Ottawa’s SaaS North conference hits gender parity in 2018 speaker lineup

Saas North
Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein (left) in conversation with Amber Mac at SaaS North in 2016.

Organizers for this year’s SaaS North have hit a 50-50 split for male and female speakers this year – a rare feat for a tech conference and a priority that will inform the annual event’s content as much as its attendance.

Launched back in 2016, the annual SaaS North conference has been a must-attend event for Ottawa startups and entrepreneurs in the software-as-a-service space, attracting investors and high-profile speakers from across North America. The event is jointly run by the Kanata-based L-Spark accelerator and organizer Cube Business Media.

Michelle Sklar, Cube’s director of conferences, is in her first year heading up the event. She says she didn’t spare a second thought when it came to how she’d approach the diverse makeup of this year’s speaker lineup.

“I would never have approached it any other way,” she says.

“The lens I look through is always about how are we balancing the scales and ensuring that the right voices are being heard and that there are opportunities for awesome, smart people to be at the table. And so, if there is an opportunity to remove those barriers, I think that's just been part and parcel of my DNA.”

Roughly 30 per cent of last year’s speakers were females. The 2018 roster includes Ottawa tech leaders such as Martello CFO Erin Crowe and numbercrunch founder and Invest Ottawa co-chair Susan Richards. Incoming attendees include Amazon’s Andrea Baptiste and Michelle Scarborough, BDC’s managing director of strategic investments and its women in tech fund.

In addition, no panel is comprised of all white males – the dreaded “manel.” The deliberate composition isn’t a knock against men, but rather about ensuring that each topic is covered from the full spectrum of perspectives.

Questions about scale and growing companies inherently require different points of view, Sklar says. It’s impossible to present a panel about, say, building a diverse team at scale, without a variety of perspectives at the table.

“From how you post a job all the way through to how you connect with candidates, how do you ensure that when people are joining your organization they truly see that there's a place for them there?” Sklar says.

“It's not about whether or not you've got smoothies and yoga.”

Hitting gender parity in the speaker lineup isn’t as easy as setting a goal and sending the invites. Many female speakers on the conference circuit are inundated with requests, all while having their own businesses to run.

The organizing team leans on a steering committee from day one to inform how they shaped the conference. Sklar says getting everybody on board about the need to elevate underrepresented voices in tech was key to hitting the 50-50 mark.

“Diversity and inclusion isn't a switch that you turn on when you walk into the office. It really has to inform your entire approach.”

The need to bring more perspectives into the room extends to the conference’s attendees. Thanks to a sponsorship from Shopify, the SaaS North fund was able to fully cover costs – travel, accommodation and tickets – for nearly a dozen attendees from underrepresented communities based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and being able-bodied. Sklar says she’s seen a conscious push from other conferences to offer similar “scholarships,” but most stop short at travel costs, a common barrier that prevents people from coming out.

Aside from content that advises entrepreneurs on building a diverse workforce, one of the focuses of this year’s conference is artificial intelligence. Several panels are geared towards educating attendees on the dos and don’ts of AI, including when it’s the wrong solution to a business problem.

“There are lots of people that want to get on the AI bandwagon and have no idea what they're in for. I think the sessions are going to be very tactical in understanding how you know that you actually can solve a problem with AI,” Sklar says.

Registration is still open for next week’s conference, which runs from Nov. 27-29 at the Shaw Centre. Check out the full program of events, talks and panels here.