Lesbian, ally techies take over the Castro for conference

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 19, 2022
Share this Post:
Lesbians Who Tech and Allies founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford, right, talks with queer astrologer Chani Nicholas, founder of Chani App and a New York Times bestselling author, at the ninth annual LWTA summit in San Francisco October 13. Photo: Courtesy LWTA
Lesbians Who Tech and Allies founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford, right, talks with queer astrologer Chani Nicholas, founder of Chani App and a New York Times bestselling author, at the ninth annual LWTA summit in San Francisco October 13. Photo: Courtesy LWTA

Lesbians Who Tech and Allies returned to the Castro with a vengeance last week for its ninth annual summit.

It was the first time in years that the three-day event was back in person, and the "queer inclusive badass" techies, as the organization's tagline states, took over the LGBTQ neighborhood October 12-14.

"It's been three years and we are finally back in person in the Castro in San Francisco," Leanne Pittsford, LWTA founder and CEO, told the crowd that roared with applause, whoops, and hollers in the packed Castro Theatre October 13.

The last live LWTA event hosted in the Castro was in 2019.

Pittsford asked the crowd how they liked the new setup, which included a blocked Castro Street with tents from Market to 19th streets. The crowd responded with more thunderous applause and cheers. She explained that the Castro takeover was the result of years of "positive persistence," thanking tech companies and sponsors Indeed, Cisco, and Airbnb for supporting her vision by hosting their own tents for events.

Upward of 3,000 masked queer techies and allies from across the United States attended the three-day COVID-conscious summit. More than 150 speakers, 230 events, and hundreds of tech's biggest companies and startups showed up to share insider industry advice, tips, and network with queer techies for employment opportunities.

The summit launched virtually October 10-12 and about 12,000 attendees from all over the world tuned in for that before the summit transitioned to a mostly in-person conference — with virtual access to the main stage events — last Thursday and Friday.

JJ Jiang, senior product manager at Bloomberg Media, and Emma Schwartz, new product experimentation at Meta told the Bay Area Reporter that they are usually the only queer people in the room when they are at work.

"It's been a really great experience," said Jiang, a queer woman, who was attending the summit in person for the first time. She only attended the virtual summits during the pandemic.

Queer tech couple Jay Bendett Rose, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging manager at Figma, and Schwartz said they were overwhelmed "in a really amazing way."

Schwartz explained that the couple hadn't been in a large group of people like the summit since their wedding in 2019. "The collective energy is just unmatched," she said.

"It is really nice to be amongst our people," added Bendett Rose, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. "It's been a while. It can be exhausting. You get a little bit of social fatigue, but it's worth it because it also fills up your cup."

The couple appreciated LWTA's expansion. "Look at the Castro, like they took over this whole street. It is really cool that we're taking up space," Bendett Rose added.

Dave Karraker, co-president of the Castro Merchants Association, told the B.A.R. that he toured the Castro several times during the LWTA event. He only received one complaint about parking and one complaint about garbage. The trash complaint was resolved quickly, he said.

"[I] was very pleased to see how many people with lanyards were enjoying our bar scene, our restaurants, or coffee, [and] Cliff's," Karraker said, referring to the variety shop. "It's really great to see so many people in the neighborhood during the middle of the week, which is typically a slow period for us."

Pittsford, who took a vacation after the conference, briefly responded to the B.A.R. via text with her appreciation for the CMA, "... Castro Merchants were supportive and we appreciate them."

Welcome back

Kicking off the summit, Pittsford asked attendees questions such as if they had pandemic break-ups, new relationships, or grew their family. Did they join the "great resignation," start their own COVID-19 business, or were looking for a new job? People raised their hands in response to her questions.

For her own COVID experience, Pittsford said that she gave birth to two "COVID-babies," got a new puppy, and during the two and a half years that the pandemic first gripped the world, LWTA quickly pivoted and grew. Pittsford noted that LWTA hosted one of the first virtual conferences in the world with its 2020 Pride Summit, which attracted 30,000 people from around the globe for the free virtual weeklong event, and the organization hosted more than 1,000 virtual classes.

"We really knew that this was going to be obviously not only an unprecedented historic thing, but it would be really important to make sure that we pulled together the community for Pride," she said about recognizing that Pride was "essentially being canceled in the way that we used to show up."

