I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me if I’m going to Web Summit this year, so I thought I’d take the time to provide an explanation as to why it was never on our list for 2018.
Last year, our application to exhibit at Web Summit was accepted — and then rejected — on the basis we might make women ‘uncomfortable’. The following is an overview of the events that lead to this situation and what has happened in the year that followed.
Back in August 2017
In August 2017, my future co-founder, Reuben Coppa, received an email from one of the event co-curators to say they were “delighted” to extend an invitation for him to exhibit at Web Summit, so he paid upfront for an ALPHA Exhibitor Package and began to make travel arrangements.
Reuben was to showcase two of his startups in the exhibitors’ hall. The first was an existing on-demand platform called Rendevu, which connected escorts with clients, designed to enhance security and safety in the sex industry. The app was launched in Sydney in 2016 and operational in London by early-2017.
The second was a fledgling version of intimate.io — a cryptocurrency to solve the payment processing difficulties and trust issues plaguing the global adult industry — which at that time, wasn’t much more than an idea.
Then, on October 19, 2017, WebSummit withdrew their invitation with the following reasoning:
“At a technology event where we want to ensure that all attendees, especially female entrepreneurs, are comfortable, we do not think that your line of business is suitable.”
They said the original approval only came about because the assessment team had confused Rendevu’s application with that of another unrelated company: rendevu.io.
We found this hard to believe, given Reuben had been completely transparent from the first application, through to subsequent documentation, and an interview process, which involved a one-on-one Skype interview with a rep from the ‘startups team’ that lasted 17 minutes and 48 seconds.
At the time, a matter of days had passed since I’d accepted Reuben’s offer to join the co-founding team of intimate.io and I was devastated to hear our spot had been revoked. I could see the event organisers were just trying to protect the best interests of the women in attendance at Web Summit, and so, given I am an actual real-life woman entrepreneur, I thought they might change their mind if they were able to hear my perspective. So I joined the email thread to intro myself and offer a rebuttal.
I’m reaching out in relation to our application for Rendevu / Intimate to exhibit at Web Summit.
If I might introduce myself, my name is Leah Callon-Butler and I’ve recently joined the Intimate team in the role of Engagement Director.
Personally, this is what has me so excited about your conference:
“Web Summit started as a simple idea in 2010: Let’s connect the technology community with all industries, both old and new.”
The sex industry is one of the oldest industries in the world and yet it is still largely unregulated, its workers are marginalised, and very often, neither supplier nor customer is protected or empowered. Technology has the potential to impact this global issue, and thus, we see an opportunity to take a position of Thought Leadership.
The stigma that exists around the adult industry is significantly hampering innovation and forcing workers, largely female entrepreneurs, to operate in an unsafe manner. This extends to businesses looking to operate in the space too.
The Intimate platform has been designed to provide safety and security to an industry that is unable to rely on traditional mechanisms of payment and identification. This greatly improves the welfare of legal workers in a legal industry, and thus, we believe that Intimate is exactly the type of project Web Summit attendees would be interested in.
We work with male, female and trans persons – all of whom deserve representation – and our core team includes social and political activists such as Charlotte Rose see this episode of Daily Politics Show where Charlotte advocates for the decriminalisation of sex workers). Personally, I am a passionate advocate for social entrepreneurship and ‘Profit for Purpose’ models of business, which made up a significant component of research toward my MBA.
Next week we kick off a major PR campaign which focuses on stigma and social exclusion as driving forces behind marginalisation and prevention of improvements to safety within the adult industry. I would hope that our application to exhibit to Web Summit does not become another example of the same social exclusion that has been perpetuated by conservatives for centuries, especially as I imagine that your attendees would be some of the most open-minded, informed and pioneering people in the world. I would say the tech industry as a whole has not been a place for conservatism, but a launch pad for uninhibited ideas.
The Intimate team have been completely transparent around the nature of the Rendevu business from the first application and subsequent documentation and throughout the interview process, and as such, I would ask that you reconsider our application to exhibit at Web Summit 2017.
We’d be happy to work with you to ensure that all content is appropriate for the event. You can find a link to our white paper in my email sig below, and although our website has not been published to the public yet, you can access it at intimate.io with both the username and password as ‘trust’.
Please let me know when would be a good time to connect over the phone so we can chat further.
Web Summit replied simply to affirm their position, reiterating they deemed it inappropriate for us to exhibit, using their anti-harassment policy as justification. They said they’d refund the cost of our ALPHA package and that we could still attend the event.
I clicked through to Web Summit’s anti-harassment policy and recognised it immediately, so I replied again.
Thanks for sharing your policy. I note that it is lifted directly from Geek Feminism – a site that I am very familiar with, being a female entrepreneur.
Geek Feminism provide an exception to their policy which allows for the discussion of sexual content and images, provided it is done in a respectful manner, especially to people who identify as LGBTIQ and women (something we are very cognisant about). They also note that there is a need for this topic to be discussed.
Please note that we are happy to not show any adult images as part of our content.
Given the stigma and institutional bias that faces our clients (predominately females and gay men) on a regular basis the topic does NEED to be discussed. We as a technology community should be looking to use our talents to help those around us and ensure they are given safety and respect. Intimate is doing that, and we will continue to do that.
Your decision may be final, but I would ask you to read between the lines of this policy and think about why it exists. We need to remove this systemic ‘bro-culture’ that has existed in tech, but rather than stifling innovation we should be using platforms like Intimate and Web Summit to empower those that need it most.
Happy to discuss over the phone as this is a topic I am very passionate about.
