I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Visit a VC: and party like it’s 1969

Mad-Men-Drapers-Office-9I spent Friday in a classroom at Harvard Business School, speaking at three sections of a “Founders’ Dilemmas” class.  I was on a panel that included two other entrepreneurs and a founder-turned-venture capitalist.  We spent the day energetically answering pre-submitted student questions.  About a third of the queries related to personal stuff and work-life balance as an entrepreneur.  A small subset of these questions were directed at me as a female CEO.  About 40% of the students in the room were women.

I dread these questions.

If I complain, I look like a whiner.  And I might discourage other women from trying.

If I don’t complain, I am a liar.

Here’s an example of being between a rock and a hard place.  I told one class that the hardest part of being a female entrepreneur is raising capital.  Only 4-9% of venture capital goes to women-led ventures. Under 10% of VC’s are women. There is an obvious correlation.  (In my own travels I have only met four senior women at VC firms, vs. dozens of men.) But the VC next to me strongly objected saying “That does not square with my experience.  We always fund the best teams, with no bias.”  He’s a consumer focused investor, so I have to assume he gets pitched by a lot of women. When I got home and looked at his company website, I saw that his entire investing team was male, as was the vast, vast majority of his funded executive teams.  But he genuinely believes he is gender neutral.  How can this be?

More importantly, why is this the case?

In my own career I did not perceive significant gender bias in any of the giant technology and consumer products companies where I worked.  Well there was one exception, but it is ancient history.   The board room and C-suites were still behind the times, but I was treated fairly and perceived that my employers were genuinely trying to create equal opportunity.  I had a strong female mentor (Meg Whitman). I climbed fast and got where I needed to go in three of the four companies.  (I left the “bad” one pretty quickly–my first employer.  It was bigger than me, and even as a fresh grad I could see that it would be a losing battle for any woman to succeed there.  Among its 60,000 employees there was literally only one senior woman and she cut a very lonely and unenviable picture in her drab grey wool suits and floppy bow tie shirts.)  Bottom line, it’s slow progress, but I generally experienced a meritocracy in my corporate career and I have no axe to grind about my experiences.

Fast forward to today, and my startup life.  While the entrepreneurs I meet are vibrant, open-minded and diverse, it often feels like a 1969 office scene when you visit a VC in their native environment.   The offices are swish and modern, but the workforce looks like the cast from Mad Men, diversity-wise.  The only women you see moving along the corridors are serving admin roles (ie. coffee), or they are 26-year-old associates who are just passing through.  One VC I visited made me seriously question my ambition to fund a startup.  He was friendly enough.  But the office walls were covered with endless pictures of all-male startup teams, and after hearing my pitch he asked, with a vapid grin, “So do you work out of your home?”  I had 15 employees.  I had impressive angel investors backing me.  This was my third startup experience.  Seriously?  Did I work out of my HOME?  And this is a relatively young VC, so he gets no free pass for being over the hill.

Women admittedly are not fully represented among the teams pitching for funding.  That is not the fault of the VC industry.  But they are certainly showing up far more than 4% of the time.  What gives?

I think it is really simple.  Startups are hand-to-hand combat.  As a VC you are fighting against very tough odds. You are not thinking of the niceties, like discrimination policies or beefing up your recruiting efforts to get women.  Your limbic instincts kick in and studies have shown that gender bias is really deeply seated, far more than racial bias.  It originates from pre-historic days when, for men, only other men were your obvious competition for food, mates, territory.  Women were no threat on any of those fronts. Being a threat means being taken seriously, for better or worse.

So for a man, who is worried about a startup’s fierce fight for survival, who is worried about losing his partners’ money and his reputation as an investor, and is aware of all the massive hurdles in front of the entrepreneur, he can’t help but have some of those deep instincts kick in.  He’s not investing to be “fair” or change society, or advance women—nor should he.  Rather he is there to use his best judgment while investing to win.  He has to work on his keenly-honed instincts and pattern recognition. When he decides to sponsor a potential investment he has to defend this startup CEO to a room full of other men.   The vast majority of successful CEO’s those VC partners know are men.  All things being equal, they like to invest in people who already made them money.  Second best are entrepreneurs who LOOK like previous winners.  I.e. men.  It’s a vicious cycle.  That doesn’t make VC’s evil.  It makes them human, flawed, and normal (even when they throw their math skills out the window and claim that having a portfolio in which women-led companies make-up a tiny percentage is “gender-neutral.”)

We just need more human, flawed, normal women at the VC partner table.  That’s the problem that needs to be solved.  Yesterday.

17 Responses to “Visit a VC: and party like it’s 1969”

  1. Erica Zidel

    I agree with most of this post. However, I question whether simply having more women on the VC side of the table would fix the problem. Wouldn’t women share some of the same innate biases as men (i.e. perceiving men to be the stronger competitors, etc.)? Is there evidence for or against this?

