Entrepreneur Lora Haddock uses her newly found soapbox to tackle sexism in the technology sector.
Awoman in business. A woman in tech. A woman in sex tech. If Lora Haddock was looking to confront institutionalized sexism, she could not have found a more direct route than the one she has walked this year. The founder and CEO of Bend pleasure-tech company Lora DiCarlo locked horns with the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) in a very public debate about a sexual device for women.
Last fall Consumer Technology Association judges lauded the company with an innovation award for robotics and drone technology for the device, which is called the Osé. Then, in a surprising reversal, the organization’s administrators rescinded the award and banned Haddock’s company from exhibiting at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
In a statement, the association said it reserved the right to decide which entries were “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.” The organization referred to a strict policy of forbidding adult companies from exhibiting — an explanation that failed to account for other adult technology present at the show, including virtual reality technology for male-facing pornography and a talking female sex robot, among others. A second, later rebuttal, that the device was ineligible because it didn’t fit into any award category, also fell flat.
Haddock did not go quietly.
“By excluding female-focused sex tech, CES and CTA are essentially saying that sexuality and health that isn’t cis-male-centric [male-assigned male at birth] is not worthy of innovation,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “These biases smother innovation by blocking access to funding, exposure, and technology transfer and development to other industries, as well as consumers that could take brands and products to the next level.”
Like many technological devices, the Osé aims to fill a void in the market. With eight patents pending in robotics, biomimetic tech and engineering design, the Osé distinguishes itself from traditional female vibrators in several ways. First and foremost, instead of vibration, it uses biomimicry to elicit simultaneous internal and external stimulation. The design is also unusual in that it is waterproof, hands-free and fits a variety of body sizes.
If the CTA had hoped to diminish Lora DiCarlo’s profile by banning the company from its show, their effort more than backfired. The conflict was covered by The New York Times, Forbes, Popular Mechanics and Cosmopolitan, among other national and tech publications.
Haddock has since received invitations to speak at Bend’s Muse Women’s Conference, the South by Southwest music festival, Forbes magazine’s inaugural Under 30 Global Women’s Summit in Tel Aviv and TechCrunch Disrupt. The company was honored with an innovation award at ShowStoppers, a media reception that takes place simultaneously but is separate from the Consumer Electronics Show.
Lora DiCarlo has completed the prototype phase of the Osé in partnership with Oregon State University’s College of Engineering and continues to move toward production with help from $1.18 million in funding through private investment in an Oregon Opportunity Zone Limited Partnership fund and a $100,000 grant from Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency. Haddock says the company is on track to release the Osé to consumers this fall. All this appears to be more than enough of a silver lining.
“We’ve said this before, but I want to thank the CTA,” she says with a laugh.
On a recent day, as the snow piles up outside the window of her Bend home, 33-year-old Haddock explains the technology behind the Osé — the little machine that caused the big uproar. The idea for the device — which means “risqué” in Italian, in a nod to Haddock’s Sicilian lineage — originated in Haddock’s own attitudes about sexuality. She says she was raised to believe it was a normal and healthy part of human life, though mainstream culture does not seem to agree.
“I wanted to start a company that really shook the ground, that asked hard questions and started to bring the conversation back to the table,” she says.
Her nursing studies at private military college Norwich University and Portland State University, and a self-described obsession with anatomy and physiology, led to the idea for the Osé. Haddock credits her design chops to years hanging out in the shop with her dad, who was a program engineer at the Kennedy Space Station at Lockheed Martin.
Instead of talking about the Osé’s groundbreaking technology, Haddock finds herself responding to pervasive sexist attitudes about female sexuality and women’s bodies.
“We don’t even bat an eye when Bob Dole does an [erectile-disfunction] commercial, but if you talk about period panties, then everybody throws their hands up,” she says.
While Haddock’s experience is undoubtedly intensified by the fact that her invention deals with female sexuality, sexism in tech is widely acknowledged.
“Lacking relatable peers and role models, battling stereotypes, and feeling ‘othered’ were and still are representative of the issues facing women in every sector of the workforce,” writes Rebecca Lovell, chair of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, in a February report called “The Ascent of Women-Founded, Venture-Backed Startups in the United States.”
