About eight years ago, I sat in the meeting room of Bordertown Coffee in Dinkytown with several people who would not only become my friends, but would be part of creating an event that proved that you can change the face of a web conference. We were all a part of the University of Minnesota and had met in a CSS-focused group on campus. Kris, Eric, Peter, Zach, Dan, Jesse, and I mostly blindly lucked into what has become an amazing annual event. Hard work and always adapting to the changing landscape of what it means to work with the web led us to where we are now.

I’m talking about the success of the conference–it sells out every year and brings in people from multiple industries. Despite our beginnings, only 1/3 of our attendees are from higher education; our speakers also increasingly come from outside education.  However, I’m also talking about our success with women in leadership, as speakers, and as attendees.

Jesse left for the great tech mecca of SF; Peter, Kris, and Zach left the U; all of us have changed jobs since then. We brought on Danny and Gabe the second year; Amanda the fourth year; and Mandi the fifth year, though we lost her to Chicago’s call.

These people have all been integral to what we have become, in both ideas and action.  This year, 60% of our presenters were women and 43% of our attendees were women.  A number of us have been asked how this happened. So here you go:

Eight years ago, I was the only woman on board the self-selected crew that was like “we want a conference that targets people like us–let’s make that!”

Of note: I am fierce. Also of note: all I really had to do was highlight the importance of making the conference about all members of the current and future web communities, note the homogenous nature of most web conferences of that era (and now, sadly), and say we should make it a priority to fix that.

Yes. Duh. Of course.

When I talk about diversity–making the conference for all members of the web community–I am not just talking about gender. Gender is where we have been successful and it is where we started because I brought it up and it coincided with a comment about our first keynote.

In the first year, an attendee commented on the word “craftsman” that Eric Meyer used in his talk as making her feel excluded. A couple people were inclined to dismiss the comment because she was the only one they’d heard it from. However, I was a real live person they could ask — “hey, did that bother you?”

It had, but I didn’t really know what to do about it. In contrast to some of the nonsense that I heard about at other conferences–the nearly pornographic crap people in attendance were subjected to, in one instance–it seemed like a really minor thing.  We’d pulled off a huge event with a big name our first time out. I was willing to chalk it up as something to reflect on for the future until I was asked how I felt about it.

Then I wrote a seven paragraph email.

That was the end of it. Seemingly little things were always addressed after that. If not in the midst of it, then after. Additionally, we were slowly getting more aggressive in promoting the conference to women as something they should submit to.  I went to She’s Geeky and ran an unconference session on getting your talk accepted by a web conference. In doing that, I learned how few women in the group had ever spoken publicly–and how others had negative experiences doing it and gave up.  Our conference doubled down and promoted how we wanted to consider and accept first time speakers.

Things have only ramped up since then. Amanda brought fresh eyes (and energy) to our group and is a sponge for ideas. We have increased our already existing support for local groups, including the Overnight Web Challenge, Social Media Breakfast, Ignite, Girls in Tech, and She’s Geeky. We added the workshops. We piloted a speaker mentor program this year that went really well, where speakers from previous years could coach new speakers who were accepted and provide them with advice and support.

We started paying attention to the demographics of our session presenters. After all was hashed out, what were our ratios? We had always paid close attention to keynotes in order to keep the gender balance 50/50 over time, but we hadn’t been tracking our session speakers.

The vibe feeds off itself. Women know this is somewhere they will see themselves, they have seen women present there, so they know they have a chance. What happens when we look at the session board now is that the results turn out to be about 50/50 over time. We don’t even have to consider gender when we’re debating the merits of sessions.

Increasing the diversity of your pool while increasing your pool of applicants means more representation and higher quality sessions across the board.

The solutions are so simple. They take time, but they are simple. The people who make the decisions change the face of your organizations, whether it’s a conference or a business, and if all the people who make decisions look the same–that email, that first opportunity to really discuss what it’s like to be omitted by language choice from a talk about the work you do (unintentionally, of course, and Eric was an amazing keynote and is an amazing person), it probably would not have played the role it did.

Or maybe it would have. The guys who work on MinneWebCon care about diversity. They are solid and staunch advocates for diversity in technology and how important it is that this become the norm. What we did is not something one woman could have pushed for on her own. It needed everyone to be on board.

I heard a couple people joking about the code of conduct this year. But these are the kinds of things you do to make people welcome. These are the things you do to create change. What do you value? What do you stand for? We learned a great deal early on with the disastrous Hoss Gifford session at Flashbelt in 2009. We did not want to wind up in reaction mode because a presenter took advantage of the freedom he had. Who wants to deal with that kind of mortification and community damage?

We create our values in actions and words.

Change is not accidental. It is also not immediate happy unicorn land. And it is slow. It is full of mistakes and frustration.  I have anxiety over our gaps, but what is constant among this group of people who put massive amounts of volunteered time into the event is reflection on where we are at and what still needs to change.

Anxiety and being afraid of criticism are paralytics. Be willing to charge into the danger of trying to change even though you might fail in small or spectacular ways the first, second, third, nth times. Be willing to be made fun of for being overly earnest. There will always be a way in which you are subject to criticism, there will always be criticism that is incorrect or based on lack of information, there will always be times you screw up out of ignorance or simply running out of time and being preoccupied.  It’s worth it, though, because you get to be part of charting new courses.

The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

–Paul Wellstone

One last thing: if you did not see topics you wanted to see, if you did not see yourself represented, if you want sessions that operate in ways you think would be better, please submit a talk next year. Do not sit on the sidelines. Be a part of creating this community.