    Reply
  2. julespieri

    Erica, I wonder about that too. If I am honest with myself I find that I sometimes have to work against gender bias as a CEO (bias in both directions!) , so I assume a female VC could have those same issues.

    It is certain that startup business opportunities which address a female market (70% of our economy) would get a MUCH more fair shake, and that would encourage more women to pitch…which is an equally big problem to the gender of VC’s. We need to start showing up at VC offices more. I know we would if we thought they would “get” our ideas more rapidly. As it stands now we are often speaking a foreign language in the partner pitches. The existing VC’s aren’t going to learn a new language but female partners would already be fluent.

    The stats about the superior business results of diverse teams are staggeringly positive, so if we can just get past this huge hurdle of letting women (and minorities) access to startup capital, the results should speak for themselves within a generation.

    Reply
  3. julespieri

    No real idea but I know that for every 10 ventures started by men in the US, 8 are started by women. Some studies say that women start 60% of businesses, not 40%. Women are less likely to seek VC, however so these numbers still don’t answer your question.

    The good news is that 70% of the tech companies sold last year were not backed by VC’s, so if you can avoid needing that source of capital, you can still succeed.

    But the VC behavior matters a lot because they tend to yield the highest-profile ventures. Those ventures and CEO’s influence perception about who *can* be an entrepreneur, and perception becomes reality.

    Reply
  4. George P. Sibble (@GeorgeSibble)

    Thank you for a fascinating look into these challenges! One question: above you stated 70% of the economy is fueled by women. I’ve never read that statistic and find it very interesting. Do you have some context/source for it? If it’s true, what are your thoughts on whether that is a fair figure or not (to say that most things should be 50/50)?

    Reply
  5. julespieri

    Hi George, the source was a WSJ study on GDP growth that pointed out that the consumer segment is 70% of our economy (and 90% of our GDP growth in the prior ten years). Lots of other studies state that women control spend in 75-85% of consumer purchases.

    I wrote an earlier post on the WSJ consumer segment of the economy, and a separate one on the female purchasing power. I can’t comment on whether it is fair…it’s just how things work. Women buy for more people…kids, gifts, and tend to control household budgets.

    Reply
  6. geoffmamlet

    Jules, your pitching experience sounds awful, and I’m sorry it happened. There is no place for that behavior in venture capital or elsewhere.

    Looking at the big picture, it would be great if we could learn whether the stat you cite, “4%-9% of venture capital goes to women-led ventures”, is caused by bias against women entrepreneurs, or if there’s something else at work.

    This is not a new question, but I don’t think the venture world is any closer to having answers. Here is a post on the topic written at the end of 2011 by my colleague, John Backus (http://navfund.com/blog/on-women-vc-startups). In the post, he shared the results of our study of our firm’s “funded-to-pitch” ratio for male-led companies vs female-led companies. Our firm funded startups with women CEOs at a slightly higher rate than startups led by men during the study period. Perhaps other venture firms can share their stats, so we can start to get some perspective on the problem.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      I’d love to see more of these internal “success rate” stats published by VC’s Geoff. While hearing that only 2 of your 19 funded companies have female CEO’s is not reassuring, your funded ratio is a more hopeful picture.

      As I said in the post, more women have to start showing up in VC offices as much as the guys. But we won’t until there are more women on the other side of the table. Barbara’s story below captures the received wisdom among female CEO’s…and it’s just too hard to ignore. Hire women in real numbers (not token ones) in VC firms and believe me, women will be knocking down the doors and knocking your socks off with great investment opportunities.

      Reply
  7. shoelady2

    Jules-
    Thank you so much about making this story about the experience of women entrepreneurs discussable. You are so right – it feels like shooting yourself in the foot to go public and appear to whine. And there will be people who consider it whining. But these stories must be told so we can all get a clearer understanding of what is really going on here.

    My turn to whine. I started my company and went to the VC community for funding over a decade ahead of you when 3% of the money was going to women entrepreneurs. I thought I would get some but never did. If I could get a meeting, eyes glazed over as they politely gave me time to tell my story. Selling women’s shoes on line. What a crazy idea. Why would women buy shoes on line. Clearly I was starting this because, as a woman, I just loved to shop. I STILL get asked if I am running the business out of my home. No. Store. Warehouse. Office. and close to a 100 different employees since I started. I’m not running it from home.

    Getting beyond the myopia and paternalism and my own frustration, I really do want us to move this discussion forward to a better understanding of what is really happening here. I think your “limbic instincts” example is on target. Men feel more comfortable with other men, in general, in business decisions. My VC guys (100% guys) sure didn’t show much interest in women’s shoes or in retail in general, for that matter…. at least not until Zappos came along on the west coast.

    But there is a flip side to this coin. Women do have “limbic instincts” too. We like to affiliate with other women to resolve problems, share thoughts, etc. But while most men stay active in the business world and grow their relationships into a wider network of active and increasingly powerful colleagues, women more often than not, step off this business career path to care for family and are left with a narrower network of business colleagues with a diminished amount of powerful and influential people. Women have less powerful colleagues to share with other women than men have to share with other men.

