Jun 10, 2015 · 8 minutes

In less than a week our big annual event, Pandoland, kicks off in Nashville TN. I’m really excited to go back to the city and hang out with several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and other start-up folks from Nashville, the South and far beyond. In fact, I'm writing this from 30k feet on my flight from San Francisco to Nashville.

And yet, to echo something Sarah has written before, there’s one aspect of returning to the South that I’m not quite as excited by.

You might vaguely recall that a few months back, we filed a lawsuit against Launch Tennessee, the government-funded agency which we partnered with on last year’s event.  The purpose of the suit was to force LaunchTN to stick to the terms of the separation contract they signed when we ended the partnership -- which they finally agreed to do. But there’s a lot of shocking backstory to that lawsuit that I was keen to share with Pando readers once the dust had settled.

I planned to hold my tongue at least until both we and LaunchTN had hosted our separate events this year. Ultimately having two tech events in Nashville is a win-win for local entrepreneurs and there’s no reason they can’t co-exist. Also, I didn't want my telling of the story to seem like an attempt to discourage people from attending LaunchTN's event.

And then, a couple of hours ago, something happened that makes it impossible for me to hold my tongue any longer.  If I weren't writing this from a cramped airline seat, it would likely have made me punch my laptop screen, and shout something very loud and British.

This afternoon, at LaunchTN’s 36/86 conference, a (for want of a better word) man called Mark Montgomery took to the stage as part of a panel on music and technology. The panel consisted of all dudes, and, according to Southern Alpha reporter Kelley Boothe, it quickly descended in the kind of bro-fest that would cause outrage on the west coast, the east coast, most of America and — well — pretty much anywhere else, post 1975.

One speaker, a country singer, told the audience how he hears new music…

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Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 5.20.06 PM After several minutes of crap like that, the panel decided that actually maybe one woman in the crowd — former Sony exec Heather McBee — might have something worthwhile to add to the discussion.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 5.18.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 5.17.23 PM But still, at least finally a women's voice might be heard.

Or not…

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So far, so example of the kind of workaday sexism that we all hoped had been beaten out of tech events.

But then it got personal. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, panelist Mark Montgomery decided it was time to turn his sights on Pando and my business partner, Sarah Lacy…

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The Nashville Business Journal has the full quote:

"Tennessee supports Tennessee," Montgomery said. "Sarah Lacy does not give a shit about this market. Do not support her."
According to Boothe, LaunchTN's emcee high fived Montgomery as he left the stage.

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Montgomery is described by the Business Journal as a “millionaire serial entrepreneur “ and by his Linkedin profile picture as an unspeakable douche. According to Wikipedia, Montgomery is preparing to move his company —  “FLO thinkery” — to  Nashville’s "SoBro" district. I really wish I were making this up.

So, where to start with Montgomery’s comment? How about…

"Tennessee supports Tennessee"

A couple of points.

First, from Wikipedia again…

Mark Montgomery was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Sarah Lacy was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.

Second… even if Sarah weren't from Tennessee, does Montgomery really believe that supporting a state requires attacking or boycotting everyone else? There's a name for people who think like that.

Ad homs aside, we've been clear from the start that the reason we chose Nashville as the venue of our conference is to offer entrepreneurs who don’t live on the West or East coast an event that’s closer to home. We also love bringing great entrepreneurs and investors to the South to show them all the amazing companies (and food and drink and music) that Sarah’s birthplace has to offer. Regular listeners to Pandolive might also be aware of my strange love of country music (strange for a Brit, at least). Trust me when I say, if self-interest were our motive, we could have made a metric ass-ton more money (rather than just barely breaking even) and felt far more loved if we’d have stayed in San Francisco or New York.

Also, as Sarah has explained, another important reason to bring Pandoland to Nashville is that whenever we travel away from the coasts we begin to get an inkling of how frustrating it can be to be a female (or black, or gay, or in any way non-white, non-straight, non-acceptable to the old boys’ network) entrepreneur in America. The tech industries in San Francisco and New York certainly have their serious faults but, compared to other parts of the world... sheesh.

