Sexual harassment, gender based bias (both intentional and unintentional) have been a big part of Silicon Valley culture for years. Women have struggled as startup CEOs to get funded, or as investors, to get into the top venture capital firms. Those that did get in, often regretted it. Silicon Valley is a cesspool of misogyny and it’s got to stop.
Simply criticizing the situation is going to get us nowhere. While Silicon Valley is mired in inaction, the Colorado Startup Community is going strong in supporting women in venture capital and the revelation of Silicon Valley’s mis-steps, while distasteful, may finally lead to productive change.
There are four principles that Silicon Valley just doesn’t get, and Colorado venture community is going strong (but still with room for improvement).
While the recent stories of Silicon Valley misogyny are disturbing, it’s important that these stories are daylighted to expose inappropriate behaviors and to punish those organizations that condone or acquiesce to them. Colorado’s Foundry Group has published a Zero Tolerance Pledge on sexual harassment which represents a great commitment from a leading Venture Capital firm. Transparency is the first step to change, but much more than awareness is needed to effect change.
Massive cultural change supported by generations of beliefs, actions and misconceptions doesn’t happen all by itself. Communities need to be proactive in causing change. As an example, the Rockies Venture Club in Denver has consistently invested in about 50% women led companies, far more than the national average of just 13%. The organization recognized that while its investments were gender balanced, its investor community was not and that just 12% of its 200+ investors were women. Rockies Venture Club proactively founded the Women’s Investor Network, led by Barbara Bauer, in order to recruit, educate and engage women in angel investing. In just a few months more than a dozen women had made their first angel investment. RVC found that the way to make change happen was to be proactive and intentional in its actions, rather than just wishing for diversity.
Why aren’t female-founded businesses getting more VC money? For Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of consignment website The RealReal, it comes down to the lack of female VCs. “When you have different businesses that aren’t proven that may appeal more to a female [customer], a female investor is going to be able to evaluate that” better than a male investor could, she says. “I think in general, most VCs are trying to do their jobs, but there are a lot of unconscious biases.” (Fortune Most Powerful Women, 2017)
Start at the Foundation
Cultural change happens much more slowly than any of us would like. Organizations like NCWIT have done an excellent job of showing how unconscious biases that are based on years of social conditioning can impact our decisions without our even knowing about them. One way to combat those biases is to start at the foundation and create education programs for young entrepreneurs that create new ways of thinking about gender and leadership. The BizGirls program is a CEO Accelerator for high school age girls that is designed to create empowerment and confidence in girls by providing them with leadership and entrepreneurship experiences that help to remove unconscious biases and empower girls to take on whatever challenges that their passions may lead them to.
Work on the Top – Board Representation
Corporate boards are slow to change and according to a Credit Suisse Report only 14.7% of corporate board seats are held by women. This is a fairly astounding figure since it is well known that corporate boards with gender diversity outperform those populated by white males. Colorado has begun an intentional process to increase the number of women on corporate boards led by the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and it’s Women’s Leadership Foundation’s Board Bound program. The Women’s Investor Network in Colorado has also begun to create an on-line resource to connect women with opportunities to serve on angel and venture backed company boards, thus providing them with a stepping stone to public board service.
Colorado’s collaborative and inclusive community leads to the kind of discussion and active participation that leads to continuous improvement. Here in Colorado we hope that Silicon Valley can learn from us and begin to create a positive environment of inclusion and gender balance that will help lead companies and communities to success.