As a woman venture capitalist since 1999, I initially read “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” in Newsweek with great interest, and then with increasing sadness.
The scenarios depicted in the Newsweek story were disturbing but frankly, they remained somewhat abstract for me until I taught my class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business several hours later. That afternoon, three separate female students described incidences of sexism and harassment they’d experienced when interacting with male investors. It’s never easy to learn about the unfortunate experiences of others, even when you don’t know them. However, I can assure you that learning about them from people you mentor and finding them to be commonplace is much more alarming.
There is hope, however. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” While the Newsweek story offered plenty of statistics about women VCs and entrepreneurs, there are a few areas it did not address.
Micro VCs are a fabulous example of what can happen when a few good people get together to blaze a trail. I’m looking at you, Aileen Lee, Kirsten Green, Cindy Padnos, Theresa Gouw, and Jennifer Scott Fonstad! Having broken free from the cultural norms that are ingrained in the more traditional VC firms, these high-profile women are adjusting the landscape to suit both their needs and those of their portfolio companies. By embracing diversity, they are creating robust cultures that push the frontier of venture, and helping to accelerate the change that’s so obviously needed.
Another constant source of hope: the next generation. Millennials are the most passionate, value-driven and brand-savvy people the industry has known. They display stalwart loyalty to brands that share their own values. They’re also the most diverse generation in US history, so naturally, diversity is important to them.
As they start or join startups that are looking for funding, I sincerely hope that millennials will apply their unique ethos to their funding strategies and career decisions. I hope they seek out and partner with VCs who share their same values about gender diversity, who are unafraid to invest in woman-led startups, and who have women on staff throughout their ranks. I hope they will embrace the diversity that helps to define their generation. More than anyone, these young people can impact the status quo of the venture capital and startup community, which is unlikely to change at any notable pace unless a VC’s bottom line is threatened. Millennials can—and should—hold our feet to the fire to make change happen.
At Trinity, I along with my colleagues Nina Labatt and Michelle Tandler, host an ongoing event called “Women Championing Women,” focused on women helping women to succeed in ways large and small, whenever and wherever possible. We are not doing this for purely altruistic reasons: we have had the good fortune of backing many successful women entrepreneurs, such as Sheila Marcelo at Care.com and Anna Zornosa at Ruby Ribbon, and seen the positive impact of women executives across our portfolio. If we passed on the opportunity to invest behind women, we would undoubtedly be leaving money on the table.
To my fellow VCs of either sex: what is your firm doing to address the inequality described by Newsweek? We can do—and be—better than this.
I say we can do more to improve the environment described in the story. We can be more mindful about seeking opportunities for women in our ranks. We can expand our notions of mentorship, making it an ongoing, daily practice that allows us to promote and support one another.
Let’s make this our wake-up call, and ask a few hard questions of ourselves. Are women being recruited to our firms? In what ways can they advance in their careers here? Do they get real, viable opportunities to succeed? Are they among the first staff cut during a market downturn when the venture industry invariably contracts? The answers to these types of questions are the ultimate litmus test of our firms’ dedication to its female colleagues.
It’s sad but true: sexism is alive and well in the venture capital sector. And while I am pleased that stories like the one in Newsweek will heighten awareness about the treatment of women across the startup industry, there is an ironic, philosophical gap between the creative idealism of the startup industry and the investors who fund them. Our industry, with its insatiable appetite for ideas that will “change the world,” is stuck in a traditional paradigm that does a regrettable disservice to the industry it claims to support.
This article was originally published in TechCruch on January 30, 2015. Original post: http://techcrunch.com/2015/01/30/fighting-sexism-in-silicon-valley/