I recently had the pleasure of having a conversation with the organiser of the JSConf EU scholarship programme, Simone Haas. Along with some background on the conference, today I’m delighted to showcase their initiative in Simone’s own words:
The Background of JS Conf EU
JSConf EU was founded in 2009 by Holger Blank, Jan Lehnardt & Malte Ubl. They met at JSConf US six months prior. The idea behind JSConf and CSS Conf (that was created a bit later) was to bring together the JS and CSS communities all over the world.
Background to the JSConf EU Scholarship Programme
The founders attended a few other events that already had a scholarship programme and they felt that they should provide something like that too. That was the initial idea, what came after was what made it so big.
We want to make the whole conference inclusive and accessible for people that don’t have the budget.
How does it work?
We have three different scholarship instances:
- The first is a ticket scholarship with travel support of €1,000 and a visa,
- The second is a ticket scholarship with travel support of €500 for within Europe,
- And the third is a ticket scholarship.
We have two application deadlines. The first for people that need a visa to travel internationally and a second, later one for those who are travelling within Europe. The third is for people who don’t need travel support at all.
The Visa Travel Support Scholarships
The international scholarship programme application deadline usually happens five months prior to the conference, to accommodate any visa deadlines. We don’t see any name or any description of the applicants. And we ask them not to give too much personal information so as to keep the process anonymous and to ensure a minimum of implicit bias, when making decisions.
We read 600 applications in the first round. Then we rate and sort them on a scale from 0-5.
At this stage we still don’t see the names or their personal information. We just see the airport from where they are travelling.
We have around 10 international scholarships that we can give out. Usually when we are giving out the scholarships, we don’t have the budget raised at that time. As a result, we have to calculate what we are most likely able to pay. We then invite the successful applicants to start the visa application process as soon as possible.
Three months later the second round of scholarships opens. These are for people travelling within Europe. This time it’s 500 applications. The process is the same as the first round. At this stage we have more budget raised so we know how many we can invite.
This year we sent out a waiting list form asking people when they needed to know that they got a free ticket. As soon as we raised more money we sent out the ticket links.
What are you looking for in the scholarship programme applications?
We like to read how people are aiming to give back to the community. The most interesting applications are not too short or not too long, they summarise the most important points:
Why do they want to attend and need a scholarship to do so? Are they involved in a local community? Do they have access to local events in tech?
Anonymise to Avoid Bias
JSConf and CSSconf have anonymised speaker applications for their conferences. We were also thinking about how we could reduce bias in our speaker search.
JSConf is ten years old now but if you look at the history of the line-up, you can see that it got more diverse over time.
It is something that you have to do to make that possible and this is the baseline.
Since you’ve come onboard, have you changed anything about the scholarship programme? Is there anything that you did before that you don’t do now?
When I joined the team in 2015 it was like: other events have a scholarship programme, it can’t be that hard, let’s have it too. I just got a list of people who we wanted to invite and I sent out the invitations. Shortly after I learned about visas! You have to send out invitation letters, you have to prepare invitation letters and you have to have templates for them. Every application process for the visa is very individual. Some of them only need three weeks, some of them need three months. We had applicants that would never make it to Berlin because they didn’t get a visa on time.
In 2015 we didn’t organise the travel for our speakers or our scholarship holders, we just reimbursed. We soon learned that most of them are not able to pay in advance for their travel.
We had to make sure that we could get the money to them or book the travel for them. With the help of the accounting and travel department of SinnerSchrader, our main sponsor, we were able to make the booking happen for the people that need it.
It goes without saying that it is a bit of a risk, you are booking travel for people who don’t yet have their visa. You don’t know if you will get the money back or whether it will be lost in the end. However on the upside, booking the travel ourselves avoids lots of bookkeeping paperwork.
We sell 100%, 50% and 25% scholarship support tickets to attendees, people can pick the ones that they can afford. We also included the scholarship programme into our sponsorship packages to make sure that we get all the money that we need.
Everyone who looks at our website knows that we are an all white organising group, so having us as the judges of the scholarship programme is not the right choice, because we are not representing the group we want to invite to our conferences.
To counter this we created a scholarship jury of four people who are much more able to represent the groups that we want to invite. I am the only person from the organiser team that is also on the jury.
Another big learning is that we make sure that the scholarship holders aren’t alone at the conferences so we started a meet and greet at the beginning of the conference days.
Sponsors are very excited to give money to our scholarship programme. I know a lot of scholarship holders who met their employer at the conference and are now employed. It is great to have people at the event who would not be able to attend without a scholarship. A lot of them came back as speakers and some joined the organising team of the conferences and that is great benefit for the team and the events.
Giving out scholarships is a great way to give people the chance to attend your event. But over the years the biggest learning was that an event has to be open for underrepresented people by design and not only by invite.