Opinion, advice, and analysis by the TNW community

Coming out trans in tech: An entrepreneur’s experience

Don't sleep on me. Don't sleep on us

trans
Joan Westenberg
Story by
Joan Westenberg

Founder, Self — Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communic… (show all) Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

joanwestenberg

Welcome to 🏳️‍🌈TNW Pride 2020!🏳️‍🌈 All throughout June we’ll highlight articles that focus on representation for LGBTQPIA+ people in the STEM communities.

Let me start this off right. I am transgender. I am a trans woman in tech. And I am an opportunity that you don’t want to miss. 

I’ve been working in tech for 10+ years now – ever since I started selling MySpace design and automation as a teenager. I’ve worked with some of Australia’s biggest technology companies and startups, collectively valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, mentored in the Microsoft Accelerator and consulted for VC funds. And ever since I came out as transgender, ever since I planted my flag as a proud and openly trans woman, I’ve been out here on my own. Fighting on my own. Pushing on my own. Building on my own. 

Before I transitioned, I was in demand. I was headhunted by tech companies who knew what I could do with a message, with a platform that needed to have its story told and with communities and audiences. After I transitioned, I could no longer secure one single job interview with a tech company. I couldn’t get in the door for a conversation with a dog food startup. Suddenly, I was told that I wasn’t a culture fit. That I wasn’t experienced enough. That the founders didn’t feel that with my background, I could relate to their stakeholders. One tech recruiter asked me what it was like “being a transgender.” 

The phone stopped ringing. 

And I stopped waiting for it. 

Because as far as I was concerned – nothing had changed but the level of authenticity with which I approached my life and my work. A level of authenticity I was no longer willing to compromise for the comfort of the status quo. 

The truth is – my experiences are not isolated

We exist in an ecosystem that prides itself on seeing opportunities yet consistently fails to respond to statistical and systematic inequalities within its ranks. That’s my somewhat indignant way of saying: only 10% of all startup investment goes to women, and an estimated 1% goes to founders who are black, while 37% of queer founders have not felt comfortable disclosing their identities to their investors and the ones who have, have raised over 10% less funding, and the statistics around transgender people in the startup ecosystem very simply do not exist. 

That data shows that there are vast numbers of us who are outsiders. 

And when you have that data it becomes impossible to ignore the cold reality that we are not backing and we are not funding and we are not supporting folks who don’t look, act and talk like the Silicon Valley cliche; a white dude in a hoodie. When you have that data, you have to recognize the potential risks of missing out on the next brilliant idea, simply because we aren’t listening to folks who are far enough removed from the bubble of homogeneity to recognize a path to it. 

With the protests happening in the United States right now, protests that are echoing around the world as communities hear the call to rise up against racism, it’s impossible to write anything about outsiders and incumbent power structures without specifically recognizing the inherent biases that prohibit the inclusion of non-white founders and startup players across the board. And it behooves me to recognize that even my own marginalization as a white transgender woman pales in comparison to the marginalization of black and native voices in the tech ecosystem. But it all plays on the same wavelength, and it all plays the same tune – one of exclusion based on a system that won’t support what they view, either consciously or subconsciously as non-compatible identities. 

When I called myself an opportunity you don’t want to miss – that’s not arrogance. That’s recognizing that I can see and communicate with a world that I understand through a lens that isn’t influenced by one single paradigm. That’s a strength. And it’s a strength that so many of the folks I know share, because we are the outsiders who are done looking in. 

We are done waiting for the gatekeepers. We are done waiting for permission

Permission isn’t coming. Permission isn’t happening. Nobody, as it turns out, is going to pull up and announce that they will actively and tangibly back a transgender woman in tech. But that isn’t my approach, and it isn’t my style to wait for that to happen. I’ve never played that game, and I don’t intend to start now. I don’t look at being transgender as being a liability, a flaw, an obstacle, a hurdle or a challenge. I see it as my competitive edge, the one thing that shapes my creativity and my perspective in ways that differentiate me in a sea of similar faces. Being trans, and being an outsider means I don’t have the blind spots that other folks in the ecosystem work with. I can see untapped opportunities, because I am an untapped opportunity. 

Facing down unemployment, facing down an industry that wouldn’t back and believe in me, I made the decision to stop asking for that belief. I founded a startup and creative studio, Self, where I have begun working with promising founders – founders who also lack the insider background of their peers – who are creating technology products and platforms that I believe in. I have begun working with teams raising millions, communicating what they do, and helping to design their pitch and find their investors. And as of this year, I’ve written my first checks as a transgender angel investor – the only one that I know of in Australia. 

I have written for Wired and the SF Chronicle and grown an audience of folks who don’t come to me to hear accepted wisdom – they come for an outsider’s take. That’s on me because it’s from me, because I did it on my own. 

And if nobody wants to give me a job in VC, I will go out there and make one for myself. I don’t know how. But I will not be stopped. 

And to me – that’s pride

Pride is recognizing the unique worth and value that you have. Pride is in pitching that value, not apologizing for it, making excuses for it or trying to offset it with respectability overtures. Pride is owning that being different gives you power and that power gives you what it takes to build your own path, your own future, your own way. Pride is what sets us apart from the mainstream as much as who we are sets us apart, because we have earned pride in the identities and lives and livelihoods that we have fought for. 

I would strongly advise anyone who has the ability to hire, invest in or support any founder or maker to stop sleeping on those of us with whom they can’t pattern match, and realize that we can pattern match to a world they’ve never even spoken to. I would advise you not to sleep on us for the simple reason that we aren’t waiting for you to wake up to us. We are creating and we will continue to create our own paths that will not involve you or revolve around you and that you will regret not taking the chance to participate in. We will do it without you if you won’t do it with us; and the only ones who will be sore over it are going to be you.

Stick with us all month for more 🏳️‍🌈Pride 2020🏳️‍🌈 coverage. If you’d like to share your story, we’ve opened our contributor’s platform up for Pride-related submissions (like the one you just read!) authored by people working in or aspiring to the STEM fields. 

Published June 4, 2020 — 16:47 UTC

Pssst, hey you!

Do you want to get the sassiest daily tech newsletter every day, in your inbox, for FREE? Of course you do: sign up for Big Spam here.