Female founders, and when good intentions go bad
Last year, I got some well-meaning advice from someone who has generally been very supportive of me and Pando.
He told me that I needed to soften my image and tone down my language if I wanted Pando to appeal to more readers in middle America. They don’t like to see an opinionated, mouthy woman swearing.
He meant well. But the comment wasn’t too different than an email I got after a recent appearance on Fox News on a Sunday morning, which told me my points were incredibly smart, but this viewer simply couldn’t take any woman seriously unless she wore a string of pearls. Could I please wear pearls next time?
My job isn’t to assimilate into a less threatening version of me to make people feel more comfortable. My job is to… do my job. Which isn’t running for office or placing in a beauty pageant.
I could fill a book with well-meaning “advice” from people who have genuinely supported me that is effectively reductive to me as a woman and as a person.
How to know if you are giving gendered advice? Ask yourself: Would you say this to Travis Kalanick? Has any investor ever told him to tone down his image? Or do they just shrug and say “Well, you have to be that way in order to build a company this disruptive. Look at Steve Jobs!”
I’d argue I have to be this way to build a company in a man’s world. If I lived my life buying new pearls to be taken seriously or worrying about whether Middle America finds me to caustic, I wouldn’t be able to function. Being a reporter is about having a voice. All of that mutes my voice.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s research has proven that it isn’t enough to care about making things better for women. Even genuinely care. The “way” you care can make the problem far worse.
Enter a Sunday New York Times piece about a pregnant female entrepreneur trying to raise capital. I should say the only thing that didn’t annoy me in any way in the article was the entrepreneur in question Nathalie Miller, who I’d love to meet sometime. Miller did everything “right.” She was working at a hot startup, saw a problem in the market she felt called to fix, quit, risking her savings, found a technical co-founder, and set out to raise capital. She unexpectedly found herself pregnant with twins.
Claire Cain Miller is one of the best reporters in the US on women’s issues, and fleshed out the story with experiences of other minorities raising cash. I just wish she’d talked to a single other pregnant woman who has raised capital. Because the unfortunate result is a story that paints Miller’s experience as a cautionary tale for pregnant women just not to even try.
Look, I am not saying there isn’t a problem here. We all know the odds are lousy. Sure some stats show that as much as 8% of venture backed founders are women. But data showing venture backed companies where women are the CEO, not just part of the founding team, is less than 3%. There is clearly a huge gender problem. And the so-called “maternal wall” bias is the hardest one women face. You don’t even have to be pregnant to face it. According to the Elephant in the Valley survey, some 75% of women get asked about future family plans in job interviews. Just wearing an engagement ring can hold you back.
What offended me so much about the article was that the well-meaning people around Miller seemed to confirm those unfair biases. Her mentor, Penny Herscher, started out by telling Miller she needed to dress like Marissa Mayer in order to get funding. Now, if Miller had walked into the meeting dressed like a Kanye-styled Kim Kardashian, I’d get the advice. But she was merely casually dressed. You know, like everyone in Silicon Valley these days.
I’ve heard many sexist things in my time here. But never once have I heard the following for anyone: I really can’t fund a woman wearing jeans. Where is her calf-length dress, cardigan and low heels? Nor have I ever heard another woman say they were told this was a requirement.
One of the top investors in Silicon Valley, Ann Miura-Ko put it best:
@sarahcuda if that were true I'd really be hosed— Ann Miura-Ko (@annimaniac) March 1, 2016
I have no doubt that may have been true for Herscher coming up in an earlier era of the enterprise software world, where everyone dressed more professionally. But that doesn’t mean it’s the case now or would be the case for Miller. When advising young women, more experienced women need to think about how much of their experience was just their experience.
Worse, Herscher said this:
Having your first child is just physically hard, emotionally hard,” said Ms. Herscher, who has two children. “I would never discourage you or say you can’t do it, because you absolutely can. Just be very clear why you’re doing it and what price you’re willing to pay, because the price is time with your baby.
I have no doubt she was trying to be helpful and giving her advice based on her career. But she implicitly just told Miller-- in coded language-- she would be a bad mother if she did this. “The price is time with your baby.”
Women complain about men who pass them over for promotions telling them, “This is a good thing! You’ll have more time with your kids!”
Are Herscher’s comments that much different?
The difference between how mothers and fathers are viewed in the workplace is well documented. The so-called mother penalty and father bonus. Dads are great when they take an afternoon off to take their kids to a baseball game. A mother is unprofessional if she needs to leave early to pick up a sick kid.
Again: Would Herscher say that to a new dad raising capital?
She’s just implicitly reinforced two biases that hold women back: That men aren’t responsible for half of the household responsibilities, and that you are a bad mother if you chose to have a career.
It also simply isn’t true. There’s little evidence that you have to work 24 hours a day to build a successful company. Look at Slack: Stewart Butterfield has proudly said people leave by 5 pm, as most of them are in their 30s and 40s and have families. We live in a community where people believe Jack Dorsey can run two challenged public companies, but we don’t believe that a woman can build a company and be a good mother?
There are two reasons I find this well-meaning maternal concern trolling so upsetting. The first is that 75% of mothers work and some 40% are the primary or sole breadwinners. Many (me included!) don’t have a choice. To shame them as “bad mothers” for having a career is just cruel. (And there’s evidence to back up that it simply isn’t true.)
When I was pregnant many well-meaning friends said: “Get ready to feel like a failure constantly.” That attitude is a big reason I put off having kids for so long. It’s not exactly an endorsement. Well, for any young women reading this, let me say: It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t feel like a failure constantly. I feel like having children has made me a better human being, a better reporter, a more efficient worker and a more compassionate, tactical leader. I’ve never once had an ounce of “guilt” if I bought cupcakes for school or ordered a Halloween costume online. And no other mother at school has made me feel that way. I assure you my children don’t want my crappy homemade costumes over the fuzzy bee outfits we wore last year. They just want me to dress up with them. That I can do.
