I recently met Renata George through a referral from Katie Rae (MIT Engine CEO, previously Techstars Boston MD). Renata told me about a book she was working on called Women Who Venture and asked me if I’d write the foreword.
I was honored to be asked to do this. The foreword I wrote follows. The book is out and available now in hardcover and on the Kindle.
As an avid writer and reader, I feel that a book is a unique medium that serves a different purpose than the other written media that we consume regularly. A book can display a variety of perspectives at once, providing enough details on the subjects it explores, while giving us space to contemplate.
When Renata George told me she was going to write a book about Women Who Venture, featuring around a hundred female investors of different generations, I immediately said I’d be supportive. Renata told me that she wanted to do in-depth individual interviews, to both learn and explain the true state of affairs in the venture capital, while celebrating women who best reflect this industry.
The existing bias in the venture capital industry is multidimensional and implicates career challenges not only for women, but also for other underrepresented groups. Many of the investors interviewed for this book, offer advice and solutions to address this issue. Their ideas are bold, opinions are candid, and the narrative sometimes goes against what we are used to reading in popular media.
Having unconventional perspectives to consider is helpful in understanding what true diversity looks like. By being exposed to it, we can identify particular actions that each of us, male or female, can take to generate positive change. It’s the critical mass of all the tiny changes that we can each make daily, that will eventually change the perception, and reality, of diversity in venture capital.
This book is an essential read for aspiring female venture investors who want to be inspired by the life stories of women who made it all the way to the top in venture capital. It is also a valuable resource for male investors interested in increasing diversity. Institutional investors can benefit from learning more about their investees, as well as find new general partners to consider investing in. Finally, entrepreneurs can benefit from the book by learning how the investors featured in it make investment decisions.
Fixing the diversity problem in venture capital will take a long time and require a continuous and steady pace of activities and changes. With Women Who Venture, Renata is helping us all along that journey.
Among other things, I’m especially proud of Ayah Bdeir’s leadership on this issue over the years. There are two great interview segments with her that discuss (1) To increase girls in tech, focus on ages 8-12 and (2) The importance of teaching girls to fail.
While there have been many words written about gender bias in the context of entrepreneurship and funding, I thought the following TED Talk from Dana Kanze presented one of the best frames of references, supported by a real research study, that I’ve seen to date. In addition, she has some clear, actionable suggestions at the end of the talk to help eliminate the bias.
Her research emerges from her own exploration of a social psychological theory originated by Professor Tory Higgins called “regulatory focus.” This theory explores the different motivational orientations of promotion and prevention.
While listening to Dana’s explanation and examples in the video, I had a deep insight – around how to ask questions of an entrepreneur – that hadn’t occurred to me before. Here are her direct definitions of promotion focus and prevention focus.
“A promotion focus is concerned with gains and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments and advancement needs, while a prevention focus is concerned with losses and emphasizes safety, responsibility and security needs. Since the best-case scenario for a prevention focus is to simply maintain the status quo, this has us treading water just to stay afloat, while a promotion focus instead has us swimming in the right direction. It’s just a matter of how far we can advance.”
Dana’s punchline is that investors approach female entrepreneurs with a prevention focus and male entrepreneurs with a promotion focus. Interestingly, she finds this is consistent regardless of the gender of the investor!
The talk has a clear recommendation for female entrepreneurs in it. Basically, if you get a prevention question, reframe the answer in a promotion context.
“So what this means is that if you’re asked a question about defending your start-up’s market share, you’d be better served to frame your response around the size and growth potential of the overall pie as opposed to how you merely plan to protect your sliver of that pie.”
Dana also has a suggestion for how investors (both female and male) can help eliminate this implicit bias.
“So to my investors out there, I would offer that you have an opportunity here to approach Q&A sessions more even-handedly, not just so that you could do the right thing, but so that you can improve the quality of your decision making. By flashing the same light on every start-up’s potential for gains and losses, you enable all deserving start-ups to shine and you maximize returns in the process.”
