Pando

We know how to help tech's gender problem, and it's actually happening

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 22, 2015

From The Gender Wars Desk

I’m writing this from 36,000ft, although I can’t actually believe I made it on this flight.

Not because I was running late or it was delayed (although both were also true.) But because a dozen times between home and the airport, even in the security line, I considered turning around, racing home, running into my kitchen and grabbing my kids in my arms.

I’m not one of those moms who never leaves her kids’ side. I’m not even one of those moms who thinks it’s bad to travel for work alone, every once in a while. I went to run TechCrunch Disrupt in China six weeks after giving birth to Eli. While I was still pregnant, Marc Andreessen made me $100 bet I wouldn’t get on the plane once I’d held my baby in my arms. “Have you met me?” I said. "I've spent two years on this conference." True to form, I went. It was hard, but not impossible.

But, since they were born, the only times I’ve travelled without my kids has been for work, and without much other choice. I was doing what I needed to do for Pando be successful—which is selfish, yes, but also necessary given mine is the sole income into our house in San Francisco. And let’s face it—as a writer by trade, I don’t have a ton of other options should Pando fail. Even a low startup CEO salary is a still high writer salary.

This trip is different. I’m leaving the kids with their dad in San Francisco and taking an actual, week-long, vacation. A yoga retreat in Mexico. It’s strange that the most luxurious thing I’ve done for myself in – I dunno – five or six years is also something I'm so conflicted about.

It’s hard to leave the company too — as all founders know — but I can cope with that one. In the last three and a half years I’ve raised $4 million, closed millions more in revenue, recruited, lost, hired and fired over a dozen people, written I don’t know how many stories, endured four serious legal battles, spent two weeks followed by armed security guards thanks to my words, and carried out literally hundreds of hours of on stage interviews. Oh and this was on top of giving birth to and raising two kids and going through a divorce during the whole time. After the intensity of last week’s Pandoland —the culmination of six months of hard core planning, dozens of favors cashed in, two days on stage, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills— people around me insisted I needed a break to keep my sanity. Even I admit they’re probably right.

More to the point: I have an amazing team. Brad Bowers is my “other half” on the commercial side of the business and he can easily hold the fort for a week, Paul Carr is my other half in every other way and I have no concerns leaving editorial entirely in his hands, including today's relaunch. 

But kids are another matter. They love their dad and their nanny, but there’s no substitute for mom. And selfishly, I don’t want there to be. I’m much less worried about becoming irrelevant at Pando than I am in my own house.

But here’s the thing that I’m incredibly grateful for: I don’t feel alone in this weird complex cocktail of emotions. Over the last few weeks so many other women who are also building companies and are also moms have told me conclusively I need to take this trip. They haven't judged. They've emphathized.

This is what’s magical about the Valley and what is changing right now in a very real way: Women are being supportive of other women in ways I’ve never seen before.

My own angst aside, I’ve seen this again and again lately. One prominent female VC told me several months ago she’d once been on a listserv of a club of men in the venture industry. And she noticed something remarkable: They all supported and lauded each others wins, and helped each other shake off the losses. Digital fist bumps all around for closing a ho-hum deal at a high valuation. “You da mans!” and “Crushing it!” as far as the email eye could see.

She wondered: Why don’t women do this?

Now, in the entrepreneur ranks, it seems to be slowly happening. A few weeks ago, I went to an annual party hosted by Aileen Lee and Katie Mitic. The event was full of powerful women executives of major tech companies, woman VCs, and woman entrepreneurs. The vibe was utterly supportive. At the end of the night, Aileen put her arm around me and said, “Look at this. We can change everything. We can change the world.” She didn’t mean “change the world” in the tired YC demo day sense. But rather in the sense of we can take control of this narrative of gender inequality by helping each other.

Last week at Pandoland —a rare tech conference with more women attendees in the audience than men— I interviewed Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures, and Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox. Several people remarked how much the three of us seemed to have respect and affection for one another—and how sadly rare that was. Taking me out of the equation, a lot of the conversation was about how Kirsten believed in Katia and her cofounder Hayley Barna early on, and how that early bet in Birchbox likewise helped cement Kirsten as a dominant investor in ecommerce.

Later at Pandoland, I interviewed StyleSeat CEO Melody McCloskey. She posted a picture of the interview on Facebook and among the comments was one by Care.com's Sheila Marcelo, saying “"love both these ladies.” Marcelo is one of the only women who leads a publicly traded company who is also a founder CEO. Currently there’s another one in the works: Lynn Jurich of SunRun who is doing her road show very pregnant. Every woman I've spoken too has whispered in awe of how her team has made this possible because she's so indispensable to the company. Not a single judgmental comment in sight.

Several of our speakers and attendees last week also noted that the vibe of Pandoland was utterly different than other tech events. We never once had to tell networkers to quiet down — the audience was attentive and engaged until the end. (The Nashville Business Journal remarked on the same thing.)

Many men I spoke with said it’d opened their eyes to the different energy brought by a room with more women than men. That balance is key. In his fireside chat Mike Maples compared male and female energy in a company to the north and south pole or two halves of a battery. It's not that women-dominated companies are any better than male-dominated companies, he argued. It's that the balance of male and female energy unlocks more creativity, honesty and potential. At Pandoland, I was impressed that in the discussion veteran music exec Heather McBee and I hosted on “hacks” for women leveling the playing field in uneven industries, the mix of the group was at least one-third men.

These may seem like tiny things but they aren’t, taken together. Women are ready for change and not afraid to say it.

Shit, even Rachel Sklar and I smoked a peace pipe over this, after years ago fighting on a conference stage about the nature of sexism in the industry. We disagree on whether women should be given roles for the purpose of changing a ratio versus them deserving it. But we agree that all women struggling to build a career in a world filled with unconscious bias should ultimately root for one another first, and debate each other's views second.

I heard another interesting thing at Aileen and Katie's party: Several large companies in the Valley are hiring consultants who specialize in uncovering unconscious bias in hiring strategies. In a world where everyone has to report their diversity stats, large public companies are having to come to grips with the fact that there is a problem here. The biggest request of major recruiting firms: Women board members. We just have a small issue of supporting women enough that there’s a bigger pipeline of them.

When the optics work in the favor of fairness and parity, everyone wins. Even the bigots — in spite of themselves.

It’s like Mike Maples said at Pandoland, there are two schools of thoughts on the gender issue and both are unsatisfying. The first is that men are pigs. Frankly, I’ve had so many male supporters, mentors, and investors in the Valley, I have never agreed with that one. The second is that the Valley is a meritocracy. Well look at the numbers of women and minorities getting funded. If you believe those are the natural levels of women capable of competing on the same level of a 22 year old YC grad, then you really have gender issues. 

After a few years of soul searching, unconcious bias and women not doing enough to help other women are the closest culprits I've been able to identify. Now the Valley is actively trying to change both. Aileen is right: If that continues, we really can change the world.