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A Male CEO Has Apologized After Saying That This Female Tech Designer Wasn’t Real

"No man has to prove himself this way. They can take a picture of a finished product and everyone believes them," Naomi Wu told BuzzFeed News.

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Wu — who goes by her screen name SexyCyborg — first gained attention in 2015 for posting her design of an LED underlit skirt, which went viral on Reddit.

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Besides her LED-lit skirts and 3D printed wearables, she is also known for being very open about getting visible body modifications and her taste in clothing, writing on her website that she "takes it in a direction that makes some people a bit uncomfortable" in order to challenge gender and tech stereotypes.

Since 2015, she has gained more than 140,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, where she regularly posts videos of her design and creation process. Several of her videos have received more than a million views.

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However, as she rose to fame, Wu found herself the target of a conspiracy theory claiming that she was not a real maker but just a mascot for a male engineer.

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An anonymous blog post, which was widely shared, claimed that Sexy Cyborg "is an online persona created by Wu's boyfriend, who is a seasoned electrical engineer who has used Wu as the face of his operation."

It cites "red flags" about her such as "just how good her written English skills are" for someone from China, and her familiarity with social media networks such as YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, which are blocked — but still accessible via VPN — in China.

The blog post has since been deleted.

There was even an entire subreddit, r/SexyCyborgLiar, dedicated to proving that Wu was just the face for her electrical engineer boyfriend and his work.

Wu told BuzzFeed News that she has been aware of the rumors that she was just posing as a maker since day one but figured she could just "build more and shoot in more detail and then they couldn't deny it."

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"It started from the very first picture that was taken," she said. "I was wearing an Open Source Hardware shirt, and on Reddit they all joked that there was no way the 'model' knew what that meant."

"No one trusted my builds were mine," she said. "No man has to prove himself this way. They can take a picture of a finished product and everyone believes them."

Around the same time, she also started tweeting Dale Dougherty, the founder of MAKE Magazine, which hosts its Maker Faires around the world, accusing him of excluding her from the Maker community and pointing out a lack of local representation at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. Wu also called Dougherty a Trump supporter.

Did I email prior to Maker Faire SZ specifically to dicuss local representation after seeing there were no local fe… https://t.co/qQGri3Dwtb

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When his followers messaged him, he told them to search "Naomi Wu liar and fake" and said he was gathering more direct evidence to prove Wu was not a real person.

@3d_jb @virgilvox @emilygmonster @RealSexyCyborg @dalepd I want to be very specific and accurate about our exchange… https://t.co/QOW3VqyQic

Three days earlier, Dougherty had also reached out to American programmer Andrew “bunnie” Huang, emailing Huang the anonymous blog post and asking if he had ever talked to Wu or met her in person, Huang told BuzzFeed News.

Huang said he responded to inform Dougherty that he had indeed met Wu in person several times before, and that he was happy to teach her as “I believe the desire to learn is core to being a Maker, and is not something you can fake.”

He said he did not hear back from Dougherty until after he published a blog post supporting Wu.

After that, Huang said Dougherty emailed him back and said he had missed his reply and “claimed remorse for the oversight; and had he seen it, it would have changed his mind.”

Dougherty told BuzzFeed News that he wrote the tweet because he was upset at Wu for attacking him and calling him a Trump supporter, which he said was a false claim.

"I shouldn't have questioned her identity," he said. "I was questioning her attacking us, and it came out wrong."

He said he had reached out to Wu in September 2016 to ask her why she was attacking him and saying she was excluded.

"I said I wanted to be supportive and helpful, but she continued to find ways to say that she was excluded," Dougherty said. "When we offered to help on those things, she didn't want that help. I was very frustrated and never seemed to get anything back except hostility."

"And she sort of holds me accountable for a lot of things like the Maker movement and diversity in the Maker movement, which I'm happy to be accountable for if you look at the things that we have already achieved," he added.

