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Nashville Tech Industry Exec Comes Under Fire for Sexist Remarks

Following a radio consultant's now-infamous "tomato" comment, a local tech exec comes under fire for sexist remarks.

The relative lack of female artists on the country airwaves is one of Nashville’s most heated topics in 2015, with such artists as Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and Kacey Musgraves firing back at country radio consultant Keith Hill for a hamfisted metaphor in which he called women the “tomatoes” of the country radio salad.

But what about Nashville’s increasingly influential tech scene? Heather McBee, a 20-year veteran of Sony Music Nashville, found herself the accidental “poster child of women in business in Nashville,” caught in the middle of a barrage of sexist comments at the city’s 36/86 conference.

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Halfway through a June 10 panel that already had seen a string of off-color remarks about female artists from Big & Rich’s John Rich, Mark Montgomery, co-founder of Nashville tech-incubator FLO Thinkery, asked McBee to represent the “f–ing women” in the all-male conversation about the role of tech in live music, and at one point referred to her as “a pain in my ass” and “Mrs. No” from her days leading digital marketing at Sony Nashville under former chairman Joe Galante.

Heather McBee; Sarah Lacy
Heather McBee, Sony Music Nashville; Sarah Lacy, Pando Daily founder Courtesy; Getty Images

“I wouldn’t have been a pain in your ass if you had done it differently,” retorted McBee. Montgomery also called out Pando Daily founder Sarah Lacy’s competing Pandoland conference and requested that the crowd “not support” the event. After an outcry in Nashville and tech media over the “sexist remarks” at the conference, Lacy offered free registration for all female executives to Pandoland, where McBee also appeared to announce her June 15 appointment as program director of music-tech accelerator Project Music — whose parent company is the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which was co-founded by Montgomery.

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Clarifying his remarks to Billboard, Montgomery says McBee is “the perfect person” to lead Project Music, where she helped eight music-tech startups raise more than $2.2 million in funding for its inaugural curriculum earlier in 2015. Plus, he adds, Nashville’s tech gender issue is no different from that facing Silicon Valley, Austin, New York and London. “There aren’t enough women in many businesses. But if you watch my feet, not my mouth, you’ll see that 48 percent of my staff is female, and my chief marketing officer is a woman. The idea that I’m a sexist is ludicrous.”

McBee, for her part, is taking it all in stride, noting that one-third of Project Mus staff is made up of “badass females,” with plans to extend the program beyond its 12-week accelerator later this fall. “I had somebody walk up to me the other night — a man, actually — who said, ‘Of all the people I have met in the last year and a half, you are the perfect person to shoulder the weight of the conversation.’ “

This article first appeared in the July 4 issue of Billboard