As Diverse a Conference Lineup as Fans Deserve: Wade Kwon at Y’all Connect
My calling in life may be event planning. As much as I hate the mechanics of it, I've been fortunate to put my ideas and my skills to good use.
One idea is that diversity in programming is no harder than homogeneity. I've faced tougher challenges when hiring in the journalism industry: one supervisor told me, a manager of Asian descent, that he didn't want to interview more minority candidates because they were "less qualified."
As a conference director, I've had exactly three chances so far to put my idea into action. Y'all Connect Presented by Alabama Power is an annual blogging and social media conference in Birmingham, Alabama, operating since 2013.
Our speakers travel from across town and across the United States. We had an even split of men and women speakers in 2013 and 2015, and six women and four men in 2014. GenderAvenger awarded us Hall of Fame status in 2014 and 2015, making us the first organization with successive honors.
I aim to continue that every year.
The process is stupidly simple. I live on a street with diversity, in my hometown filled with diversity, in my home state of Alabama, rich in diversity. The goal is to reflect that diversity onstage with 10 speaker slots.
The first source of speakers is networking. I know many pros from my time on the conference circuit as a consultant, speaker, and attendee. And they know pretty much all the other speakers out there.
The second source is studying other conferences like ours. Most events feature their speakers online, and it's easy to see their social presence, their credentials, and their performance videos.
The third source is crowdsourcing, the suggestions from our fans and guests. We ask them in surveys, in social media, and in person, and they have always come through with their favorite speakers and experts. Also, our guests evaluate the speakers during the conference, giving us more insights as to which ones do the best job of connecting with our audience.
The fourth source is the Y'all Connect online application. As the reach of our event, one of the largest in the Southeast, grows year to year, speakers come to us. They fill out a form, which makes it easy for me to vet their skills.
(Super secret hint to applicants: In a world where every phone has a camera, lack of any video of live speaking engagements is an automatic no.)
We're never lacking in candidates. And for whatever reason, the suggestions typically skew toward male speakers, and Caucasian to boot.
To ensure a diverse lineup, I use quotas. For example, at least five speaker slots must go to women. If all 10 go to women, I won't bat an eye.
Quotas can be useful in several dimensions. I usually have an easier time finding speakers on social media than blogging. I want at least two to come from within Alabama. I want a few new faces on the lineup every year, rather than invite the same ones back each time.
Throw in the constraints of a June date, a fixed budget, and dumb luck, and we gradually build a top-notch lineup.
I recruit speakers year round. I put so much effort into it, because I want nothing but the best for our guests. And I want diversity, because I've spent a lifetime in rooms as the odd man out. I never want our fans to experience that lonely sensation of "otherness" when they spend time at Y'all Connect.
Event planning is what I do, but I should call it experience planning. I want our experience to be as inclusive as possible.