Lisa Durnford is the Co-Chair of Venture Out, a community dedicated to connecting LGBTQA+ entrepreneurs and folks in tech to career opportunities, role models, and each other. She is also a lawyer working in anti-money laundering compliance at BMO Capital Markets. Ask her about: building safe spaces for community and innovation, ethical and regulatory considerations of emerging technologies, and penguins.
In this inspiring chat, Lisa Durnford talks about her experiences as a community builder and what it means to create safe and inclusive spaces. She also shares why it is so important to know yourself and why we need to respect and follow our boundaries.
I'm really excited to interview you. When I connected with Jeanette last week, she spoke about Venture Out and your work. As a fellow community builder, I respect the work that you're doing with the LGBTQ community.
I'm really excited to be here as well, so thank you for having me! And yes, thank you to Jeanette, I’m honoured to have been able to continue the work that she and her co-founders started.
Love it. Broad question to start: How did you get here?
Well, I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario. I moved to Toronto eight years ago to go to law school at York University and I've been here ever since. I didn't necessarily plan to stay in Toronto when I first moved, but there's always been something keeping me here. So here I am. I'm definitely enjoying it now and I've gotten used to the big city.
When I came out as queer in law school, there were some bumps and curves that came along with that. One of the most important things for me was finding a family and a community to get to know and figure out who I was and what this meant.
Part of that journey was attending a Start Proud event, a casual networking event for the LGBTQ+ community in law and business. Fast forward a couple years and I'm volunteering for Start Proud’slaw conference. Soon after, I joined a legal technology startup and was their VP of Product for a little while, which brought these two worlds together. That was right at the time that Jeanette, Stefan, and Albert were starting with this idea of Venture Out and seeing what it could be, whether it would work, and running their first conference for LGBTQ+ inclusion in entrepreneurship and technology.
At the time, I encouraged our very tiny team of five people in our start-up to sponsor Venture Out because I was really excited about what they were doing. Then right after that first event, I was pretty hooked and keen on contributing more time, so I ended up joining that team to help plan future events.
I look back now and just think of how lucky I am. There was so much going on at that point, but Venture Out is the most fulfilling,greatest thing that I've ever been a part of. It's almost strange to think back on the path to get here. In some ways, it feels so random and yet it all worked out so well.
In 2018-2019, I was the co-chair of Venture Out with my lovely co-chair Simon Mills. It's not just a conference anymore; we have a variety of events throughout the year, so the team is very involved and puts in a lot of work.
In a lot of ways, it has similarities to running a company or a small business. But in so many other ways, I’m not sure what to compare it to. I'm sure that other folks running community-focused organizations and other non-profits could relate. It feels like a heavy, emotional responsibility to be doing this work on behalf of a community, knowing that you as an individual could never completely represent that community. I always try to think back and check in with to the broader community to make sure that I’m guided by them throughout.
If it's okay to ask, I would love to learn more about that part of you. I don't know what it's like to be LGBTQ, and yet at the same time, I have always wondered how the mental health community can help the queer community.
I see a lot of alignment and overlap there, both in how you came to the idea of starting this and taking on that responsibility. To pull from Jeanette's story, the idea of the very first conference was born from going to queer spaces that existed and wondering if anyone else was in tech or working for a startup, and then going to tech spaces and wondering if anyone else was queer. So Venture Out said let's see if there are enough people who feel the same way and who identify as being a part of both of those communities, who want to come together and talk about anything.
I do have to say that my coming out story or that piece of my identity is something I'm really comfortable talking about now. But I had a weird experience in that it was more of a story of acknowledging my privilege within the community. My family and my friends were for the most part incredibly supportive of me coming out and acknowledging this aspect of my identity, which I am forever grateful for.
So supportive that I never really took the time to sit with that and think about whether I was okay with this new... Not new, but public path I was now on. This identity I was now owning very publicly. It was this weird mix of feeling very relieved that it was so smooth at first, but then jumping full force into it pretty quickly. It was realizing after the fact that I had maybe not thought about whether I was comfortable with this. I was so worried about other people being comfortable with it, that I needed some time to work through that as myself and my own path. 
I've thought about this a lot from the perspective of the Venture Out team. We are an enthusiastic team of volunteers who volunteer a lot of time and are all so committed to what we're doing. I've always wondered how that came to be. How this team has all collectively become such a family and so driven. And what is that? What's that magic piece that made us so invested in this event, in this community, and what we're trying to build?
I don't want to speak for everyone by any means but we've talked about it quite a bit over the years. For me, I think about all of the people who did so much work over the years to get us to a point where we can have an event celebrating the LGBTQ+ community in tech;any event so loud and proud and explicitly about supporting and amplifying that community.
There's no way that anyone in that room, or especially the people devoting hours and hours of time to building that space, aren't thinking about all of the folks who worked to get us here. It was not easy for those who sacrificed their voices and their freedom or their lives to get us to this point where we can have this event. We think about that a lot.
Wow. That is powerful. Remembering our roots. I'm curious to ask as a fellow community builder, what's been the part of the journey that's been the most difficult?
Different pieces come to mind. Figuring out which questions to ask and not getting too focused on how to do something and not forgetting why we're doing it. It might be something that's specific to me and how I operate when I'm stressed, but I love a good to-do list. I can get hyper-focused on just checking things off.
The bigger questions are: Why are we doing this? Why is this piece of it feeling uncomfortable? Why is this not feeling right? Why am I still lying awake at night, thinking about that decision I made two weeks ago? Why are we going in the direction that we're going in? The bigger questions.
