RISE is one of the biggest technology conferences in Asia. It’s organized by an Irish company called Ci Labs, which puts on large events around the world, including Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Over 14,000 attendees are in Hong Kong to see hundreds of tech luminaries speak and startups exhibit until July 13. One of the things many attendees and speakers would have seen are these t-shirts:
One shirt reads: “I only date startup founders” (a variant replaces “founders” with “girls”). Another one has emblazoned on its back: “My favorite position is CEO.” The shirts were worn by employees of a video production company called BeFast.TV. The company streams sessions and conducts interviews with people at the conference. According to its Facebook page it’s based in Hong Kong.
BeFast.TV’s CEO is a woman named Marina Bay. She brushed off criticism from TechCrunch reporter Jon Russell that the t-shirts were “tone-deaf,” tweeting in response:
That would suggest she sees “My favorite position is CEO” as an inspirational message—as in, become the CEO. But to many the slogans are particularly problematic because Silicon Valley is roiling with high-profile sexual harassment allegations that have seen several big-name investors quitting from VC funds in the past few weeks.
Bay said the t-shirts drew a “positive response in general” and that the only negative responses were from two male members of the media. She also said her firm made “no connection” between its t-shirt slogans and the latest events in Silicon Valley.
Naomi Wu, a hardware hacker in Shenzhen who’s known both for her electronic inventions and making a statement about tech stereotypes by dressing in tiny outfits, weighed in on the matter:
It’s also worth noting that the phrase “my favorite position is CEO” can be traced back to a remark by reality TV star Lauren Conrad, who was forced to answer the awkward question on a live radio show. Her response was hailed as the perfect comeback to a sexist query.
Quartz spoke to two female BeFast employees, one of whom was wearing one of the shirts. They said the company asked them to wear the shirts and that they weren’t given an option in their choice of dress for the conference. However, they defended the company, saying that they were not bothered by the slogans. They said no one should be judged by their clothing, and that the media should focus on the startups at the conference instead of fellow members of the media.
RISE, like many tech conferences, has an anti-harassment policy for attendees. Part of it states: “Exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualised clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualised environment.”
The policy is clearly aimed at the practice of hiring “booth babes” at exhibition stands. The sexual innuendo with the BeFast slogans arguably contravenes the spirit of the policy.
“As soon as we were informed about the messages on these T-shirts, we asked BeFast.TV that the T-shirts be changed or covered up. They have not been worn since,” Eleanor McGrath, a spokeswoman for RISE, wrote to Quartz in an email.
This story was updated with Marina Bay’s and RISE’s comments.