I never received a direct response to this email, but it must have been considered by the event organisers as I can see the anti-harassment policy has now been updated to include a reference to its origin. Unfortunately, they still do not recognise Geek Feminism’s exception.
Following the rejection debacle, we were feeling pretty deflated. We considered cancelling altogether, but since our flights and accommodation were already booked, we decided we’d still go. After all, the world’s biggest technology event promised to bring 60,000 entrepreneurs, investors and tech moguls to Lisbon, and at that early stage of our journey, we were keen to network.
Web Summit 2017
Once we got there, the speaker lineup was stellar and we heard insights from all the tech superstars. But due to the sheer scale of the event, which covers such a broad spectrum of interests and applications, I personally felt it was difficult to cut through the noise and establish any quality connections with fellow event-goers. But after hours, when Lisbon began to throb with meetups and after parties, this was where we got some real chemistry going.
The Token Economy party was a real highlight and we had some truly intimate conversations with the likes of Joe Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum and ConsenSys, Jalak Jobanputra, the female venture capitalist known for her passion for microfinance and her blog The Barefoot VC, Jeff Pulver, the VoIP telephony pioneer who you can thank for the fact FaceTime is free today, and other luminaries of the tech world.
The Women of Sex Tech
Shortly after Web Summit, I was introduced to the Women of Sex Tech (WoST), a global community of female entrepreneurs who have rallied against stigma and exclusion to fund, launch and grow thriving businesses in the field of human sexuality and sexual experience.
So when intimate.io was in New York City for Coindesk’s Consensus Invest conference, we hosted a breakfast for 11 members of WoST and conducted further video interviews to learn the intimate stories behind each of their mission statements, which you can view at our YouTube and Vimeo channels.
This was a pivotal moment as I was buoyed by the camaraderie of the WoST and their absolute refusal to back down in the face of moral judgment and institutional profiling.
Here was a group of articulate, visionary, badass women who were shaping the future of the sex industry to make it more inclusive of their own needs and desires. And despite their struggles — to open bank accounts, process payments, advertise on social media (due to guidelines that ban everything even remotely adult-related, even women’s sexual health services, sex education and sex therapy), or just get investors to take them seriously — they pushed on.
intimate.io forges ahead
Joining WoST gave me the confidence I needed to forge ahead. Since then, intimate.io has continued to develop core values relating to empowerment and respect, and has been embraced by tech, crypto and adult communities across the world.
We’ve been covered by [email protected], NASDAQ, Bloomberg and SmartCompany, quoted by TechCrunch and CoinDesk, and made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald online. Further, our team have presented at more than 30 major events including NYC Blockchain Week, World Crypto Economic Forum, Sundance Film Festival and Pause Fest.
Even in the Philippines, of all places — a deeply religious and conservative nation that promotes abstinence, denounces contraception and criminalises abortion in every instance (even rape) — I was invited to speak at the official launch of Women in Blockchain Manila to provide an international perspective on the topic “Blockchain for Social Impact”.
“I keep inviting Leah back to speak at Women in Blockchain because her refreshing perspective helps people understand that the adult industry is a trailblazer for adoption of new technologies. It is also a great use-case to ensure that everyone has the freedom to transact with anyone, exchanging anything. This is a condition to being a full participant in digital life and needs protection like the freedom of speech,” said Thessy Mehrain, founder of Women in Blockchain and director of product and innovation at ConsenSys.
No, I am not going to Web Summit 2018
In the lead up to this year’s Web Summit, freedom of expression was a hot topic after co-founder Paddy Cosgrave added Marine Le Pen to the speaker lineup. Globally infamous for her hate speeches and fascist dogma, this far-right French politician recently refused a court order to undergo psychiatric assessment in the face of prosecution for posting violent images of Islamic State killings on social media.
Immediately following the speaker announcement, Web Summit copped a seething backlash, with people threatening to stage protests or boycott the event altogether. Cosgrave went to great lengths to defend his position as to why Le Pen should be allowed to be allowed to speak.
In a Medium post dated August 15, 2018, he argued “Web Summit is a place where people should be prepared to have their opinions deeply challenged, and in turn to deeply challenge the opinions of others”. He added it would be too easy to “shirk robust debate with those who hold extreme views” and “banning or attempting to ignore these views … does little to furthering understanding”.
Given my previous experience with Web Summit, I found his defence somewhat hypocritical. But anyway, I guess it did little to convince the Web Summit community because later that day, Cosgrave conceded and rescinded Le Pen’s invitation.
At least, in this case, the public was given the chance to air their sentiment and ultimately oppose Web Summit’s tenet. I wonder what the response would be, if they were asked whether the sex industry was an appropriate discussion topic, especially under the lens of social inquiry and opportunities for tech disruption?
But personally, I think the real question we must ask is: What happens when we prohibit women’s participation on some topics because we worry they will feel ‘uncomfortable’?
In any case, the right to decide what is (and isn’t) appropriate content for women should not be left to a select and powerful few. As we saw with the Le Pen debate, just because one person thinks something is a good (or bad) idea, it doesn’t necessarily equal the views of the rest of us.
Web Summit should be using its incredible reach and engagement to foster more inclusive discussions with more diverse communities, in safe and open forums, that allow us to approach controversial ideas and with intellect and respect. In recent times, the organisers have seemed a bit off-kilter with what people actually want, but when in doubt, they could just … ask! The team have clearly been extremely successful in garnering an active and articulate global audience, who are more than willing to offer up their opinions — if given the chance!
With hindsight under my belt, I’m glad my virgin Web Summit experience didn’t snub out my fire, especially so early in our journey. But you won’t find me there this year. I’m too busy investing my time and effort where I think my voice has a chance of being heard.