Why it matters that Sequoia not only hired Jess Lee, but hired a woman

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 20, 2016

From The Gender Wars Desk

Last December, after astonishingly sexist and backwards comments made by Mike Moritz, Sequoia’s Alfred Lin acknowledged that Sequoia Capital-- the most dominant venture capital firm throughout the history of Silicon Valley-- has a gender problem.  

And that was before a disturbing sex scandal and lawsuit involved Sequoia partner Mike Goguen put an even bigger spotlight on the firm’s partners’ attitudes towards women.

We did an in depth piece on Sequoia’s attitudes around women, talking to dozens of women who’d worked with or pitched the firm and heard a mixed bag of women saying (mostly on the record) they’d never been made to feel uncomfortable and many women saying the exact opposite, whether it was being ogled during a pitch meeting or hearing Doug Leone say “The only women we will ever have at Sequoia answer our phones.”

Leone has denied saying that, and several women in Sequoia’s portfolio now have defended the firm. And yet, that was hard to square with the fact that Sequoia still had never had a single female investing partner. Months ticked by and firms like Greylock and First Round Capital announced new female investing hires. But Sequoia remained all male, all the time.

It raised the question: If the firm does not agree with Moritz that hiring a woman would be “lowering its standards” and if it acknowledged it had a gender problem and wanted to do better, if it was bullish enough to fund more female-founded unicorns than any other major Valley VC… then what exactly was the problem?

A long silence followed that piece and the Goguen scandal. And then finally, today, Sequoia has announced it is breaking with its alleged “MadMen” history and hiring Polyvore and Yahoo’s Jess Lee.

To be clear: This is nothing but good news for everyone involved.

Lee is a thoughtful and accomplished founder who had a good exit when she sold Polyvore to Yahoo for $200 million, after raising just $22 million in capital. More from Bloomberg on her accomplishments:

Q Becoming a venture investor marks a turning point for Lee, a computer science graduate of Stanford University. Her first job after school was as a product manager developing features for Google Maps. Lee left Google to join fashion shopping and styling startup Polyvore as its first outside employee in 2008. She did everything from writing code to selling ads and finding office space, and in 2010, Polyvore's three founders made her an honorary co-founder. In 2012, they asked her to become CEO.

Lee fits a rare profile: an entrepreneur with a lot of success, yet young enough to have a long career ahead of her. Sequoia could potentially groom her for a leadership role. "Her rare blend of product and design sensibility, leadership and grit will make her a tremendous asset to Sequoia founders and our team,” Sequoia partner Roelof Botha wrote in an e-mail. Q

There are other arguable benefits to Sequoia beyond Lee’s talents. Study-after-study proves that management teams, boards, or financial teams that are mixed in gender perform better. Indeed, there are even studies that show that on balance female VCs outperform male VCs.

And data-driven arguments that this is good for the venture ecosystem too: The Diana Project showed that firms with just one female partner are twice as likely to fund female entrepreneurs. In a market where only 3% of venture backed companies are run by female founders who are also the CEO, that matters tremendously.

But what should be a major crowning accomplishment for Lee’s career will no doubt be talked about in ways that reduce her to her gender. I’ve heard it before when a top venture firm has hired a female partner: The haters who snipe that she was hired “because she was a woman.” That headhunters were charged with “finding a woman.” And -- because her success was in ecommerce-- some may argue it’s yet another example of the “ghettoizing” of female VCs into categories that “women understand.” Categories that also fail to produce the largest exits, historically.

Lee will be mentioned in the press more because of what she is than who she is today. And in coming weeks, months and years, Lee may made to feel like a token at times when she’s asked to speak at events or be in the room when a woman comes into pitch.  

And that’s unfair. Sequoia has reportedly been wooing Lee since 2012, and it certainly didn’t “rush” to fill its woman void even after Lin admitted this was a “problem” for the firm. There is nothing to suggest this had anything to do with gender. Indeed, Lee will also be the youngest partner at the firm at 33-- an accomplishment that’s overshadowed by her gender in the news today. And yet, even I am writing more about her gender than her accomplishments.

I’ve spoken to dozens of women who’ve broken through glass ceilings in the Valley who are infuriated by this, who have refused to do interviews or speak at events for this reason. When I asked to interview Lee this morning, Sequoia declined, citing reasons as varied as she’s still at Yahoo and she’s an introvert who tends to eschew press.

I get it. You’ve just started a job you are incredibly qualified for and the last thing you want to do are a series of press interviews where you have to answer for 40 years of reported sexism at a firm you haven’t even started at yet. That those interviews will talk about you less, than what you represent. I wouldn’t relish it either.

But I hope she reconsiders that stance, if not for Pando for someone. Because while she likely wants to be identified more as “Jess Lee” than “Sequoia’s woman”, a woman being hired to invest on behalf of the Valley’s largest and most dominant venture firm for the first time in its history matters.

It matters in a country where 40% of people still believe it’s bad for society if women work. It matters in an ecosystem where men in power-positions are 50% more likely have stay-at-home wives as the national average. It matters in just weeks after a VC suggested women obscure their gender if they wanted to raise funding. It matters to the many women I spoke to earlier this year who’d felt uncomfortable pitching Sequoia and advised other women not to even bother. It matters for the next Michelle Zatlyn who may also be told “women don’t belong with infrastructure companies.” It matters for the next Nathalie Miller who is told (by a female mentor!) that she has to dress a certain way to get funded. It matters for the next generation Kirsten Green out there who wants to be a VC, but has to build her own firm to do so. It matters for all of us who watch the “bro” culture of Silicon Valley in horror. It matters for those of us watching our election-- and Peter Thiel’s funding of Donald Trump-- in horror.

Whether Lee resists the mantle or not, she is a role model now not just because of what she’s accomplished, but because of what she represents. She is the living embodiment that Mike Moritz-- one-time the most important person at Sequoia Capital and in venture capital writ large-- no longer speaks for the firm, that Ellen Pao’s messy public fight didn’t set the Valley back in terms of gender equality as some people feared, and that bros aside, this place is being dragged kicking and screaming into an era of equality for women.

We’d all like to live in a world where a woman getting hired by a board, as CEO of a company, or as a partner in a venture firm isn’t news just because she’s a woman. But until we get there, we need to talk about it, scream about it, and celebrate it.