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How Portland's Tech Community Focused On Disrupting the System In the Face of Sexual Harassment

The city's unique ecosystem is making an effort to make change versus ineffectively reacting to the symptoms.
How Portland's Tech Community Focused On Disrupting the System In the Face of Sexual Harassment
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VIP Contributor
Leadership Futurist and Gender Equity Advocate
6 min read
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It’s no secret that growth in the entrepreneur ecosystem means growth in the local and national economy. Sure, Silicon Valley may be perceived as the epicenter of innovation, but more and more cities and states are investing in entrepreneurship to not only build the next new technology and medical innovation, they are also investing in the present and future of their residents. In fact, creating capital, markets and talent more accessible and eliminating excessive regulations that impair innovation may may increase GDP by nearly 7% in the next decade through job creation, revenue and large scale transactions.

A few months ago, I spoke at the Startup Maine event in Portland. I hadn’t been to Portland in nearly 25 years. To say the city has changed is an understatement. The truth is I don’t remember much about my Portland visit years ago beyond that the people were extremely welcoming. The small city itself wasn’t that memorable. Fast forward to this summer and I found a renewed city I won’t long forget. The city has blossomed with a great food scene, a lively nightlife and a growing entrepreneur ecosystem without losing its Maine essence. “As Maine’s economic capital, Portland’s economy has evolved over the years, shifting from fishing, manufacturing and agriculture towards a more service-based economy. One common thread that has remained a constant to the ethos of Maine’s ‘brand’ is a high degree of craftsmanship, integrity, and ingenuity,” says Betsy Peters, Entrepreneur and Founder of 230Trees in Portland. Still, the city found itself in the familiar position of falling victim to an institutionalized imbalance of power.

Related: It's Not About Disruption -- Industry Transformation Is About New Markets

Another sexual harassment scandal in the news

Earlier this year a few key pillars of the ecosystem were accused of and admitted to sexual harassment allegations, including Jess Knox, the public face of Maine Startup & Create Week (MSCW) and Venture Hall, he was recognized as instrumental in leading several women in the community. The fallout, of course, hit the community hard. According to Peters, and her peers Raffi Der Simonian, Der Simonian LLC and Adam Nyhan, Opticliff Law, Venture Hall was on the verge of accepting a $425,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to bring new healthcare businesses to connect with Maine-based enterprises including Maine Health and Unum.

Perhaps due to the large population of transplants from places like Massachusetts, California and New York mixed with the practical Yankee ingenuity and locally-raised Mainers, this crisis was by no means the end of the story. Peters, Der Simonian and Nyhan quickly regrouped with their community to create an ecosystem worthy of growth and opportunity for all. “For the many volunteers who have been working on MSWC for several years, there was more of a short pause than an existential crisis,” says Peters.

Related: Which Is a Better City for Startups, San Francisco or New York City?

A familiar problem, a very different response

Rather than stopping at the short-term approach of firing the accused executives without any real change to the system that made this behavior possible in the first place or becoming paralyzed by fear or anger, Portland’s business and local community leaders, including some of the accusers, came together to understand how one person could yield so much power over a program that serves and is owned by the community in which it resides. “Our failure was around the amount of power Jess was given versus the lack of governance around him,” says Peters.

Immediately following the crisis, MSCW was rebranded to Startup Maine under new leadership. MaineCanDo was formed by member of the ecosystem and victims’ rights advocates to define and create a systematic community response that includes online practical tools and a pledge of accountability that has been signed by over 350 organizations and individuals including DC politicians, banks, business executives, VCs and public companies.

What is so refreshing about the response by the Portland community can be seen in how they uniquely define success beyond the hard numbers traditionally used to determine the health and viability of an ecosystem. Of course Portland faces the same challenges many other cities face when it comes to attracting supernova startups and founders, like a limited talent pool from a small population, a lack of big-name logos and a condensed pool of resources and investors. In true Maine ingenuity, Peters and her fellow ecosystem leaders see the real opportunity lays in redefining what an entrepreneur looks like. “We need to encourage clusters and high-growth businesses, but we also need to enlarge the tent to encourage all types of new businesses to create a scene that is authentically Maine,” says Peters.

Underpinning their uniquely Maine approach to entrepreneurship as an economic booster, Portland uses the Maine Development Foundation Measures of Growth report in replacement of the traditional annual report which focuses primarily on dollars and cents. First installed in 1993, the Measures of Growth Report analyzes key metrics in three categories: economy, community and environment. The convergence of these categories defines the one value that Maine is known for: quality of life.

Related: What Every Disrupter Needs to Know About Transformation

Valuable take-aways from the convergence

Rather than focus on saving a broken system, Der Simonian and Nyhan worked together with several local leaders to understand how their ecosystem enabled the challenges it faced and what needed to be disrupted so that history does not have a chance to repeat itself. Their reflection was undeniably by the people and for the people -- just like the state in which they reside:

Talk openly about the hard, uncomfortable topics that create toxicity. Don’t be afraid to call out bad behavior or speak up on behalf of those who may not feel confident to be a solo voice in the crowd.

Do not give all the power to the few. From contracts to project leadership to relationships with people of power, it truly takes a large village to cultivate a thriving ecosystem. Make sure power and influence are intentionally shared.

Live by Peter Drucker’s wise advice: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Rather than dealing with harassment as a separate issue, prevent harassment in how business is done, not in addition. Embedded is the exception of inclusion in every aspect of HR and people relations -- without exception and with full visibility, and personal and shared accountability.

Create a true governance model whereby every executive and person of influence is held to a high standard of ethics. Ensure that financial oversight provides the highest levels of transparency and personal accountability, starting with the board.

View inclusion as a strategy, not as an afterthought. Intentionally embed inclusion goals that implement consistent equitable practices which reward talent regardless of population segment.

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