What wasn’t spelled out in our lawsuit against LaunchTN was some of the breathtaking sexism the Pando team witnessed, and experienced, while working with the government agency and its cronies. (I’ll stick to the sexism for now, and save for another time the casual homophobia, or the story about how I was told that LaunchTN’s representative had vetoed a black musician from the entertainment line-up because he might attract “the wrong element.”)

During one memorable contract discussion, Sarah was warned to “watch herself” in the way she spoke to LaunchTN’s male representatives, and told that she has a “mouth on her.” On multiple would-be-funny-if-it-were-a-sitcom occasions, I witnessed LaunchTN trying to appeal to the male members of the Pando board and senior team to help deal with the “unreasonable” Sarah. Sure, Sarah looks nice on stage (until she starts “cussing”) but she can’t really be in charge of money, right?

My favorite moment came when James Robinson, one of our writers, was stopped outside the event venue and told “I don’t know how you let that woman out of the house.”  James politely explained to the fellow that Sarah was his boss, and a grown adult, and thus he didn’t really get to decide when she was allowed outdoors.

Since then, I’d heard persistent rumors that the good ‘ol boys of LaunchTN had been backchanneling with local startups, urging them not to support Pandoland or “that woman.” (There’s no way to know how effective those efforts have been, but there are three Tennessee-based finalists in our $100k startup contest and plenty of locals have bought tickets so I’d say not entirely.)

It's important to make clear at this point that I don't believe -- can't believe -- Montgomery or LaunchTN are truly representative of Nashville. Certainly tweets like these suggest they are plenty of men in Tennessee who were just as disgusted by the on-stage comments as I was...

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But the truth is, Montgomery’s behavior on stage this afternoon and the wider sexism I saw around LaunchTN and their associates last year, is at once horrifying and utterly banal.  Every female entrepreneur, reporter or other professional — without exception — who I’ve spoken to in the city has told a similar story. You either have to learn to live with the sexism, or move somewhere else.

Well, fuck that.

As I read Kelley Boothe’s tweets, and the responses from local entrepreneurs who were as horrified as she was, I emailed Sarah with a suggestion. As it turns out, she’d had the exact same idea at the same time….

With immediate effect, we’re dropping the ticket price for women to attend Pandoland... to zero. If you’re a female entrepreneur from Tennessee or any of the surrounding states and you can make it to Nashville next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (15th-17th June), your ticket is on us. You'll have full access to all the speakers, panels, breakout sessions, food, drink and parties. Just go to this page and use the discount code “nobro” — without the quotes. That code also allows you to bring one guest — of any gender.

(If you’re a woman who lives in the South  and have already paid for your ticket, email me and I’ll issue you a full refund.)

In addition to the female entrepreneurs and investors already on stage, we’ve also asked Kelley Boothe to host a breakout discussion on gender in the South.

One other thing which shouldn’t need saying but apparently does: We’ve worked incredibly hard to create an event that is welcoming to all. Swearing is fine, strong opinions are welcome, but we will not tolerate sexism, racism or any other kind of prejudice — coded or otherwise — at Pandoland. That rule applies to speakers and audience members alike. No high-fives. One strike and you’re out, bro.

Mark Montgomery, you’ve already had your strike. Everyone else, regardless of gender, and no matter whether you’re coming from Nashville or across the globe, we can’t wait to welcome you at Pandoland on Monday.

... Update: As I was preparing this post for publication, Montgomery responded to Boothe’s tweets…

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 5.36.11 PM Baby.

(Montgomery subsequently deleted the tweet.)


Update II: As I thought, Montgomery and LaunchTN definitely aren't representative of the wider population of Nashville. Since I posted this, Sarah and I have been inundated with emails from locals distancing themselves from Montgomery's comments and offering suggestions of how we can make Pandoland even more inclusive. We'll do our best to implement as many of those suggestions as we can. Also, over 100 women -- and counting -- in Tennessee and surrounding states have so far taken up our free ticket offer. Amazing!


Update III: Launch TN has apologized for the comments made during Montgomery's panel.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]