    ‘nough said for now. But I hope this conversation will continue.
    Barbara Thornton

    Reply
  8. Steven

    “No real idea but I know that for every 10 ventures started by men in the US, 8 are started by women. Some studies say that women start 60% of businesses, not 40%. Women are less likely to seek VC, however so these numbers still don’t answer your question.”

    So you are basing your gender discrimination claims on no real data. Cool.

    You need to look at stats on who starts tech companies. The distribution may well be that women start less than 1% of companies in the tech industry. I would not be surprised. A business can be a coffee shop, laundromat, etc. Women start small businesses more than men do. Often the sorts that have social perks.

    Borderline autistic/egocentric men tend to put in the 18-hr days to build companies based on software and abstract thought. There are women who want to do this and can be great at it, but I’d venture to guess that they are less than 1%. Young average man has no intrinsic value to the world; he must prove himself to the world. Young women have intrinsic value to the world. All women recognize this to some extent and thus have less incentive to pursue truly challenging entrepreneurial endeavors. There is also some genetic hardwiring.

    The burden of proof is on those claiming that women start more than 4% of tech companies (and let’s have a useful definition of a tech firm).

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Steven, like most entrepreneurs I have to make decisions and commit resources well before I have data to prove If I am right or wrong. Fellow entrepreneurs understand this all too well.

      I suppose that is why I am able to write this post and draw conclusions based on my deep startup experience and exposure to huge numbers of female tech startup founders. It is really hard to get the data you highlight but I don’t need a watch to tell me if it is day or night. I can tell you that female tech entrepreneurs are still living in the shadows of their male colleagues. A lack of funding, not ambition, is a key reason. It takes a village to raise a company and too many women are not welcomed into the tribe, even when they knock on the door. See the story below to get a first-hand account.

      Reply
  9. Lauren Flanagan

    Great post by a great entrepreneur! And part of the reason we started BELLE Capital USA, an early stage fund comprised of all women investors who have access to both human and financial capital to help women-led companies succeed for the benefit of all stakeholders.

    I’m also the co-founder of Phenomenelle Angels Fund–we’ve funded 10 women-led companies. Two have exited so far.

    Reply
  10. Matt Ridings (@techguerilla)

    First, let me say that it’s obviously a complex and nuanced problem that we don’t have all the answers to. There is no question about unconscious bias, none, anyone who disputes that simply hasn’t seen the science.

    That said, I do take issue with ‘gender neutral’ being treated as an equivalent to ‘gender parity’. One is not necessarily a direct correlation of the other. For example, more women now get degrees than men. You could make lots of associations with that information (men aren’t as smart, men aren’t as committed, men are more entrepreneurial and leave college to start businesses, etc.) but without more information it isn’t actionable. So back to your topic, a really low percentage of women go into the STEM fields and these are the fields that are typically backed by VC’s. Without more information, stats like “only x% of VC backed companies are led by women” aren’t indicative of bias in and of themselves. So even though we know there is bias (everywhere) we can’t say whether or not bias is the prevalent cause.

    Cheers,

    Matt Ridings

    Reply
  11. Lisa J.B. Peterson

    Many thanks for raising this topic – it is an interesting one to consider! As a female entrepreneur and founder of a 5 year old small firm (Lantern Financial in Boston) which I am looking to grow substantially over the coming years, I would say that the reason I have not yet sought VC funding could best be described as a lack of available mentorship for women when we reach a certain stage in the process of running a business. I am not a complainer (and like most other entrepreneurs, if something needs to happen, I make it happen), so this is a challenge for me to admit to myself or publicly, but I do believe it is true. There are LOTS of great resources available to women for starting a small business but almost nothing available for growing one or for launching a large business. I am an avid networker and researcher, but it has been a huge challenge to make the jump from “small business owner” to “large business leader.” In spite of my extensive efforts, it has been a challenge to understand and navigate the world of funding, not because I don’t technically understand the different options (I do) but because there do not appear to be any warm “inroads” into this world. I have never avoided any aspect of building a business and I am not easily intimidated, but this area has given me pause. I also think that there is a lot of bad advice out there for female business owners about funding. Perhaps it is a bit of a “self-fulfilling prophesy” in that advisors to women in business realize that not much VC funding goes to women so they don’t direct women to those opportunities – and then women-owned businesses generally remain small.

    I have been learning over the years how important it is to draw on the experiences of those who have paved the road ahead of me, and I suppose the simple answer is that it has been a challenge for me to connect with those who are ahead of me on this road.

    Lisa J.B. Peterson

    Reply
  12. Women Funding Women | Signal17

    [...] successful women who have done the start-up thing one or many times, like Julie Pieri’s Visit a VC: and party like it’s 1969 and Bettina Hein’s The Ultimate “Lean In”: Starting Your Own Company.  But today as I [...]

    Reply

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