Pittsford emphasized the importance of the organization supporting the community by utilizing technology to continue being present during the pandemic "just to make sure that we showed up for you all [and you all] had some connection during that hard time," she said.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, LWTA launched in 2012 [LINK: https://www.ebar.com/story.php?313583] for queer women and allies to connect in the male-dominated tech industry. The first LWTA Summit hosted at the Castro Theatre brought out 800 lesbian techies and their friends in 2014. Times have changed, in more ways than just the pandemic, Pittsford boasted during her opening speech that "we are officially the largest LGBTQ professional group in the world," stating the queer and allied tech organization's global community is now made up of "100,000 LGBTQ women, nonbinary people, and allies" in 42 cities around the globe.

Hooked up and revved up

This year's summit was technically, politically, and personally amped up. Established tech companies — such as Cruise, Google, Pinterest, Wayfair, and Zillow — and startups, like AirTable, showed up at the conference's "Tech Job Crawl," eager to attract potential employees. Some of the hottest companies and workshops centered on artificial intelligence and machine learning, especially with driverless cars, and cybersecurity.

Megan Prichard, vice president of the ridehail business unit at Cruise, the self-driving car company based in San Francisco, was recruited by the company from last year's LWTA virtual summit after her keynote about commercializing autonomous vehicle technology, she wrote to the B.A.R. in an email interview.

"Independent of our sexuality or gender identity, LGBTQI people are amongst some of the top talent in tech," wrote the 38-year-old queer woman. "Cruise is deeply committed to building a truly diverse organization. Having a diverse team at Cruise is critical to building better, more robust, and inclusive products."

Prichard pointed out that "leadership from a transgender team member helped us to make our account profile creation experience and our in-car experience more inclusive for our transgender and nonbinary riders."

Black Futures Lab principal and Black Lives Matter queer co-founder and California native, Alicia Garza, interviewed Emily's List President Laphonza Butler and San Francisco Mayor London Breed about representation and power. Emily's List is the country's largest resource for women in politics, according to the organization's website.

Women's National Basketball Association player Layshia Clarendon showed up, took the stage, and got attendees shooting some hoops. DJ Madame Gandhi got audience members dancing, and the summit closed with queer comedian Cameron Esposito.

Attendees also noticed more life balance discussions and, for the first time, free child care services were offered.

Bendett Rose, who was pregnant with their first child, and Schwartz appreciated seeing the child care services at the summit.

"It'll become something that we can continue to come to," said Schwartz, who has been attending LWTA from the very beginning.

During her opening speech for the summit, Pittsford touted LWTA's accomplishments during the past nine years and its future as the organization heads into its 10-year anniversary in 2023.

During the organization's existence, it has helped train more than 400 LGBTQ women and nonbinary leaders to learn how to code over the past seven years due to the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship program. She noted that "most of them have jobs in tech today."


Looking at LWTA's future, Pittsford told the audience that the Pride Summit will return 100% virtual and free for its fourth year next June. LWTA will launch a new peer leadership program, Squads, which will connect tech leaders with future leaders for monthly mentorship sessions throughout 2023. LWTA will be holding mini summits, which softly launched this year, to cities across the United States next year.

Pittsford explained why LWTA exists and its connection to politics. Reflecting, she told her story working for Equality California during the "No on Proposition 8" campaign and the battle for marriage equality. Passed in 2008 by California voters, Prop 8 banned same-sex marriage in the state. In August 2010, following a trial, a federal judge ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. That decision was appealed but, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Prop 8's unconstitutionality, two years before the nation's highest court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

Pittsford described what she saw managing EQCA's data and working in the Castro for five years and said that didn't change when she entered the tech industry: men in power.

"I could literally track how much men were giving versus women. Obviously, women still make less than men. There's a big economic difference," she said, "but it's really clear when I walked around [the Castro] that if we actually wanted to have an impact, we had to increase our economic power.

"Things don't magically change. They take money. They take time. There are two ways that you can show up: it's with your time and it's with your money," she continued. "Your money is a lot more scalable because you only got so much time.

"We have to use economic power and space and we have to make sure everyone around us has more access to economic power," she added, explaining LWTA's commitment to diversity investing in people and communities through enforcement, tracking, and measurement.

Pittsford emphasized the importance of urgency to "create the world that we want to live in" and that "no one else is gonna do it for us."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.