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Wu said a lot of people in China accepted Dougherty's tweet as he is well-known in the country. "And then everything went to shit," she said.

This is David from @Elecrow1. He did most of the engineering on the sino:bit. *When* I get technical help I always… https://t.co/G2sH9ni4FZ

Wu said that while Chinese people just saw it as her being "clever" and resourceful, it changed how they work with her and damaged her reputation as a tech designer.

"People are saying things in WeChat groups," she said.

An employer she was close to finalizing a deal with suddenly had a lot of questions and wanted to wait, she said.

Another suddenly wanted to meet her first and check in on her progress, according to screenshots of the conversation Wu showed BuzzFeed News.

Two days later, Dougherty deleted his tweet and issued an apology.

Naomi, I apologize for my recent tweets questioning your identity. I was wrong, and I'm sorry. @realsexycyborg https://t.co/hnEdn34sio

The apology reads:

Naomi, I apologize for my recent tweets questioning your identity. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.

The invitation that we had previously issued for you to speak on the main stage at the upcoming Maker Faire Shenzhen is still very much in place. Let me know if you’d like to present, and I will get you scheduled. I invite you to discuss the issues you have raised and your own journey and work as a Maker.

To Naomi and everyone in the community, I want to say as strongly as I can that we want Make: to be inclusive and provide an arena for all Makers to share their projects, values, challenges, and humanity in a safe and supportive environment. If we fail at that, we take it seriously. I failed on Sunday and learned a valuable lesson from all of you about that. I can do better — and I will.

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Wu, however, said Dougherty's apology couldn't undo the damage and was unsure whether she could fully repair her business relationships.

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"It's really hard to explain to foreigners how damaging this is," she said. "There's no credit ranking [in China]. It's all reputation."

"Now because I've been 'exposed' as just a model and a marketing gimmick, people don't have to show me respect anymore," she said, adding that no one would sponsor "a known fake."

"My friends bought cars, downpayments on houses — I made things and bought tools," Wu said. "This was my future."

Wu said that as a last resort, she will go back to coding, which she does under a man's name, but added that she doesn't try to get very good at it "since I know it will never be 'mine.'"

"With making it was mine, so I wanted to get better," she said.

Wu also said she would continue to advocate for and support other women in tech.

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"I always tell young women who ask for my help to build for defense," she said. "Plan to defend your work, know the questions they will ask and have the answers ready or they will never give you credit."

"It's not enough to make it, you have to be able to prove it," she added.

"I am very visible, and there are much more skilled women in the community. I have to support them," she said.

"[Dougherty] can't point to anything I did but fight for inclusion for me and other women," she said.

On Sunday, Dougherty issued a more comprehensive apology on Make Magazine, saying it was "completely inappropriate" of him to question Wu's identity.

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He wrote that his tweet had "reflected his unconscious biases; and the negative impact of my tweets was amplified by the fact that I, a white, Western, male CEO of a key company in the Maker community, publicly questioned a young, female, self-employed Chinese maker."

He also apologized for contributing to "the marginalization of women and local makers in China" for "not being sufficiently inclusive of female makers, and the over-representation of foreign-born makers," which he said Wu had called him out on.

He also listed a set of actions Make would be taking, including featuring Wu and her work for its next issue, inviting her to attend the USA Maker Faire in 2018, publishing a diversity audit of Make and assembling advisory boards to work with Maker Faire organizers to ensure the events are representative of the entire community. He added that Wu would be invited to be part of any advisory board for events in China.

Wu has shared the apology, saying she considers the issue resolved, and thanked other members of the community for advocating for her and helping to solve the issue.

I consider the issue with me resolved. This apology is more comprehensive and I have been promised tools with which… https://t.co/JnjzxaWOD1

I owe a huge debt to the community for advocating on my behalf, but specifically to @adafruit (Limor and Philip)… https://t.co/VLj12ppgGX

Kassy Cho is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Kassy Cho at kassy.cho@buzzfeed.com.

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