For me, coming out as gay hasn’t been a one-time thing. It’s something I consciously choose to do in every day interactions, whether by talking about my involvement in Start Proud, Canada’s largest LGBTQ+ non-profit, mentioning it on my social profiles, or correcting pronouns when others mishear “she” as “he” when I’m talking about a partner.
Until this year, making this decision to out myself in my professional sphere was a something I was comfortable doing only on a small scale – say, over lunch with a few others on my team at work. But if you had told me two years ago I would be ok (nay, excited!) about a piece in NOW Toronto that starts off with “Jeanette Stock has worked in Toronto’s tech industry for about a year. [… ] She also happens to be queer.”, I would have laughed.
It took leading Venture Out, Canada’s first ever conference for LGBTQ+ inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship, for me to realize how important queer visibility is for the future of LGBTQ+ inclusion in Canada’s tech industry.
This change began two years ago, at the annual conference hosted by Start Proud, an organization I now volunteer with, that helps with professional development for LGBTQA+ students as they transition from school to career.
I attended an entrepreneurship panel that included Jeffrey Howard of Project Spaces, Scott Stirrett of Venture for Canada, and Maureen Erokwu of MapMersion. Until then, the only stories I had heard about tech and entrepreneurship starred people who were a lot less like that panel, and a lot more like these guys:
In fact, I was pretty sure everyone who worked in tech looked exactly like this. But here was a panel of LGBTQ+ identified people talking about how they were starting companies – and succeeding at it.
These were stories I had heard before, with one major difference: the starring role in these stories involved people who were queer. People who were like me.
For the first time ever, I saw room for myself in the conversation around launching a career in tech and entrepreneurship. I left the non-profit sector for a position at Pressly, a platform for enterprises to curate and share content.
I wasn’t the only one that the panel had an impact on. After seeing how well attended the event was, Albert Lam and Stefan Palios decided that Start Proud would launch Venture Out, Canada’s first ever conference for LGBTQ+ inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship. In October they approached me to chair the event, and I leapt at the opportunity to have the same impact on others that Start Proud had on me the year before. Together with a group of volunteers, we launched Venture Out in under four months.
The response was overwhelming. The sold-out event took place on March 27 at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, with speakers from Hubba, RentMoola, and AnyCard. We were joined by 30 sponsors, and over 400 attendees, some of whom travelled from as far as Montreal, New York City, and Denver. Eighty Eight’s pro-bono PR support helped facilitate pieces in NOW Toronto, Inside Toronto, StartUp HERE, and the Financial Post.
What struck me most about the experience was how important stories and visibility have been to everyone involved. In initial conversations about the event, I kept hearing different versions of the same comment:
When I go to tech events, I often feel like I’m the only LGBTQ person in the room, and when I go to LGBTQ events, I feel like I may be the only tech person there. Statistically it can’t be true – but I’m not hearing enough stories of LGBTQ+ folks in Canadian tech being told.
While there’s a lot of work to be done, and a number of conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion that need to happen in coming months and years, I’m proud that the first ever Venture Out helped highlight some of these stories.
While we may not always be visible, LGBTQ+ people are having an impact on Canadian companies at all levels. We’re founders and funders, clients and customers, senior managers and new talent. If we can create an inclusive ecosystem where we can bring our whole selves to everything we do, there’s no limit to the effect our impact will have on Canada’s future.