Her talk is only 15 minutes long and well worth it. Or, if you are a fast reader, take a look at the transcript.
I read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister recently. It was recommended to me by Tami Forman, the CEO of Path Forward and I was immediately cheered on by Amy when I started reading it.
It was extraordinary. Every man I know should read it. I’m now officially a Rebecca Traister fan. I learned a lot, was forced to think about a bunch of uncomfortable stuff, and formed some new ideas about how to address some gender-related issues in our society.
And then I read the Bloomberg article Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost and got mad at some men.
The article starts strong.
“No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.”
It then goes on and references this as “The Pence Effect.”
Call it the Pence Effect, after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he avoids dining alone with any woman other than his wife. In finance, the overarching impact can be, in essence, gender segregation.
I thought the idea of the Pence effect, as stupid as it is, had come and gone. But I apparently am wrong.
“For obvious reasons, few will talk openly about the issue. Privately, though, many of the men interviewed acknowledged they’re channeling Pence, saying how uneasy they are about being alone with female colleagues, particularly youthful or attractive ones, fearful of the rumor mill or of, as one put it, the potential liability.”
Then I came upon a quote that was advice for men which seemed fitting and was a solution that I expect Rebecca Traister could be supportive of.
“Just try not to be an asshole.”
If you are living in fear around the #MeToo issue, go read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Confront your fear. Examine any guilt you have. Get real with yourself about the issue. Change your behavior. And just try not to be an asshole.
Amy and I are proud executive producers of the upcoming movie Pioneer In Skirts. It has been part of our activity supporting independent documentaries about gender diversity, especially in science and tech.
The daughter/mother leadership of Ashley Maria and Lea-Ann Berst along with their team has stayed after it and are close to the finish line. Watch the trailer and then if you are inclined toss a little money into the GoFund Me campaign to help finish off the film.
I read Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley the day it came out. Yes – I stayed up until after midnight (way past my bedtime) reading it.
It’s powerful. I bought a bunch of copies for different people and I recommend every investor and entrepreneur in the US read it. While there are a handful of salacious stories (some of which were covered in excerpts that were pre-released), the overall arc of the book is extremely strong, well written, and deeply researched. Given Emily’s experience as a journalist, it’s no surprise, but she did a great job of knitting together a number of different themes, in depth, to make her points. She also uses the book to make clear suggestions about what to do to improve things, although she holds off from being preachy, which is also nice.
Interestingly, I’ve heard criticism, including some that I’d categorize as aggressive, from several men I know. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern in the criticism, although some of it seems to be a reaction to several of the specific stories. In one case, I’d categorize the criticism as an effort to debate morality. In another, I heard an emotional reaction to what was categorized as an ad-hominem attack on a friend of the person. But I haven’t been able to coherently synthesize the criticism, and interestingly I’ve only heard it from men.
As I’ve been marching slowly through historic feminist literature recommended by Amy, I realized that I had read three contemporary books in the last few months that materially added to this list. In addition to Emily’s book Brotopia, I read Sarah Lacy’s book A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy and Ellen Pao’s book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.
While Sarah and Ellen’s books are written from deep, personal experiences, I thought all three books were important, very readable, and bravely written.
As I continue my exploration of feminist literature, I’ve become much more aware of pronoun usage.
I realized my default pronoun for writing and speaking has been male gendered. If I thought about pronoun usage in advance, I could alternate and use female gendered pronouns, but when I wasn’t paying attention, my default went back to the male pronoun.
I also noticed that much of what I read used male-gendered pronouns as a default. When referring to a specific person, pronoun usage was linked to the person, but whenever the writing referenced a non-specific person, the pronouns were usually male.
I’ve given several talks in the past few months where I consciously decided to use only female-gendered pronouns, except when referring to a specific person (where I then matched the gender of the person.) After these talks, I regularly got positive notes about this, from both women and men, thanking me for doing this.