The report also documents how sexism in tech emerges in funding. In 2017 only 16% of nearly $83 billion invested in U.S. venture-backed startups was awarded to tech firms with at least one female founder, and just 2.5% to those with all-female founders. Additionally, the report found that only 9% of general partners at leading venture capital firms are women.
“It’s not about men or women being better. It’s about equality. It’s about boosting diversity.” Lora Haddock
“Women’s underrepresentation among leading venture capital firms and venture-backed startups is especially stark when compared with their rates of participation in the workforce (47%), business ownership (36%), high-tech industry employment (30%), or as alumni of the feeder institutions (universities, degree programs, corporations) that tend to populate the sector (various percentages),” the report says.
Oregon’s tech world is no exception.
“Broadly speaking, women in the industry are continuing to face a tremendous amount of bias,” says PDX Women in Tech founder and president Megan Bigelow.
The nonprofit, which counts 6,000 members in the Portland metro region, was founded in 2012 to empower women, nonbinary and LGBTQI people in tech with community and skill-building events, mentorship, access to jobs, and other opportunities.
Bigelow applauds Haddock for speaking out and says the industry needs to change from within. She challenges tech leaders, so often men, to be as innovative in changing the culture as they are in creating technologies.
“We need the leaders of these organizations to recognize that their efforts to increase diversity and inclusion are well intentioned, but they are just scratching the surface,” Bigelow says.
Haddock is happy to use her present soapbox to shine a light on sexism in the industry.
“It’s not about men or women being better. It’s about equality. It’s about boosting diversity.”
Haddock’s belief that diversity increases innovation was born out by her collaboration with the College of Engineering at Oregon State University in creating the Osé prototype.
The Osé is scheduled to hit the market this fall. Blake Larkin, mechanical engineer at Lora DiCarlo, is working on the project.
She first heard about the lab at the annual Bend Venture Conference, where a name kept coming up: John Parmigiani, associate professor of mechanical engineering and senior director of industry research and outreach. She talked to other engineering firms, but Haddock says none of them showed the creativity she was looking for, so she reached out to Parmigiani.
When she presented the Osé concept at their first meeting, Parmigiani admits the idea gave him pause.
“I was a bit taken aback and a little uncomfortable,” he says.
But as Haddock proceeded to show him the data she had collected from more than 200 women and a list of 52 design specifications, he returned to his comfort zone, feeling confident that the project was something the university would approve.
“It was a very sound mechanical-engineering problem,” he says.
Kim Porter, Lora DiCarlo’s director of engineering
Haddock’s matter-of-fact attitude eliminated any potential for awkwardness as her team began to collaborate with Parmigiani’s lab staff and students.
For his part, Parmigiani says the entrepreneurial spirit of the collaboration was so much fun for him and his students that he has refocused his emphasis on consumer products with a new prototype-development lab.
“It’s one thing to be working with a big company and there is something they need to do their job better. But that just can’t compare when somebody comes in with their own dream,” he says. “I want to find more Lora Haddocks,” adding that he is not interested in working with other pleasure-tech companies.
Ada-Rhodes Short, senior mechatronics engineer at Lora DiCarlo
Launching a company, raising funding and creating a prototype is hard work alone. On top of that, all the national attention following the conflict with the Consumer Technology Association has felt like drinking from a fire hose, Haddock says. But she soldiers on, loving the challenge and taking respite in Oregon’s outdoors, where she enjoys mountain biking, rock climbing and kiteboarding.
“I’m truly an adventure junkie,” she says. “I have an addiction to adrenaline.”
She also enjoys the cheerful companionship of her black and white Pomeranian, Enzo, whom she jokingly calls head of HR and who has his own Instagram handle (@Enzofuzz).
As for the Consumer Electronics Show, Haddock says she has no hard feelings and hopes to attend the show next year. In an attempt, it seems, to take the high road, she says she thinks the CTA could have just made a big oversight.
“I still think they have a great opportunity to come back, sit down with us, and discuss how we can approach CES 2020 and start really understanding what inclusivity and diversity look like when you include not just women, people of color, the LGBTQI community and all ages, but when you start including appropriately placed sex technology.”
She’s excited about the product launch, which is on track for fall. And she has advice for young women entrepreneurs.
“Don’t ever be quiet,” she says. “Some people are absolutely going to shoot you down and make you feel like you don’t belong in the places that you deserve to be in. So just keep fighting.”
(Photos by Jason E. Kaplan)
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