October 23, 2007

It's Not So Black and White, These Issues of Gender and The Tech Community

Today at She's Geeky, during the session with Jodi Sherman Jahic of Voyager Capital and Patricia Nakache of Trinity Ventures, we talked about a lot of different things.

Patricia and Jodi are really wicked smart, accomplished women, both of whom have engineering degrees and MBA's, who articulated some of the subtle and complex issues we face as women in the tech community, or as technologists starting ventures or as business people trying to figure out what is going to happen next in markets and with funding.

Jodi had a great list of the four things that matter for VCs when assessing an investment:

technology risks
market adoption risk
financing risk
execution risk

And we spent some time on board composition, funding questions, how people become VCs, why they may have different backgrounds than entrepreneurs (they often have MBAs) and why VCs don't necessarily want to fund MBAs (in other words, being different is good because getting an MBA is a risk-averse step and they want to fund risk-takers). I really liked that last one, because I've heard from time to time from other women founders that they can feel intimidated by the pedigrees many VCs have (often Harvard or Stanford or other Ivy League schools) and yet, it's a plus to not be just like them. The answer is to have as much diversity on your team (the founders, the rest of the team, the investors, the advisors and the board).

Another thing I brought up were a couple of stories I'd experience when working through funding issues.

One was about how a year ago, with a VC who has a small fund and targets companies at the stage Dabble was then, who decided not to fund us. About a month ago, I saw him, and asked to tell me why, for real (at the time I got a sort of "non-excuse"). He said that, and I do think he was sort of thinking aloud, that well, he thought at the time I might not stick with it. And I asked why, what did that mean. He said that when a founder is by themselves (no cofounder), he often assesses whether he thinks they'll quit, and he realized as we discussed it more recently that he had a sort of idea in the back of his head that I might quit easier than a man in my position. He knew this was wrong, but he hadn't thought it through until I pressed for feedback, and he'd only been willing to tell me this after the target size and stage of his investments didn't match where we were.

I think this is one of those things that isn't really black and white. I mean, of course I'm angry by the idea that this why he didn't fund us, but at the same time, I really appreciated that he was honest with me, and that it became a learning experience for him as well. That he learned he had a stereotype he didn't see in himself previously. My hope is that he thinks about it and stops himself the next time he finds himself thinking this sort of thing. I don't think he's a bad guy, and in fact, I think the better of him for sharing it and noticing the problem, for agreeing that it was wrong and he should do better.

I think that's all you can ask of someone, because frankly, we all have our stereotypes, our biases, our prejudices. They aren't going to go away unless we can face them, and it's hard to face them if you can't discuss them or bring them out into the open. Women are just as much a problem for other women as men with these issues. And one thing VCs for sure face, as Jodi pointed out, is a lack of upside for being honest. She said one motivation is that a VC will shy away, because they don't want to miss the chance to do a Series B if they pass on a Series A with someone, and tell them why. If they instead hedge on the reasons, they keep their options open. But she encouraged women to ask anyway for feedback, because it does help with what you are doing.

But I have to say, with the man in my story above, if later he wanted to do something with me, I wouldn't say no. Because I believe he's open to change and learn, and to figure out how to do what he does better, with a more diverse crowd than the men that so typically start companies in Silicon Valley.

Anyway, regarding the black and white nature of these issues, or lack thereof, Mike Swift of the San Jose Mercury News wrote up She's Geeky, with this article, and as many reporters do, wrote up my story in two short sentences causing it to seem more black and white:

A venture capitalist who rejected Mary Hodder's start-up for funding later told her he did so in part because Hodder had no male co-founder, and he thought she would quit because she's a woman. Hodder didn't quit.

And while I appreciate the need for this way of telling it, and it is technically true, I also think the issues are more complex. If we chastise folks for having "bad thoughts", we won't air them and make it better, and they will sit, just under the surface, keeping anyone but the default culture from succeeding.

I believe that Silicon Valley culture is pretty open and accepting of people. I'd suggest that compared to many other industries, it's a better place for a woman to start a company or work again type than most. But the reality is many people in positions of power and authority -- often men but sometimes women -- have some variation on the thought themes that keep people out.

But I also think we need to support our geek sisters, make better networking and figure out how to up the numbers of women VCs, women founders and women engineers. Or our products and companies will suffer, and our ecosystem will remain stilted and in some ways, closed.

Posted by Mary Hodder at October 23, 2007 12:09 AM | TrackBack