Jess Lee: Go ahead and call me a “girly investor”
When Jess Lee was named general partner at Sequoia Capital, it was a seminal moment for Valley insiders.
Decade-after-decade Sequoia has remained a top the Silicon Valley heap, unlike any other firm. It’s managed to transfer power from one alpha-male to another alpha-male in a way few firms have in the history of Sand Hill Road.
And yet, until arguably this newer generation of partners started to come into their own, Sequoia wasn’t known for two things: Being particularly founder-friendly or particularly female-founder-friendly.
Lee— a bona fide superstar founder who built Polyvore to some $200 million— was hired in the aftermath of Mike Moritz saying they didn’t want to “lower [their] standards” in hiring a woman, and fellow Sequoia partner Alfred Lin saying categorically on a Pando stage, “Yes, we have a gender problem.”
That’s a lot to walk into.
And following the announcement of her hiring, Lee did little press. Like everyone, I asked for an interview and was told she was the type of person who likes to keep her head down and not draw a lot of attention to herself. At the time, I chalked that up to something I got from a lot of female-glass-ceiling breakers in the Valley: They don’t like being written about as “the woman” favoring instead their actual accomplishments.
As I wrote at the time, I get that. And yet, there’s never been a more important time to stand up and be proud to be THE WOMAN who broke a particularly pernicious glass ceiling in an industry.
One thing is clear after a conversation I had with Lee this past weekend: She is proud to be a woman who built a massive company. She is proud to be an investor who will unabashedly invest in “girly” startups. And whether she loves doing press or not, Lee intends to use her position to lift other women up.
Jess Lee, Aileen Lee, Sarah Tavel, Kirsten Green, Megan Quinn and other prominent female VC powerhouses are creating a new initiative, Female Founder Office Hours, born out of female VCs working together… something that hasn’t always happened in the past in an industry where the number of GPs have decreased over the last 20 years, and women are frequently pitted against one another.
As a testament to how needed this kind of thing is, how underserved this community is: The domain “femalefounder.org” was totally available, Lee notes.
It will start modestly with “quarterly” office hours…. that are already scheduled to take place more than quarterly. Female founders can sign up, submitting pitch decks and other materials. They’ll be slotted into the office hours that fit their stage and focus the most with an emphasis on “impact”— both the impact those companies can have and the impact that the VCs can have on those founders.
Lee isn’t just trying to optimize for a one-to-one impact here. She wants female founders to create friendships with other female founders as much as signing up potential investors.
She’s onto something that is bigger than it seems here: Throughout Silicon Valley, powerful women have been organically creating regular dinners, brunches, secret Facebook groups, and meet ups to encourage one another, vent, and most of all help one another— particularly since the election. It’s not a coincidence that these meet ups have been happening, and women have been gathering the courage to call out wrongdoing, and amplify one another when they do.
As Gloria Steinem once said “Every social justice movement that I know of has come out of people sitting in small groups, telling their life stories, and discovering that other people have shared similar experiences.”
Depending on the response, the program could grow to include more office hours, an online community or take on other forms, Lee says. These VCs are putting it out there: It’s up to thousands of women building companies to take her up on it.
Below are edited excerpts of our conversation this weekend. I started out asking about how this whole thing started.
Jess Lee: The credit should probably go to Aileen Lee, the veteran investor, the “unicorn” moniker creator, who has always been a community creator. When I was still doing Polyvore, I met Aileen and when I was thinking about what to do next, I went to one of her events in her house. I don’t think I’d be in venture now if it weren’t for Aileen.
She pulled together a small dinner, a little community of women in venture, to talk about, “How do we move things forward? There are lots of initiatives going on, how do we make a dent?”
We felt the key ingredient was an increase in massive, female-led companies. The question was: How can we accelerate that? The answer was in the community. It’s interesting because venture is often pretty competitive. A lot of female founders aren’t competing. There are so many female founder communities, and Aileen was all for us doing that on the venture side as well.
What if we band together? Female VCs from firms like Benchmark, Cowboy, Spark and Forerunner… and just start to host a series of female founders office hours? We are going to do a short talk on how to fundraise, and will have one on one time with an experienced partner-level investor, but they will also be surrounded by other female founders. It’s lonely enough to be a founder, but it’s especially lonely when you don’t see other people who look like you.
I recently went to the Grace Hopper Conference and to see 15,000 women all hitting the dance floor, and all computer scientists… it was this amazing feeling. Hopefully they can get a little bit of advice and leave with at least one female founder friendship.
I have no idea if we’ll get twenty applications or 200.
SL: What is the application process like?
JL: We just want them to tell us a little bit about their company, share slides if they have any and let us know what they want to get out of it. It’s really based on overall impact. How can we be helpful to them and secondly their impact… the impact they can have as female founders. The point is to help you with your pitch. We don’t expect their pitch to be perfect. Whatever you have will be totally fine. We highly encourage women of color to join.
I was very heads down in Polyvore, but it was essentially a fashion community. We might build out a stronger digital community of female founders, which is similar to what I did with Polyvore if this goes well. I really think the community piece is really important. I have been doing these series of dinners with eight to ten female founders, where we don’t pretend to be crushing it, but talk through whatever problems we’re having. It usually starts with me saying something really personal, and instantly everyone drops their guard.
Women want to be helpful. For me, it’s natural. What I really want is for founders [who come to the office hours] to find their circle and their support group and get together on a regular basis. I wish I had done that with Polyvore.
SL: There’s research that shows that even a single female investing partner at a fund, leads to more women getting funded by that firm. But a lot of women I’ve spoken with have said it’s harder to raise from women than men. Certainly, it’s a male dominated industry so there are more men writing checks and they also tend to be more senior at the firm. But there’s also a lot of female investors I’ve spoken with who don’t want to be known as only funding companies for women.
JL: I have heard some people feel this pressure of “I don’t want to be the girly investor backing girly projects only.” I’m the total opposite of that. Women are some of the most powerful consumers in the world. They control the wallet when it comes to healthcare and parenting decisions. Women control all of social media. Whatever teenage girls deem cool becomes cool later. To me, part of the reason I went into venture, beyond just wanting to help the next generation of female founders, was that my ability to understand young women might actually be a competitive advantage.
To me, it’s the opposite. I think it’s fine to be the girly investor. It’s underfunded too, so it’s less competitive.