Some of these talks were about gender issues in tech, but others were about something entirely different, so the positive reactions were instructive to me. I started mentioning this approach, including to several women I respected a lot for their views on gender issues. I specifically asked if my behavior around this was useful. All gave me a resounding yes.
So I’ve decided to try to use female-gendered pronouns as my default in writing and talking for a while and see how it goes. I’ll still occasionally use male-gendered pronouns, but by having the female as the default, I hope to have “her” appear more frequently.
All of this notwithstanding, I think it’s important to recognize that there’s an entire generation that is moving quickly past binary pronouns to epicene (or gender-neutral) pronouns. I write this way also and in lots of situations, it works well. But I’m not ready to shift to it, especially since I have a massive deficit of female-gendered pronouns in my historical writing.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” – Margaret Atwood
A few weeks ago, after reading the New York Times Sunday Review article The Book That Made Us Feminists, I asked Amy for several recommendations for books that were foundational to the feminist movement. I purchased all that she suggested and added them to my infinite list of books to read.
The past few days I read Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Written in 1975, it’s 480 pages of intense and powerful writing. After about a third of it, I turned to Amy and said, “That Margaret Atwood quote has a clear basis in history.”
Today, again in the New York Times (this time online), I read the article Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far. I was almost finished with Against Our Will so it didn’t take much to infuriate me about the article. There are several men quoted in the article and others referenced. The only one whose perspective makes any sense to me is Dick Costolo’s quote.
“In just the last 48 hours, I’ve spoken to a female tech executive who was grabbed by a male C.E.O. at a large event and another female executive who was asked to interview at a venture fund because they ‘feel like they need to hire a woman,’” said Dick Costolo, the former chief of Twitter, who now runs the fitness start-up Chorus. “We should worry about whether the women-in-tech movement has gone too far sometime after a couple of these aren’t regularly happening anymore.”
In many of the conversations I’ve had around sexual harassment and sexual assault, I’ve been discussing something I’ve been referring to as the “perpetrator / victim paradox.” In this situation, the perpetrator “assaults / harasses” the victim. When the perpetrator is discovered (or almost discovered), he becomes the victim and tries to manipulate the victim into “not destroying my life.” It alternates between threats (continued perpetrator behavior aimed at the victim) and pleas (where the perpetrator takes the role of the victim, often using guilt to try and keep the victim quiet.)
Now, this doesn’t only apply to sexual harassment and sexual assault, but to any power dynamic. Which leads to the well-discussed idea that rape is much more about power than about sex. Brownmiller’s book does an incredible job of linking power to sex, especially in the context of men using sex to assert their power over women. But there was another level that jumped out at me, which was the notion of women as property, where a first man asserts their power over second man by having unwanted sex (rape) with the woman who was “affiliated” (wife, child, sister) with the second man. While Brownmiller has an incredibly long and distressing chapter on rape as part of the spoils of war, this idea infiltrates much of the book.
When I read articles like Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far all I can think of is “these men are afraid of losing power to women.”
As a man, I wish other men would get over this. As our current president assembles the most male-dominated government in decades it’s clear that there is still a lot of work to do here.
Next up in my #GivingThanks series – in appreciation for people during Thanksgiving who have had a profound impact on me – is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Unlike the last post about the Jason Mendelson Entrepreneurial Award Fund, I’m not going to bury the lede – go here if you’d like to make a financial gift to NCWIT as part of #GivingThanks.
I met Lucy in 2004. We were introduced by Terry Gold (I was on the board at Gold Systems). Terry has always been a great connector so without knowing anything about Lucy I said “sure” and we had a meeting in my old office in Superior above a liquor store and Old Chicago Pizza.
