Real Talk at Collision 2017: Robotic CEOS, Fake News, and A New Era of Activism


When it comes to conferences, Collision 2017 was content overload, but in a good way. In its fifth year, Collision is a techie’s dream convention, covering everything from fake news to space travel to VR and the future of venture capital, to the United Airlines debacle and Trump’s presidency. To be sure, one of the Collision’s biggest themes was the advancement of women in business, not just because of the widely-heralded financial benefits enjoyed by firms with women at the helm, but also to help the world center itself in an uncertain and anxiety-filled era.

2 May 2017; Alpha booths at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Collision / Sportsfile

“Even if you don’t subscribe to why this is important – even if you don’t believe we have to make up for decades of years of oppression, of decades of subjugation of women in the workplace, you should just do it because you’ll make more money,” said billionaire investor and Collision speaker, Chris Sacca, adding that his only condition for joining the Shark Tank cast was if the producers would bring on more women and minorities. “We don’t teach our girls to negotiate as a society. We don’t teach our girls to pitch. Guys grow up knowing the difference between bullshit and lying. Society encourages them to have some swagger. I love that the girls who watch this show want to start their own company.”

Held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans from May 1 to 4, this year’s Collision iteration brought 19,732 people from 119 countries, with 42.6 percent of attendees coming from Collision’s female-focused Women in Tech program. It also featured a vast array of forums, panels, pitching competitions, a robot named Pepper who greeted attendees, and plenty of well-known faces like Sophia Bush, Wyclef Jean, Terrell Owens, and of course, Sacca, who handed out beers to the audience while delivering the first day's unofficial keynote speech.

2 May 2017; Chris Sacca, Founder & Chairman, Lowercase Capital, on the Centre Stage at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Collision / Sportsfile

Despite being slated for only 45 minutes, Sacca spoke for more than two hours to a captivated crowd about everything from Trump’s presidency to diversity in Silicon Valley, to Uber’s recent media firestorm, and his own retirement and new mission to give back.

“I’d rather take that energy and teach what I know about building and scaling, raising money, converting, organizing, to the next generation of activists, who might take this country back,” he said, underscoring an omnipresent sense of activism that permeated the three day event. “One of the biggest challenges in my life is raising three kids. I need to teach these kids empathy and service and gratitude. I’m going to consider it one of my biggest failures if I don’t turn them into three of the greatest, most giving and heartfelt citizens.”

3 May 2017; Attendees interact with Pepper the robot at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Diarmuid Greene / Collision / Sportsfile

When asked about his opinions on Uber, Sacca, an early investor in the ridesharing platform, didn't mince words. “There is a massive problem with women and sexism in Uber,” he said.

“One of the very first things [Uber should do] is start bringing in the activists in this space, people who have found the courage and strength to come out publicly about what matters in this space. I think Uber can bring them in and listen and embrace them.”

Another Collision headliner was actress and activist, Sophia Bush, who took to the stage and spoke about empowering young women in global communities for entrepreneurial futures via education. Bush, who is an advocate for Glamour's The Girl Project, also spoke about her steadfast dedication to evening the playing field here in the workplace (she spoke openly about a recent co-star who made unwanted sexual advances) and to helping young girls in third world countries have access to primary and secondary education, the latter of which she says is more difficult than many may realize.

“I’ve worked in advocacy for a really long time, and it’s a trifecta of issues when you look at women’s empowerment; education access, and the environment,” Bush told SWAAY after her talk “Feminism Isn’t a Liability” which she delivered alongside Orange Is The New Black Star, Alysia Reiner. “Especially when you’re looking at developing countries. If we can solve gender parity, if we can empower women, all of those things fall into place.”

Bush went on to say that sending young women to secondary school has proven to lower women’s probability of having multiple children, and ultimately helps them uplift an entire community. “When we invest in men, they spend 90 percent of the investment on themselves, but when we invest in women, they spend 90 percent of that money on their family, on their communities, and on their villages," she said. "Literally the way we solve every crisis in the world is by empowering women, and creating parity."

Bush, who is also an investor in a number of women-founded tech companies, says she invests not just because the companies are lead by women, but because they are better. “I’ve been investing in tech companies for eight years; I'm a dork about it," said Bush. "It’s the world I love. If you can say 'here are smart, talented, multifaceted educated people who happen to be women,' let’s hire them. Let’s really make sure we are the ones taking the leaps for each other. There’s [not] some infinite bucket of success. The issue is, it has been just one group who has had access to the bucket and everybody should have access to it.”

4 May 2017; Sophia Bush, left, Actress/Activist, The Girl Project, with Alysia Reiner, Actress & Activist, Alysia Reiner, on the Center Stage at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Collision / Sportsfile

For her part, Reiner talked about her new film, Equity, (she produced and stars in it) which features a predominately female cast and crew. The movie highlights gender inequities on Wall Street. “I can’t change the system but I can change me,” said Reiner, adding that mentorship is a valuable way to help women advance in business. “If you can’t invest you can mentor a woman and help get her to that next place. Let’s change the energy for other people.”

Reiner who called 2017 “the year of yes with mentorship” says she makes it a point to be there to help other women whenever she can. “I haven’t said no to a single person, which is insane of me, but I just tell them what I can offer, even if it’s just a minute a week," she said.

After her talk, Reiner sat with SWAAY and shared more insight on how Orange Is The New Black helped open her eyes to the inequities in the gender prison system, which lead her to become an activist. "I think the biggest thing I learned is how many women are wrongfully imprisoned; how many women have drugs in their bags because their drug dealer boyfriends put them there, or are beaten and finally fight back and are put in prison," said Reiner, who now sits on the board of a prison advocacy organization called Still She Rises. "The amount of stories like that blew my mind."

