June is Pride Month. What better time to learn that Joy Smith and Gord Tanner are building a bridge from the LGBTQ+ community to the tech community. Their bridge has a name: Makingspace.tech.
Makingspace.tech is a fledgling organization that aims to, in Tanner’s words, “carve out safer spaces and curate them for the underrepresented groups in technology.”
In short, it exists to give LGBTQ+ individuals who work in tech – particularly those in Waterloo Region – a voice, a space of their own. Or, as the organization’s website says, “to foster inclusivity, diversity, accessibility and representation in technology.” It’s the place from which the region’s LGBTQ+ tech community proudly and safely flies the rainbow flag, figuratively speaking.
The organization got its start last February when Tanner, a software developer and longtime member of the region’s tech community, reached out to Smith, an event planner and project manager, and invited her to become his co-founder.
But the idea was born some years before, when Tanner, who was attending a tech conference, saw a tweet announcing a meetup for conference attendees who identified themselves as LGBTQ+.
“At the time, I wasn’t publicly out, but I thought it was a novel thing,” says Tanner. “I had never seen a reference like that in tech before.”
The next year, at the same conference, Tanner made a point of meeting with the group. Doing so got him thinking.
“I kept saying to people in town here, it would be really cool if we could harness that community, physically, here. I [was sure there were] other queer folk in tech, it’s just that we don’t talk about it at work, we never mention it at work, so you don’t know who’s all in the community.
“Finally, at the start of this year, I decided to give this a try. I thought, let’s just start a meetup and go from there. That’s when I reached out to Joy.”
Since then, the group has held three meetings attended by 25-35 people.
Local tech companies have stepped up and become involved. Smile.io and Terminal.io are aboard as sponsors, and helped fund the first few meetups.
"We're thrilled to be supporting events that are committed to inclusion, diversity, equality, and opportunity," says Terminal's Director of Partnerships, Nabil Fahel. "They came to us and we said, 'Whatever you need.'"
The Makingspace.tech concept is growing in scope. The group has another event slated for later this month, June 25 at Vidyard, and will feature a fireside-style chat with Larissa Holmes, Head of People Operations at Canadian fintech company Borrowell, who will talk about how HR professionals can make better, more inclusive, choices. The event is being moderated by VP Operations at Kiite, Donna Litt.
“There are other companies in town starting to take notice of what we’re doing,” says Tanner. “We’ve kind of tapped into a desire for inclusivity and diversity. We’re firm believers you can’t do that within the four walls of your own company – that you need to engage the community in a broader sense. We’re feeling that we can help be that bridge to help build these spaces.”
The response from the broader community has been gratifying, Tanner says, and something of a surprise. Leading up to their first event, Tanner confesses that he and Smith didn’t really know what the reaction would be.
“I said to Joy, I had no idea who was going to show up. The queer community is very non-trusting, and for rightful reasons: Outing yourself at work can be disastrous and can have disastrous consequences. I was perfectly aware that [the group’s first event] might be me and one other person and folks from Smile.io eating pizza.
“It was a very emotional time, to see people registering [for the event] and to hit 35 at our first meetup. People were so happy to finally have a space to connect and to see other people who are like them and have similar problems.
“Especially for marginalized communities in companies, most of the time, it’s just you. Especially for the queer community, it always feels like it’s just you, because it’s not something you talk about at work. Having a space that was professional and allowed them to connect and network was really refreshing to see.”
Next steps? Smith says the group is exploring the idea of creating a diversity and inclusiveness toolkit available for free to the wider community, so that events of all kinds are more LGBTQ+-friendly.
“OK, you want to be more inclusive: This is a free resource put together by the local community that can help you with assertive, actionable items,” she says.
Adds Tanner: “We’re building this very much with the startup model of just moving forward, trying things and seeing what sticks. We both come from privilege and we’re using our privilege to help those who may not have the privilege we have.”
Smith: “Amplify the voices, I think, is the key. To make sure people who aren’t being heard get heard.”