In the first few minutes, Lucy explained her plans for a new organization she had created called National Center for Women & Information Technology. Her goal was straightforward – get more girls and women involved in computer science. As someone who has been involved in the tech industry since 1987, there was an obvious gender issue – all you needed to do was walk around a software company and look at the engineers. But Lucy captured my attention when she went further than the issue of gender parity by saying in the first five minutes something like “It’s an issue of long term competitiveness and innovation. In the US, the demand for computer scientists and programmers is growing at a pace that will dramatically outstrip the supply of labor unless we get more women involved, starting now.”
NCWIT’s mission has evolved nicely over the years but has stayed true to that statement from Lucy a dozen years ago. Today, NCWIT formally describes itself as follows:
“The National Center for Women & Information Technology is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization chartered in 2004 by the National Science Foundation. NCWIT is a “collective impact” effort, a community of more than 700 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase girls’ and women’s participation in technology and computing. NCWIT helps organizations recruit, retain, and advance women from K-12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers by providing support, evidence, and action. NCWIT is the only national organization focused on women’s participation in computing across the entire ecosystem: K-12 through college education, and academic to corporate and entrepreneurial careers.”
Lucy asked me to be on the NCWIT board on the spot and a year later I agreed to be chair of the board, a role that I’ve cherished over the years.
I’m fortunate in that I was ready to engage in the problem. My views on gender are heavily influenced by two powerful women in my life – my mom (Cecelia Feld) and my wife (Amy Batchelor). I watched my parents act as completely equal partners in their relationship and, as a son to a woman I respect immensely, I never thought of gender inequality as a child. For the past 26 years, I’ve been in a relationship with an equal partner (Amy) and notice gender issues everywhere in our society. Amy and I talk about it regularly, take action on a number of fronts around it, and work together to address issues when we see or experience them.
So when I first met Lucy I had a prepared and receptive mind. But, I didn’t really know or understand things beyond an anecdotal state. Over the past dozen years, I’ve learned more about gender issues, unconscious bias, power dynamics in organizations, harassment, and long term solutions from Lucy and my work with NCWIT than I have from anything else. I’ve had a great partner in Amy to talk about many of the issues that I’ve learned about, as I go beyond just understanding to taking action. And, with Lucy, I’ve gotten to work on this with an outstanding partner leading an organization I’m incredibly proud of.
In the past few years, we’ve finally started to see the conversation around gender in computing as fact-based, instead of anecdote-based, discussion. Some awesome female leaders are taking things to the next level. We still have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful that in a decade we’ll look back and feel like gender issues in tech are no longer an issue.
Lucy – thank you for everything you do – every day – on this issue. If this is an important issue to you, and you want to join in on #GivingThanks, please make a donation to NCWIT to support their work.
One of my core values is diversity of everything.
I’ve been involved deeply in several organizations, such as National Center for Women and Information Technology, that have been focused on increasing gender diversity in computer science and entrepreneurship. More recently, I’ve expanded my lens a lot to include many other dimensions of diversity. The mission of the Techstars Foundation, which is improving diversity in tech entrepreneurship, is an example of that.
One thing that I learned from my work with NCWIT is the power of examples. So, Amy and I have been supporting independent filmmakers for a few years. The first film we helped fund was CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. Then, following the leadership of Joanne Wilson, we helped fund Dream, Girl which you can watch for free on their website until November 14th.
Recently, a group of us have been helping a young filmmaker, Ashley Maria, who is on her own personal journey to find out why careers are much more complicated and difficult when a woman tries to have one.
Pioneers in Skirts focuses on cultural and personal setbacks women still face in our society when they pursue a career. The film focuses on hot social topics that women encounter – like the mommy penalty and unconscious biases we find in our culture, the need for mentorship, sponsors, and men to advocate for their female co-workers, and how to nip the problem in the bud during adolescence.
Pioneers in Skirts is currently in post-production aiming for an early 2017 premiere in festivals and then VOD, Streaming and Television. Ashley and team need a little more funding to get things done so if you are inclined to support an ambitious young female filmmaker working on what Amy and I think is an important film, go to her support page and make a donation to the effort.