Many women experience this, and I’m sorry they feel that way. But that doesn’t mean everyone does. It doesn’t mean you will.
The other reason this advice infuriates me is that entrepreneurship is a great way to have flexibility in your schedule when you have small kids. I work more hours than I did before starting Pando. But those hours are flexible because I don’t have to fit into a given construct of “face time” or rules I didn’t set. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I take my kids to school and get a late start on work. But their dad picks them up those days and I can work late. On Tuesdays and Thursdays their dad takes them to school but I leave work “early” to do the pick up. We alternate Fridays. No one is there in the next cubicle to look disapprovingly at me. And I’m accountable to no one but my board for getting all my work done.
It was a harrowing few years when they were younger than two and I had to spend the majority of my startup paycheck on a nanny. But that phase doesn’t last very long, and most good startups are marathons not sprints. Now that my kids are in school we don’t have any regular childcare. Their dad or I rock them every night. This is doable. And it’s fun.
Research has shown that women who’ve had multiple kids take a slight productivity hit just after childbirth, but after that they are far more productive than average workers.
More anecdotally, look at the top women in the industry. Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg both have multiple children, who were young at key inflection points in their careers. Susan Wojcicki is arguably one of the most powerful women in the global tech world as the head of YouTube. She’s taken long maternity leaves an astounding five times, and argued it made her a stronger leader. Lynn Jurich took SunRun public as she was nearing her due date and rang the opening bell with her newborn in her arms. Accel’s Rich Wong recently told me it was the most impressive feat of determination and strength he’s ever seen any entrepreneur-- male or female-- do.
There’s a reason nearly 40% of all small businesses in America are started by women. And there’s a reason that only 3% of VC-funded deals are women CEOs-- most of them late stage companies. One is about needing permission from gatekeepers and the other is just doing it.
But “advice” like Herscher’s just gets in women’s heads. I remember the terror of telling my board I was pregnant with my second kid. I remember dreading it and practicing how I would say that. They both sort of laughed and were like “We’ve seen you start a company on maternity leave, we aren’t worried.”
Not to be all #notallmen, when I’ve been as vocal about the corrosive bro-culture in the Valley as anyone, but in my experience no one expected me to dress like Marissa Mayer or give up having kids to build a great company. Advice like that implicitly puts in a woman entrepreneur’s mind that no one will find her worthy on her own merits before she even has a single meeting.
Why does the female establishment of the Valley so boldly demand that we make our husbands be 50-50% partners, but insist we assimilate when it comes to the work world, accommodating outdated and false biases that may or may not actually exist?
There is also an asymmetry of power when a woman who has had a successful career and has had children already is saying this to a woman who is pregnant with her first and trying to start her first company. It’s hard for the protege to insist things will be different for her even if she feels it in her gut.
As Sandberg and Grant’s work shows, the way you talk about this stuff is as important as meaning well. They specifically wrote about diversity programs that go wrong by accepting biases and stereotypes as widespread realities. From the piece:
Why would knowledge about stereotype prevalence lead to greater stereotyping? We can find clues in research led by Prof. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. In a national park, Professor Cialdini’s team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.” Even with this warning, theft rates stood at 5 percent. So they made the sign more severe: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” This warning influenced theft, but not in the direction you’d expect: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent.
The message people received was not “Don’t steal petrified wood,” but “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behavior.” We have the same reaction when we learn about the ubiquity of stereotypes. If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.
If awareness makes it worse, how do we make it better? The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable.
Research has also shown that the key to more women getting funded is likely having more female partners at venture firms. Firms with a female partner are more than twice as likely to invest in a company with a woman on the management team, according to the Diana Project.
Enter frustration #2 with the article: 79 Studios a firm that says it’s focused on female entrepreneurs said it would only invest if another firm led the round. There is no more frustrating thing for any entrepreneur to hear.
Via Twitter, 79 Studios says they don’t have the capital to lead deals. It’s worth noting at one point Miller scaled her fundraising ambitions back to just $500,000. 79 Studios didn’t have enough capital to lead that? If you don’t have the capital or wherewithal to lead even a modest sized seed round, I wonder what you are trying to accomplish in this industry.
More to the point: I’m sure the fund has great intentions, but if you can’t lead a round, you aren’t going to help create more female-lead businesses. You are by definition following what the industry already does.
As Keith Rabois pointed out on Twitter, many firms who say they “don’t lead deals” really mean they don’t want to do the diligence or don’t want to be on the hook for filling out the round or taking the blame when something goes wrong. It’s as much about conviction and leadership as it is about capital.
Consider Kirsten Green. She wanted to be a VC, but had no startup experience and didn’t think a traditional firm would hire her. With no investing experience she couldn’t very well raise her own fund. So she scouted good deals and painstakingly raised special purpose vehicles one at a time to fund them. She too couldn’t lead deals back then. But her first three investments were Birchbox, Warby Parker, and Bonobos. She quickly built up a track record that allowed her to start Forerunner Ventures, one of the top ecommerce firms.
(And, by the way, she has young children too.)
Every VC will tell you the reason they love backing young 20-something founders is because they aren’t bought into the way industries already work. That they can look at an industry fresh and see nothing but possibilities. That they won’t be held back by the way things have been done. I hope future female founders like Nathalie Miller can look at raising money the same way.
Just because someone who came up ten years earlier had to wear cardigans doesn’t mean you do.