Continuing on the theme of activism and top-down empowerment, Wyclef Jean spoke to a packed house on the event's main stage about criminal justice reform and the complicated racial relationships between police and citizens, and shared his belief that the tech community should come together to help children in rural communities not just because it's the right thing, but because it can actually help stimulate profits.

“The way that the tech and business communities can help is to invest in human capital; take a chance on a human being” said Wyclef, who grew up “as a poor kid” in Newark, NJ. “Luckily being in the hood I got a chance to have a mother and father, which to a kid, are basically his technology. With information [and technology] there's a way to turn it to education [at-risk youth]. As inventors, as you build you are going to need a workforce. If you have work for people they will work and they will not go out to the streets. If you create programs and put these kids in programs you will be surprised how much they will change. I want the tech community to take more of a risk on training and investing [in young people].”

Wyclef, who concluded his talk with a freestyle rap, which he delivered in at least three languages about bringing peace to the world, reminded the crowd that the tech industry needs to help lift up people in need, because they may find some diamonds in the rough. “What do me and Steve Jobs have in common? We both worked out of our garage,” says Wyclef. “I had no money I had a brain.”

3 May 2017; Wyclef Jean, Musician & Philanthropist, Wyclef Jean, on the Centre Stage at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Collision / Sportsfile

Both socially topical and future-focused, other talks during the three-day long conference included the importance of empathetic marketing, chatbots and the future of online learning, protecting the earth from catastrophe, the potential of flying cars, and the proliferation of fake news, a phrase that was often repeated in many speakers' talks.

“I define fake news as fundamentally false news stories written with the intent to deceive,” said John Avlon, of The Daily Beast on a panel called 'Fake News and 'The Trust Problem Sad!'. “What fake news is not is saying ‘I disagree with that’ or ‘this offends me or it doesn't fit in my political agenda. What Donald Trump and co. have been trying to do by labeling anything they disagree with or that’s unflattering of them of fake news, that’s just outright orwellian and that’s just trying to blur the lines between truth and lies, fact and fiction and that’s dangerous.

The conversation, which went on to describe the political climate and how clickbait has affected modern journalism, went on to outline the fact that publications owe it to their readers to be more clear when it comes to proliferating information that may be false or satirical. “Satire gets its own zip code but it must be clearly understood and labeled as satire sometimes these folks are just trying to blur the category,” said Avlon. “We have to take this very seriously because we are living in a time of mass information. [Fake news] is being intentionally deployed to impact elections. This is serious, this is real time and everyone’s going to have a piece in solving it.”

Continuing in the "real talk" theme of socially relevant matter, a number of Collision speakers also touched on the blurring lines between humanity and robotics. Touted as both good and bad, Ebay’s Suzy Deering talked about the negative marketing ramifications of focusing too much on analytics and algorithms when trying to talk to people.

"We have algorithms that tell us what you want based on what you think we have, but there is much more to people,” said Deering in a talk called 'Making It Personal: The New Consumer Experience.' “The reality is we’ve lost touch as marketers and merchants. Have we let technology overcome what can be the best of both worlds where art and science can be part of our marketing?”

Deering went on to say that retailers are more and more losing consumers who are sick of being spoken to in a one-size-fits all manner. She said the pleasurable experience of shopping at a well-curated boutique is being lost as chains take over what mom and pop shops once offered. “We’re wondering why the brick and mortars are going out of business, and it's because of the sea of sameness,” said Deering, adding that Ebay will be unveiling a new, uber-customized home screen later this month to help make sense of its billions of skus. "Personalization has to go beyond an email. Don’t make it prescriptive, make it predictive. Know your customer so you can create those unique experiences so they feel they can connect and engage with this brand.”

4 May 2017; Ba Blackstock, Bitmoji, on Centre Stage at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Diarmuid Greene / Collision / Sportsfile

Holding onto our humanity in the face of immersive technology was another topic for Bitmoji CEO, Ba Blackstock. During his talk Blackstock discussed the evolution of communication- from cave man to texting- and warned that in a world where the majority of our conversation is being done in a "robot-like" faceless and voiceless manner, retaining our human-ness is fundamental. “Texting has become the predominate form of communication," he said. "It's way more convenient but less human than ever, and because of that we invented the emoticon. When your friend sees your avatar they actually see you which is kind of magic. It’s metaphysical and it’s really powerful.”

With representatives from more than 600 startups in attendance, another interesting talk was delivered by Miguel McKelvey, of WeWork, who discussed his rapidly-expanding co-working space business (15 new WeWork spaces are opened each month) and how the energy of the startup is affecting larger corporation.

"We celebarete the energy of the startup; we’re inspired by, addicted to and engaged with big companies who want to feel that same energy," said McKelvey "The energy that comes from more people in a smaller space creates a vibe that is much different...in “open wasteland” of people quietly working."

Collision 2017 may have been made up of many different parts, but the themes were refreshingly similar: Remembering our humanity in a time when technology is becoming more and more encompassing, giving back and taking care of our environment, and empowering women from grade school to executive levels for future social change. Clearly now is a moment when the start up is king, and as royalty there is a responsibility to create companies that not only have the power to generate profit, but also to leave this earth better than before.

"I came to Collision to be inspired and I absolutely was," said one woman in tech who came to the conference. "I was talking to Mike Massimino [a NASA astronaut and collision speaker] and he gave me his card. I couldn't believe it. Collision is where you can be bold and make connections because where are you going to get to meet these amazing people again."
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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.