Part of community building is creating that space whereother people feel comfortable bringing those questions into the conversation. T an important part - never losing sight of the community that you're building with.
One thing that we ask all of our volunteers when we're interviewing them is if they have thought about the emotional aspect of the work and what kinds of coping mechanisms they can use. This work can be emotional and exhausting. They all bring expertise in certain areas to the table, but something that's important for us right up front is we really want you to know that we've gone through it. We've thought about it, we've been emotionally exhausted, we've had hard times. It's a real part of it. And we're here to help facilitate those conversations.
Talking about feelings, being vulnerable, and struggling with making decisions, that was a lesson for me. This is going to be really hard and is going to be personal and that's okay. It's hard, but it's rewarding. And there's a whole community now of folks who can help. That was a long process for me, but I couldn't be more grateful for being able to go through that and learn so much in the process.
I love how much communication there is and how you check-in with yourself and others. We often gloss over that part.
Yeah, it's important I think. There's an interesting distinction that I have yet to master between being critical of your own decisions without being harsh. You can make the wrong decision and learn from it. I definitely see a lot of reliance on advisors, mentors, leaders and celebrities, especially in the tech sector right now.
There's a lot of value in having the confidence to hear that advice and hear that leadership, but I would always prioritize your own feelings, your reaction to that, and your own mission. Make sure that it really fits with what you're trying to do and where you're trying to go.
There are a lot of very confident voices out there. I'm not questioning that and I respect it. There's a lot of hard work being done. But you can respect someone's experience and their advice, while also staying true to what you set out to do and what feels right.
That is so important. I want to ask: I know this work can be tolling. For you, what has helped you maintain your emotional and mental health?
Yeah, that's a great question. I am social, but I am the truest introvert you'll ever meet. I can get really excited and really energized and kind of wrapped up in my projects. With Venture Out, I've never been so tired in my life because I just want to be in the community and working on Venture Out. But then, I realize that I've way overdone it. It serves no one to get to a point where I'm way past the point where I've needed to be alone and sit with my thoughts for a while.
It's as simple as that. What I need the most is just to say no to whatever I might have committed to, and trusting in the folks that I’ve said that to, trusting that they'll understand. Just reading a book or watching some silly TV show on Netflix; my alone space is the most important thing sometimes.
I often do end up sitting and reflecting, writing a bit of notes of what's bothering me and thinking through those questions. There's really nothing more refreshing for me than intentionally taking that space and owning my alone reflection time. I've always been that way.
Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. I’m introverted too. When you are a community builder, I feel a lot of people assume you’re extroverted. With the amount of events happening in the tech community, it tends to lean that way.
That theme of defending your boundaries came up for me. Like if self-care doesn't get scheduled, it's not going to happen.
Exactly, you have to put that in your calendar for sure. You block that time off. And it does work its way into building Venture Out. There are so many aspects of building a safe space that I need to consult folks on because I might not think of it, and that's okay because that's why there's a whole team and a whole community involved. That's why we have professional consultants to actually help us build our safe spaces, our community agreements, and our codes of conduct.
We take that very seriously. But there are some aspects that I can relate to personally more than others  like the quiet room [at the Venture Out conference], which has coloring books and cards for when you're just too tired to talk to another stranger. I fully acknowledge as the co-chair of Venture Out that that is an exhausting environment to be at 100% for that long.
Whatever pressure you're putting on yourself to show up in that space, it is exhausting. I fully acknowledge that. We do everything we can, but at the end of the day, there is a little bit of ownership to just say, "No, I think I'm done for the next hour and I'm going to go and take time for myself." There is nothing, nothing wrong with that at all. But yeah, it's really easy to get wrapped up in the energy. That's not a bad thing either.
Back to balance, everyone has their own types of limits when they need to say, "Nope, I know myself and this is what I'm going need to do for the next little bit." That is totally fine. That is something the Venture Out team definitely understands. A lot of us often feel the same way. An important piece of creating a safe space is that you can also leave; you can take care of yourself first.
A lot goes into building what you hope is a safe and welcoming space for everyone because that means a really different thing for each person. It’s a lot of pieces to building that space.
Mm-hmm. Thank you for what you're doing, by the way. Your commitment to this work inspires me. My last question is: When you think about our community, what can we all do together to move mental health forward?
There are a lot of opportunities to amplify voices that are already out there, about to share their story, or about to take that vulnerable leap to saying what they need to say. Amplifying those voices and validating folk's experiences and feelings when they are shared. Taking that minute to think about how you want to engage and how you want to interact to anyone's story. A step as small as that, to support however that person needs to be supported and amplifying that story when it needs to be shared and heard.
That’s an individual call to action. But it's a powerful action to take a story that really resonates with you and sharing it, especially in this digital era of social media. It's a small thing, but it can make such a huge difference, having someone feel like they took that leap to really be vulnerable. That it resonated and it mattered and it was validated by a community or anyone.
That's an important piece to a lot of this.Mental health, underrepresented voices in tech or in life or in digital spaces, just helping them be heard could be a really powerful thing.
Yeah. Well, thank you for being one of the stories, one of the voices that we can amplify.
Thank you. I'm really excited.
I am too! Excited and nervous. Full honesty, but I'm okay with that.
I think that makes total sense. There's always a little bit of fear. I definitely used to subscribe to that fearless leader mantra. But I totally changed my mind. Most leaders are fearful all the time, nervous all the time, and that is okay. When you put your whole self into something out there in the world, there's always going be an aspect of being pretty nervous.
I think that's good. I think it'll be great.
Most definitely. Woohoo!