Drinks with… Deborah Hall

A teatime chat about women in tech at Toronto's SoHo House

Jeromy Lloyd April 25, 2016

Two silver tea pots crowded a tiny table between me and Deborah Hall as we tried to shake off the chill. Hall had arrived first and was already sipping from a china cup when I sat down and offered a colourful curse towards March’s last wintry blast. Ours were not the only winter coats hung over the chairs inside SoHo house – an upscale hangout for creatives and media types working in Toronto’s core.

I’d been looking forward to catching up with Hall, who had been an early comrade in Cannes when I was first sent to cover the Lions. She’d gotten us into yacht parties to which we were not invited where, sipping unbelievable scotches, she’d introduced me to keynote speakers she’d met while I was scribbling in the press room.

But more than a catch up, this tea-time conversation took place in the days following Gustavo Martinez’s departure from JWT amid allegations he made sexist and racist remarks. It had made the entire industry pause to ask hard questions such as “where are all the women in leadership roles?” and I wanted Hall’s take on women in martech.

She has certainly had to deal with the Old Boys Club in her career. The first job that her mechanical engineering degree earned her was at one of the world’s largest computer component manufacturers, building those green, metal-studded boards in the guts of all our electronics.

“There were no women there,” she said. “Zero. And what freaked me the most was there were pinup girls on the walls. I didn’t acknowledge that. I just tried to pretend it was not a problem, that I could roll with it. I’m not sure that was the right way to go, but I remember dressing so conservatively. You don’t want to mess with it, right? You’re just happy to have a job.”

But from there, where I think many would want to rail against those who passively create hostile workplaces, it becomes clear Hall sees this converstaion being about something more positive: mentorship.

“The best conversation we could have is about getting fewer barriers beyond the question, ‘How do I get a tech career going?’ Certainly a lot of women come to me and say that getting into tech seems so hard.”

It’s not surprising that young people seek Hall out. She is earnestly and unreservedly energized by this business and the ideas that could change it. It’s why she has been so successful with start-ups, which require that kind of tireless passion for what’s next. In 2010, she sold her own start-up, Web2Mobile, to Torstar Digital and then led that business until 2013. Dive Networks, which she co-founded with OneStop Media’s Michael Girgis after leaving Torstar, is her latest endeavour and has already built partnerships with several Fortune 500 companies. She’s currently out procuring funding for it.

“I know we definitely have an equality issue for women in tech, and definitely for women raising money for tech companies. There needs to be more women starting tech ventures.”

Given that only 25-30% of engineering and computer science graduates in Canada are women, according to StatsCan, it will be a few years before any real difference will be made on that front. Dive needs people with very specific skills in new programming languages, making the prospect of hiring more women even tougher for Hall.

Then again, Hall acknowledges that she’s flourished as a technologist even though many of her mentors came from traditional marketing backgrounds, like former Zenith Optimedia CEO Sunni Boot, whom she met when Publicis acquired Rare Medium (another startup she had joined). Whether that fact reveals to Hall that she—havingworked at creative, technology and media companies of all sizes—is an ideal mentor for young women, I don’t know. But it certainly appears that way to me.

The Drinks: Tea (Earl Grey and English Breakfast), with milk and sugar