-rounded team that agreed on one thing: they had communication problems.
Afterwards, they delivered a beautiful presentation that impressed the judges. The rest is Startup Weekend Miami history: they won first place.
Or when a team that won 2nd place got a standing ovation…
Ernie struggles to get where he needs to be due to the lack of convenient transportation options for the disabled. His dedicated friend Juan pitched an idea:
An “Uber for the differently-abled,” Juan wanted Ernie to have access to the ride-sharing technologies that dominate the startup marketplace today (e.g. Uber and Lyft). They found great validation by tapping into people’s good nature – an uncommon approach for a Startup Weekend team.
Once I announced their second place win, Ernie stood up and made his way to the main stage. With every step, more and more people rose with him and applauded his victory with deafening cheers of support.
Or when I could not stop smiling when I was presented with this amazing certificate
The text reads:
“A special recognition for surviving your
MIAMI DRAMA INITIATION
Let all who view this document know you survived Miami. We are diverse, speak at the same time and have a rollercoaster of emotions, but at the end of the day, we’re all family and end the night laughing with J’s (JAJAJAJA). You rock!”
Perhaps I had been a bit of a curmudgeon the whole time…
In short, Startup Weekend is indeed a roller coaster (it’s designed that way), but for a small minority, that can be an unpleasant experience. Emotions are meant to run high, but there are ways to keep it balanced yet still exciting.
I hope these suggestions serve as a way to hold someone’s hand to make them feel safe right before they take the deep plunge into entrepreneurship.
Good luck, and thank you, Startup Weekend Miami: Diversity Edition!
Lee Ngo is a community leader based out of Pittsburgh, PA.
Organizing a Startup Weekend can mean different things to an organizer: a chance to build a network and make connections, a way to be a part of a fun and transformational experience, or even a way to promote entrepreneurship in a community.
One of the reasons I organize Startup Weekend is because it represents a way to build and shape the community around me. In my most recent event, I was part of a team taking a small step toward making Seattle a place to celebrate Latino cultures in the local entrepreneurial community.
Seattle is a wonderful, intelligent, and passionate city. I’ve been involved in the Startup Weekend community here in some form or another for the last few years, and I noticed some things:
- The people I was seeing at the events were generally from the same demographic.
- There was an opportunity to spread entrepreneurship to neighborhoods and cultures beyond the downtown urban core.
If you aren’t from Seattle, you should know that our city is reasonably sized, but much of the entrepreneurial energy and support is concentrated near the downtown core. There are various cultures in other parts of Seattle that don’t enjoy the same energy and whose stories we don’t hear regularly.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t efforts to engage other communities and social groups in our city. In September 2014, we saw an incredible Hack the CD event to engage the African American community in the Central District, but we should be doing more.
A few other organizers and attendees I had met through various events realized we had something in common: we all loved our city, we loved entrepreneurship, and we loved our shared Latino heritage.
This gave rise to the idea that became Seattle’s first Startup Weekend Latino and Hispanic Markets event. In this post I’ll share our goals, lessons we learned along the way, and what plans we have for engaging diversity in entrepreneurship in Seattle.
Vision and Goals for Startup Weekend Latino
Creating an event to highlight a culture is an interesting prospect. Entrepreneurship cuts across cultures, beliefs, and opinions in a way that is incredibly powerful. We wanted to celebrate a culture that means so much to us, as well as invite others to experience it.
We decided our event would be special and distinct from any other Startup Weekend in 3 ways:
- Latino Entrepreneurs would feel welcomed in a way they may not have felt before
- We would share our culture with those who had no connection to Latino cultures, giving them a chance to experience and consider another culture as they build their ideas
- We would create a space for the Latino community to share and celebrate its culture in the context of entrepreneurship
We designed our event to celebrate and share fun parts of our Latino cultures. This included things like:
- Salsa contest for pitch order
- Inviting smaller Seattle Latino restaurants to the event to feed our attendees
- Having parts of the event in Spanish, or providing translation help where needed
- Latino music throughout the weekend
We also sought to include representatives from the Seattle startup community across cultures and industries. In addition to our standard partners from the Seattle Startup Weekend community, we reached out to Latino cultures to find sponsors, mentors, and judges. Ultimately, we wanted people to come away knowing there is a thriving Latino community in Seattle interested in the success of its entrepreneurs.
Organizing a unique Startup Weekend event means encountering new situations. Here is what we learned.
Diversity is Exciting and Fun!
My favorite part of the event was just how many cultures and nationalities were represented there. Beyond North, Central, and South American Spanish-speaking countries, we had attendees representing Asian, European, and African cultures. This was a delightful opportunity to experience entrepreneurship with new friends and faces. More importantly, we saw that an event dedicated to celebrating other cultures was interesting to so many people.
Marketing and Messaging
We knew at the start of the event that we’d have to be careful with our messaging and marketing to be clear that the entire community was invited to participate. Success would look like balancing a specific culture focus with an open invitation to all of Seattle. The clarity in messaging also makes an impact on how judges and coaches formed their expectations. We used language like “All Are Welcome” in event promotions, and emphasized our goals to all people involved in the event. However, this is an area we want to improve upon for next year.
Meals and Catering
We committed to partnering with local Latino restaurants for all our meals. This resulted in amazing meals throughout the entire weekend, but it was actually quite difficult to find smaller businesses that had the capacity and experience to cater for a Startup Weekend event. Moreover, we should have realized that having an event so close to Cinco de Mayo would limit our selection of available restaurants.
Engaging Existing Latino Groups
There are plenty of Latino organizations around Seattle, but we didn’t know who they were when we were planning and marketing our event. Frankly, this is just a symptom of this being a nascent effort. We expect we’ll build on this momentum to build a more cohesive network of communities within our city.
Plans for the Future
As most Startup Weekend events do, this was a great starting point upon which we can continue to build. We intend to build more connections to other groups and create more opportunities to engage as a community. With the small cohort of attendees from our event, we can create more connections and strengthen our ties.
The best part is that we’re not alone in this. Portland will host its own Startup Weekend Latino event in June, and we have been interacting and supporting each other as organizing teams.
Hopefully, by this time next year, we will have a groundswell of momentum that we can showcase in another Startup Weekend Latino event. In the meantime, you can follow along and get involved in the following places:
- Seattle Tech Latinos and Friends Meetup group
- Startup Weekend Latino in Seattle on Twitter
- Startup Weekend Latino in Portland on Twitter