Pando

At the Women's Venture Capital Conference in Boston, the shadow of Ellen Pao looms large

By Dennis Keohane , written on April 7, 2015

From The News Desk

Today in the Boston Seaport district, more than 160 people attended the first "Capital W" Women’s Venture Capital Summit. The event, which was co-run by the Babson College Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership, featured members of the Boston-area venture capital community, budding entrepreneurs, and pitches from women-led startups.

Most of the event steered away from being explicitly focused on issues related to women in tech, instead featuring panels filled with successful female founders, venture capitalists, and angel investors. One such panel, featuring Golden Seeds’ Jean Hammond, Maia Heymann of CommonAngels, and Boston Seed Capital’s Nicole Stata, as well as Christopher Mirabile of Launchpad and Scott Friend of Bain Capital, discussed the usual issues facing any startup founder, regardless of gender.

After that session, CapitalW organizer Sheryl Marshall, who founded the woman-startup focused investment firm Axxon Capital in 1999, awarded Launchpad Ventures and partner Mirabile with what she dubbed the Ada Lovelace Award for doing the most to help women entrepreneurs.

The event was held not far from the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, currently hearing the Boston Marathon bombing trial -- but it was another court case, recently ended thousands of miles away, that Marshall referenced as she addressed the crowd: Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins. In making a point about the positive impact that a venture firm can have in helping women-led startups get off the ground, Marshall touched on an issue that you don’t often hear discussed in Boston, at least not publicly. But Marshall was in no mood to hold back.

Speaking to me afterwards, Marshall said the Pao trial "completely exposes what many of us know to be true, that women are off the radar for the guys.”

“For me, it was just that they didn’t like her personality,” she added. “Can I tell [you] how many lousy men I’ve worked with that never get fired because they are guys, even if their personalities are outrageous or egregious and disgusting?”

“So who wins here?” Marshall asked. “Poor Ellen Pao is going to have a mark on her back forever. Kleiner Perkins has tarnished one of the great brands in America. And now we are losing focus on moving the bigger issue forward.”

Marshall wasn’t alone in expressing her thoughts on the case, however, many in attendance were hesitant to go on the record with their thoughts, which ranged from, “This is something happening all the time, and its a shame someone didn’t get caught for it,” to “She wasn’t the ideal character to represent how women are treated at VC firms.”

It was quite interesting to hear the East Coast version of reactions to the case in particular. Many of the women in attendance have been involved in the venture capital game for a long time, as partners, associates, or founders raising money, and they’ve seen every type of boorish behavior imaginable from their male brethren.

“To advance in the industry, it’s all about the track record you build. How do you build a track record? You show you can make money,” said CommonAngels’ Maia Heymann. “You find companies that have big opportunities and you get the opportunity to invest in them. It looked like she had done that, but she had to give up her seat on the board of one of the company’s she led an investment for because someone else at the firm, ‘Need a win,” she said.

“She needed a win too,” Heymann said. “That was what struck me the most in the case, that allegedly, track record was being taken away from her, and that is the only thing you have to stand on as an investor, whether or not you are you a moneymaker.”

Heymann also commented on Pao’s pregnancy at the time of the board seat issue, and she referred to how she herself avoided being put on the “Mommy Track.” In her own experiences, Heymann said she wouldn’t allow her firm to put her on the sidelines just because she was having children, even making sure she attended every board meeting she needed to while on her maternity leave.

But there were many different perspective from CapitalW attendees.

“You’ll never know the truth of who she was, and what she was, and what the politics were, but clearly there is an industry issue,” said entrepreneur Sung Park, best known for founding Custom Clothing Technology Corp., which was acquired by Levi Strauss in the 1990s. “It’s tough to know all the facts of one particular case, but as an industry, we absolutely know there is a problem.”

One panel --“Why is It So Hard for Women Entrepreneurs to Raise Capital,” -- featuring Startup Institute CEO Diane Hessan and Janet Kraus of intimate apparel company Peach, was a bit more riled up in talking about many of the problem face by women who are leading companies or raising money from venture capitalists.

C.A. Webb, the executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association and one of the most outspoken opponents of Massachusetts’ non-compete laws, said during that panel that one reported line from the trial kept popping into her head. “I kept hearing, 'Women kill the buzz, women kill the buzz.'”

“I think the really critical thing is that we are standing here talking about it,” added Webb. “Everyone in this room has been talking about it. So suddenly, in the way that Lean In changed the dialogue and brought men into the dialogue about gender equality, this is now upping the conversation to the next level of sophistication.”

“It’s going to take these turning points for us to get there,” Webb said.

But the hesitance of some of the women in attendance, many who usually don’t have any trouble expressing their points of view, still spoke volumes about the dangers of speaking out about gender in tech.  One attendee, a long time member of the local technology community told me, “It’s crazy that I can’t say something on the record in this instance. It’s just crazy.”