The following is adapted from This Better Work by Lynsie Campbell.
One night in 2017 I headed to the AlphaLab Elevator Pitch & Mentor Social. I’d grown to dread tech networking events in Pittsburgh. At this point, they were all just slightly different versions of the same thing. Nothing had changed since I’d launched my first startup. A decade later, the same handful of guys held the purse strings that founders needed to tug on to get funding. Yet I continued to attend these events because every founder needs a support system. Oh, and the free beer.
The founders who’d created the most successful, cutting-edge companies in Pittsburgh didn’t come to these events. Very few of them were still active mentors. You can only give for so long without getting anything in return. The people who were the most dedicated to these events were the investors who had money to burn and the service providers looking for money to burn.
So I was surprised and delighted to see two new faces this evening. As I was working my way around the room saying goodbye after the pitches, two guys stopped me and introduced themselves. The conversation was still fresh when Bob sauntered over and butted in. This was the same Bob who, ten years earlier, after knowing me for all of two minutes, told me that Innovation Works would never invest in me.
It was a fairly normal networking conversation until Bob put his hands around my waist and said, “There’s no way you have a two-year-old with a body like this.”
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. Did he really just say that to me? And are those his hands around my waist?
He most certainly did, and they most certainly were.
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me. I was a woman working in an industry dominated by men. At a similar networking event five years earlier, the same guy had said to me, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight. You should really only wear tight clothing now.” But out of all the unfortunate experiences I’d had, this one was the by far the most mortifying. It was the combination of the comment about my body, the hands around my waist, and the fact that he’d involved my kid. Gross. The conversation immediately shifted from being friendly and jovial to awkward and uncomfortable.
I wanted to run. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. Instead, I shrugged it off with an awkward laugh and headed for the door. But the more I thought about it the more upset I got. I couldn’t believe he’d done that to me, in front of strangers, at a professional networking event. Why didn’t I say something right after it happened? Why didn’t I speak up? That wasn’t like me.
I’d sent a complaint to AlphaLab about Bob’s behavior five years before and nothing had come of it, but that didn’t stop me from submitting another one. I opened my laptop and sent an email to the team at AlphaLab, explaining what Bob had done and telling them I wasn’t comfortable attending their events anymore.
This is what it was like to be a female tech founder in Pittsburgh in 2017. This is also what it was like to be a female tech founder in Pittsburgh in 2007. And in 2012. And it’s the same way today. I’ve come to find out that I wasn’t the only woman who had uncomfortable experiences at these events and that Bob wasn’t the only offender.
And it’s been like this forever. Being a woman in tech in Pittsburgh hasn’t changed since I started my journey. The Pittsburgh investor ecosystem hasn’t changed either, and as I learned the first time around, this ecosystem wasn’t designed for someone like me. I was going to have to look for help outside my hometown.
A few months earlier, I’d completed AlphaLab’s twenty-week accelerator program. While AlphaLab is ranked as one of the top tech accelerators in the country, it has been extremely slow to evolve with the pack. When accepted into AlphaLab’s program in 2017, a startup received $25,000 in funding (not nearly enough), educational programming (mediocre at best), mentors (I’ll get to this in a bit), back-office support (also not fantastic) and office space (vital to me). This, in exchange for 5 percent equity (way too much).
I didn’t apply to AlphaLab because I needed the $25,000. Sure, it would have been nice, but it wasn’t enough money to move the needle. I applied to AlphaLab because I wanted to work alongside other founders who were at the same stage in the process. I wanted to brainstorm with the other teams and leech energy and ideas from them. As a solo founder, I needed to get advice, help, and camaraderie wherever I could find it.
But that wasn’t what happened. The vibe at AlphaLab was terrible. Nothing about it fostered creativity. I’d spent a lot of time at AlphaLab over the years. The two offices it occupied were colorful, vibrant, and well laid out, and the vibe there was exciting and fun — for the first few years. Then it slowly started to change, and not for the better.
By 2017, the offices were no longer filled with music, laughter, and ping-pong. They didn’t even have good snacks or coffee. If there wasn’t an event going on that day, you walked into a cold room full of silence. My cohort was especially quiet and small. There was no energy in the space. Often the office was completely empty.
I should’ve realized that I didn’t need AlphaLab to spark my creativity or further my connections. I should’ve just leased co-working space, identified the other weirdo founders in the office, and made myself at home. When the program ended, I left my free AlphaLab space and joined Ascender, a coworking space on the East End of the city. The office space was lively and filled with actual humans. Gwen made the best coffee and made sure I never had to listen to someone’s favorite reggae album for an entire day. The biggest bonus? There weren’t a bunch of creepy investors lurking around, making everyone uncomfortable.
Very little in the Pittsburgh startup scene had changed since I’d left for San Francisco three years before, but I certainly had. I was a little scarred and a lot more jaded, but I was also more experienced and confident. I felt like I was closer to being my true self than I’d ever been. I definitely wasn’t myself toward the end of my time at ShowClix.
As ShowClix had morphed from plucky startup to corporate wannabe, I’d been forced to play a role I was never comfortable playing. Friends who’ve seen pictures of me from this time, with my long blonde hair, J. Crew dresses, and general neatness, call that version of me “Conservative Lynsie” or “Republican Lynsie.” What a contrast to the way I look now, with my short punky hair, half-sleeve tattoos on both arms, and a bike hat perpetually on my head.
When I left ShowClix, I broke free from the shackles of caring what you might think about the way I look, and I have no intention of ever going back. I’m going to be fully myself from now on. You can take it or leave it.