San Francisco, New York, London, Berlin, Stockholm, Tel Aviv. All major tech hubs, all have large and thriving gay communities. But while San Francisco boasts a thriving gay tech community, London’s LGBT tech scene barely gets a mention. Is there a scene at all?
“I would not really say there is,” says Harry Briggs, who just left London VC firm Balderton to start up his own firm.
“I am very conscious that in the Valley, with people like Peter Thiel being one of the most prominent gay tech figures, there is quite a large group where everyone knows each other and words like ‘Mafia’ are used.
“That is definitely not true here. I would not say there is a scene here, or much of an effort to create a voice.”
Robyn Exton, CEO of Her (previously known as Dattch), the dating app for lesbian and bisexual women, built her company from her experiences as a bisexual woman trying to date in London. A graduate of the second cohort in the London Wayra, Telefónica’s start-up accelerator program, she moved to the U.S. to expand her company.
The contrast with London, she said, could not be more stark. In the Valley, organizations like StartOut and Lesbians Who Tech are well established.
InterTech – London’s LGBT Tech Group
“StartOut has been one of the biggest pioneers for this,” she says. “It was set up by mainly a bunch of guys, but it has been running for quite a long time — something like 10 years — and they do a lot of pitch events. They managed to get in some angel investors. It has value built into it from the outset.”
She says she was also very impressed by a spin-off group, Lesbians Who Tech.
“It’s very active,” says Exton. There are a lot of interactions made and a lot of introductions made through the community. I have already spoken to six or seven people within the community because people introduce me to others in it.”
London does have an LGBT tech group, although it was formed quite recently. Called Intertech, it was launched in August 2013 and, according to one of the co-founders, Tim Macavoy, has “a few thousand members” on the email list.
Although the group has run a number of social events, including one with Lesbians Who Tech, Macavoy says it is more than a get-together for gay geeks. It has run a number of technical sessions on things like inclusive design as well as “providing advice for start-ups on how to draft inclusion policies.”
How much of an impact has Intertech made? “I have never heard of it,” says Kirk Wylie, founder of OpenGamma, an open-source derivatives trading platform, who moved to the UK with his husband. Briggs said he had never been to an event.
So why is London lagging? One reason, says Wylie, is that London’s tech gay community is too small. “I think London has critical mass in terms of technologists, but I do not think it has it in terms of the technology industry.”
“The largest number of software engineers in London who are working in software work in the financial industry,” he says. “If you take a look at other organizations that target the LGBT community here in London, they tend to be more split by the underlying industry that they work for.”
The problem, says Wylie, is that the tech industry is too new and has grown up in a time when open discrimination against LGBT people is not socially acceptable.
“There has been a very big societal change. I know several other gay entrepreneurs and every so often we hang out. We coined an affectionate nickname. We were all ‘CGOs’ – Chief Gay Officers,” he says.
“Younger tech firms [have been] started by people that simply do not remember a time where it would have been acceptable to be discriminatory against LGBT people.”
No Idea There Were So Many Women in Tech, Or So Many Lesbians
But if open discrimination against LGBT people is not acceptable, then what need for an LGBT group? “It comes down to minority experience as opposed to necessarily a discriminatory experience,” says Wylie.
“The Indian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, when they got started there was prejudice against them in the tech industry. Now it is a very thriving community of people that is working in tech that happen to have similar experiences.”
For Exton it is about knowing people who have been through what you have been through. “I think it is just finding other people that might have a similar experience to you, or have come against similar challenges at times. If you’re friends with those people when you have questions that come up, you have people that you can turn to for help.”
There is also, she says, the double whammy of being not only a woman in a male-dominated environment like tech, but a lesbian or bisexual woman. Intertech falls prey to the same problem that affects almost any LGBT event. It is made up of about 70% men and 30% women. That is why in San Francisco Lesbians who Tech was started. It seemed that when it had the lesbian label, suddenly there were three times as many women attending.
“For some reason when you have an event that is exclusively for women, it gets much higher attendance. Women start coming out of places. You had no idea they were there or that there was so many women, and so many lesbians, in tech,” says Exton.
“I do not know if that is just making it a better environment, having speakers who are more relevant to women, but I would say it is not just in tech. I would say generally a lot of LGBT events tend to have a bias towards gay guys.
But Exton was not convinced that discrimination against LGBT entrepreneurs was a thing of the past. “I identify as bisexual but the fact that I have long, blonde hair and I wear dresses and skirts and am still attracted to women, people have been like, ‘you can’t possibly be a lesbian.’”
More seriously, she says, “I have had people saying no to investments, based on religious reasons, because people do not agree with my lifestyle choices.”
Didn’t Want To Be Known As ‘Harry The Gay VC’
And then there is a more subtle form of discrimination, says Briggs; a self-imposed discrimination that comes from feeling different from the people around you. In a blog post he made on leaving Balderton, Briggs recounts an entry in his diary from 2009. “There’s the gay question. I haven’t told the partners yet because I don’t want to make them feel they have to keep their banter in check; and I feel this overwhelming need to ‘fit in.’”
He says, looking back, that not raising the issue earlier was a mistake. “I did not want to be ‘Harry the gay VC.’ I just wanted to be known for what I have done and being an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist. I wanted to be judged by those things.”
Given the huge strides that the LGBT community has made in recent years, legalization of same-sex marriage for example, was there still a need for such groups? Organizations like gay lobby-group Stonewall have struggled to find a role; would the same fate await groups like Intertech?
“I don’t see the need to disappear anytime soon,” says -Macavoy. “There is a big difference between having your company include equality policies, and actually changing the culture.
“When I look at start-ups, they can be incredibly homogenous. You are working in such a small team. It is the kind of place where it is your life rather than your 9 to 5 job. They can be challenging for minorities.”
Exton agreed. “I think about my friends who do not work in tech. One will go out for a drink with her work colleagues and she still gets the questions of like, ‘so how do you have sex?’
“And that is why it is nice to have networks of people in the working world who are the same as you.”