If you were to judge what is happening with gender discrimination and sexual harassment for female founders and entrepreneurs based on what you’ve read in the news, or have seen the many disheartening research studies and articles about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, you’d be likely to have drawn a cynical conclusion:
• Sexual harassment scandals have occurred at top Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Binary Capital, as well as top startup accelerators like 500 Startups and with “Super Angels” like Shervan Peshewar and Chris Sacca
• Ellen Pao, with a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Princeton and graduate Law and Business Degrees from Harvard, with prior experience at a top tier NYC law firm, brought suit against one of Silicon Valley’s leading VC firms for gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and lost.
• Only 11% of VC partners are women (and only 2% Latino and ZERO percent African American.)
• Research concludes that female founders and startup executives are asked a different set of questions than men. Men are asked about potential for gains, while women are asked about potential for losses for their startups.
Demoralizing? Please read on. It gets much better from here.
This is a watershed moment for women’s experiences in the workplace. The issues that undermine women elsewhere are certainly present in the domain that I know best: at the convergence of advanced technology and entrepreneurship. Certainly #MeToo and #TimesUp resonate for many women in this space, just as they do in every industry. I’ve observed this up close and personally for many years from multiple vantage points. I’m a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Hult International Business School, and an eight-time, VC –backed startup CXO. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to help take two startups public on the NASDAQ and see the strategic trade sales of several others to companies like AT&T, IBM and Oracle. I also have extensive experience as a mentor and board member of hundreds startups across the globe for the past 20 years, and am therefore all too familiar with the many guises in which sexism hides. That said, I see great signs of progress. It’s clear to me that we’ve come a long way in our treatment of women entrepreneurs over the past few years.
So, what’s changed?
For starters, it would have been inconceivable even two years ago that prominent VCs and angels would have been brought down by claims of sexual harassment. Now, they’re going down like dominoes. Steve Jurvetson, Jutsin Caldbeck of Binary Capital, Dave McLure of 500 Startups, Shervan Peshewar, and Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital. They are all gone.
Despite Ellen Pao losing her lawsuit, her memoir, “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change”, was named a McKinsey – Financial Times Business Book of the Year finalist and served to ignite a #MeToo Movement for female entrepreneurs across Silicon Valley and far beyond.
On March 20, a new initiative, “Founders For Change”, a loose coalition backed by 400 plus tech entrepreneurs and CEOs to pressure the VC industry to diversify its ranks, was announced. The group includes Silicon Valley luminaries such as Drew Houston, Founder & CEO of the recently public company Dropbox, and Brian Chesky, Founder & CEO as well as female entrepreneur role models such as Katrina Lake, CEO of Stitch Fix. Two of the leaders of this movement are woman VCs – Aileen lee of Cowboy Ventures and Jenny Lefcourt of Freestyle Capital. The message that was sent: “The racial and gender makeup of a VC firm would be an important consideration” when raising money. This is very unusual behavior in the Valley. A new generation of entrepreneurs are impatient for change. This is a watershed moment in Silicon Valley and beyond, in much the same way that the March For Our Lives movement is a watershed moment in the national conversation on guns.
Female friendly sources of venture and angel capital have already begun to emerge to counterbalance the funding challenges women face:
• Jessica Livingston is a Founding partner at the highly influential Silicon Valley startup accelerator, Y Combinator, the most prestigious accelerator in the world, with an acceptance rate of 3%, lower than MIT.
• Golden Seeds (www.goldenseeds.com) is a national angel group largely comprised of successful woman entrepreneurs and executives that invest mostly in woman – led businesses. I‘ve worked closely with their Boston – based team for years.
Managing Director Deb Kemper, a former McKinsey consultant, and her team, are tireless advocates for women entrepreneurs. They’ve invested $100M+ in angel capital in over 100 women-led businesses since 2004. Just as importantly, great mentors and role models like Deb become advisors to these female founders and their companies.
• Kirsten Green founded VC firm Forerunner Ventures, with a focus on the retail sector. She’s had an extraordinary track record with investments in Dollar Shave Club, Jet.com, Glossier, Warby Parker and Bonobos.
• Woman are leading traditional VC funds. Maria Cirino is Co- Founder & Managing Partner of .406 ventures, focused on IT Security. Maria, a former tech startup CEO, sees a growing number of woman founders in the highly technical Cyber Security market.
• Consistent with Maria’s experience, I’m seeing a far greater number of my female students take my entrepreneurship courses and start companies. My Entrepreneurship electives over the past 2+ years have had roughly 50% woman in the course.
• Many woman entrepreneurs are serving as role models, including:
Emily Weiss of Glossier
Jennifer Hyman & Jennifer Fleiss of Rent-the-Runway
Whitney Wolfe of Bumble
Zenobia Moochala of Care.com
Polina Raygordodskaya of Wanderu
Stina Ehrensvard of Yubico
• Education Technology accelerator LearnLaunch, led by Co- Founder and Partner Jeanne Hammond, a pioneering female tech founder & startup executive, has a 1:1 ratio of male to female founders since inception across its cohorts at its portfolio companies, with woman comprising one third of its CEOs.
• When I ask my own female mentees for advice to pass along to their peers, they tell me that the most important thing to think about in order to increase their opportunities for success is to find female friendly support groups and mentors. There’s good news- there’s a rapidly growing number of female – only co-working spaces, communities and startup accelerators for woman entrepreneurs, including:
Woman Inspiration & Enterprise
Hire Tech Ladies
I currently serve as Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer of startup Reduxio, where six of 10 members of my team are women. This is “off the charts” for a startup, especially in the enterprise technology space, where our customers are Data Center IT professionals. I simply hired the best people for the role. It turned out that, 60% of the time, they were women. I may be ahead of the curve, but I’m not alone.
I’m not trying to downplay that much work remains. That said, its never been a better time to be a woman entrepreneur, given a dramatic increase mentoring and funding support, and a growing sisterhood of role models and peers. “Girl Power” has created a much more supportive, safer environment for female entrepreneurs to thrive. Your time has come. Go for it.