Studio Self co-founder Joan Westenberg uses her experiences as a trans woman in tech to steer the industry towards transgender inclusion.
Founder, Platinum Hermes Award Recipient, writer, and angel investor Joan Westenberg has always had an entrepreneurial streak.
By the age of 14, Westenberg loved coding. She saw how popular MySpace was among her friends and peers and came up with the perfect plan to tap into the opportunity. So, she created and sold MySpace design and automation and found immediate success.
More than ten years after her first brush with entrepreneurship, Westenberg is a founder, an award-winning PR director, writer, and D&I consultant. She has written for The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey, and over 40 other publications. She’s also one of the first few transgender angel investors in Australia.
“I’ve always loved technology. I taught myself to code when I was 12 years old, and I’ve just fallen in love with it. I love being online, doing anything cool, building cool stuff, and just exploring online communities. So it’s always been really important to me,” she shared.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Westenberg, who used to head PR and communications for tech brands, and who has always been in demand by tech companies looking to leverage her skill in shaping their voice, experienced a shift in attitudes after transitioning.
“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,” she told The Next Web in a June 2020 article.
Grappling with an industry that didn’t support or see her, Westenberg decided to create opportunities and built a trans-inclusive space for the tech industry’s other ‘outsiders’.
With this mission in mind, Westenberg founded Studio Self, a communications and PR consultancy. At Studio Self, Westenberg works with founders to bring their tech products to the market. By doing so, Westenberg breaks multiple barriers as women lead only about 1% of the world's creative agencies.
“I think growing up as a queer person, I didn’t really have a lot of access to a queer community. And so spending time with online communities was a way to kind of replace that and reach out to people who were like me, and could help me discover who I was,” said Westenberg.
The tech industry -which is ostensibly progressive - is still white-male dominated, leaving a vast portion of the world's population out. This divergence is particularly apparent within the LGBTQIA community. A 2019 report by TechRepublic indicated that transgender men typically receive more respect on the job after transitioning, while transgender women report a downward shift in status after transitioning.
Through Studio Self, Westenberg also helps tech companies be more inclusive and foster diversity through her D&I consultancy, QueerInclusive. “I started Studio Self because I was really passionate about doing great creative work for tech companies. And I wanted to do it on my own terms,” said Westenberg.
“After spending over a decade working in different tech companies, I was really tired. And I just wanted to do things my own way”, she says. “I initially just started by doing a few little projects for some venture capital firms and tech founders that I knew personally. And then from there, it just grew organically,” she continued.
Running her consultancy gives Westenberg the freedom to select clients that reflect her values and perspectives. Westenberg’s unique approach to storytelling helps emerging tech companies by refining their core messaging. Studio Self has worked to do this with startups like Fintech newcomer We Money, an Australian money management app made to liberate users from debt. Another Self Studio client, GoTerra, a company that uses maggots and robots to manage food waste.
With QueerInclusive, Westenberg works with companies and brands that are developing their inclusiveness within the LGBTQIA community. “They want to provide a home in a workplace that is safe and accepting, and loving and kind, you know, and so we work with them to build out what they need to be that better version of themselves.”
This work includes consulting with businesses to work on whatever issues and limitations they have. Westenberg uses tools like workshops to improve the overall work culture. Westenberg also discussed a recent instance where she coached a company founder on supporting a transitioning employee.
One of QueerInclusive’s most impressive accomplishments has been creating an open-source tech-focused transgender inclusion policy. This platform encourages tech employees, venture capitalists, and founders to understand trans inclusion and make workplaces safe and welcoming. The inclusion policy covers transgender men and women and non-binary employees and shows companies the best ways to support them.
Westenberg’s open-source guideline covers aspects of work that employers need to be aware of – such as addressing trans employees by the correct names and pronouns, restroom access, and the commitment to keep discrimination out of the workplace. She drew from a range of documents from human rights and transgender organizations, technology companies like Mozilla and Atlassian, and higher learning institutions to format her recommendations.
A significant part of building inclusive and welcoming communities in tech is encouraging marginalized creators and providing them with the tools they need to succeed. After working in tech for over a decade and creating a successful company, Westenberg understands success. She focuses on passing on the lessons she has learned to underrepresented founders who struggle to make their mark in tech.
“I have answered a lot of the hard questions that you have to find your own answers to," Westenberg says of the hardship of starting a business. "So it’s just about giving other people access to that support as much as possible." For Joan, the ultimate purpose is to add value to her clients.
A 2020 report by Blind, an anonymous professional network, showed that while 86% of workers reported their companies as safe LGBTQ+ spaces, only 64% of trans and gender non-conforming workers agree.
Westenberg has a positive outlook on trans rights and inclusivity in the tech community but said more work is needed. Speaking of the industry, she says, “We are in an interesting place for trans rights. I’m interested to see where it goes. I can’t say that it’s the best for trans people out there. But I think it’s a matter of giving it time, and it will get better.”
“People overall are pretty good, they are pretty willing to learn new stuff, which is always a wonderful thing," said Westenberg, "I’m a big believer in the kindness and the goodness of humanity,” she ended.
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