Often, when I read articles about sexism in Silicon Valley, I think about Martin Scorsese’s movie The Wolf of Wall Street and its lead character, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. This bio-pic became Scorsese’s highest-grossing film of all time, and what a film it is, rife with moral depravity. If you read Newsweek‘s January 28, 2015 cover story “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” you might wonder if there’s much of a difference between Belfort’s Wall Street portrayed in that movie and our very own Silicon Valley.
I won’t bother dropping into detail about the Newsweek article; its examples of type-A jerks involved in atrocious acts like domestic violence don’t deserve more air-time here. To generalize, the piece makes it seem like things are pretty awful here for most women trying to advance in tech. It also makes the idea of women founding a company seem practically insurmountable because of hurdle after hurdle – with most of those hurdles involving barriers overtly related to sex and sexuality. However, just as a lot of folks have suggested that the truthfulness of Belfort’s memoir is in question, so, too, are some of these depictions of life in Silicon Valley worth further scrutiny. Though these stories are quite horrible, the truth is, I cannot relate to many of them. As a multi-time founder, I’ve pitched to my fair share of VCs, but my nervousness didn’t come from being surrounded by men. Rather, my nervousness was that of a founder seeking financing for a dream. Getting venture-backing is a difficult process, and the gender composition of the room hasn’t had anything to do with my stress.
As well, personally, I have not been on the receiving end of overt sexual innuendos, despite my blonde hair and occasional short skirts. I don’t contend that the claims from women in Newsweek article aren’t valid. In fact, I appreciate them sharing their stories. The more that unacceptable, sexist actions are brought to light, hopefully the less they’ll happen. But theirs has not been my experience, and I don’t agree that theirs is the example of Silicon Valley that should have been presented to the world. Instead, there is a real conversation to be had about how this place has more hope for change than Belfort’s Wall Street does.
There is a general truth to living in a venture-backed tech culture that our world is “don’t ask, don’t get” – and that’s all the harder if you’re a woman. At times, the statistics seem against us, as fewer than 10% of venture-backed companies in the Valley have a woman founder. That said, the tide is turning. The real story in Silicon Valley now is exemplified in a recent Business Insider piece by Julie Bort, in which early-stage tech investor Boris Wertz shares: “Gender diversity, as with diversity of any kind, results in a fuller range of ideas, perspectives, and approaches to problems. And an interesting study found that women-run private tech companies are more capital-efficient and bring in a 35% higher return on investment (and 12% higher when venture backed).” That’s our story, ladies, and investors are taking notice. More of our companies will get funded because we are delivering tangible results. Change is at hand, and this is our opportunity to make our news about successes rather than sexism.
Let me share one place to find such examples. I am honored to sit on an advisory board of a venture fund, Illuminate, founded and run by a woman, Cindy Padnos, whom I’ve known for years. Cindy invested in my previous company, Red Aril, and she also mentored me early in my career, when we both worked at Scopus. If you look through Illuminate’s site, you will see that Cindy has an advisory council composed of the who’s-who of women in Silicon Valley. There are lots of success stories among us – far more success stories, actually, than horror ones like those presented in the Newsweek piece.
It is possible to remain focused on success and on the fact that we’ve made tremendous progress, that it is being recognized, and that we have an increasing number of women in Silicon Valley in leadership roles today. Working to reinforce gender-neutrality in the workplace is among the best ways to combat sexism today. And, in the meanwhile, there may be “wolves” here just like on Wall Street, but let’s not let those jerks stop us. We have come far and have farther to go.This
What does Silicon Valley think of women? From the looks of some data, it thinks we can earn an ROI even better than the guys. The more that we women focus on the reality we’re making — real successes! — and the more we effect positive change and tell our tales of success, the faster we’ll reach a time when magazine cover stories focus on how we’re outperforming men. Now that’s a cover I look forward to seeing one day very soon!