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4 Forces at Work Against Women in Venture Capital

VentureBeatThis post appeared on VentureBeat on December 6, 2015.

As Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king. And Sequoia Capital’s Mike Moritz, by most people’s measure in the venture capital world, is the king. So before we jump onto his controversial comments about women in venture capital in his interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, let’s step back and try to see this as the gift that it might be.

The outtake from his comments was that women don’t qualify to work at what is statistically and reputationally the best venture fund on the planet. Such a statement, taken at face value, created blowback and indignation. For women who feel stymied in trying to advance in what is still very much a male-dominated industry, the comment was discouraging to say the least.

But Mike Moritz is a smart person — no one will argue that — and someone who had to overcome his own obstacles and biases to join the venture world as a Welsh journalist and classics major. He is also not sloppy. I imagine he was describing what he sees out there in the industry. I also believe he is someone who is not operating from a place of blatant prejudice against women.

That leaves us with two possibilities. Either he (like all of us, myself included) is blinded by unconscious bias and is simply not seeing talent when it arrives in front of him. Or he is truly experiencing a talent pool where there is dysfunction upstream in the system that is creating what is often described as a pipeline problem into math and science-heavy venture capital sphere.

The only way to get to the bottom of what is really going on is to allow people like Moritz to express their views, provide some benefit of the doubt that he was speaking accurately and without malice, and go from there. We will not advance if we cannot communicate about bias and blocks for women in the industry. Shutting people down for saying something uncomfortable will not allow the issue to come to light.

So, here’s a point of discussion: Let’s fast forward — to a time when Sequoia decides it can no longer afford NOT to have senior women partners. How do we get to there from here? What forces at work need to be overcome for women to fully take their place in the VC industry?

From the Kauffman Fellows — where we teach leadership to rising VCs — we observe four key issues at work that must be overcome:

1. Abject, blatant prejudice against women. Simply put, and sadly, this is still a reality. What we know from recent years is that our industry is getting closer and closer to formal regulation. This feels like one of those things that, if we can’t address it proactively as an industry, the federal government will do for us. We’re Silicon Valley, dammit. We can do this math. We should be 20 years ahead of the country on this issue!

2. Pervasive unconscious bias practiced by men with even the best intentions. Myself included. The incentive here is obvious. Persistent bias impedes the talents of women, who, once let loose to build or invest in companies, will solve big problems in unique ways, and generate significant wealth in the process. At the Kauffman Fellows, we are at work on leadership programs that can help all of us (women have unconscious biases, too!), recognize these tendencies and make decisions from a much higher level of awareness and, ultimately, efficiency.

3. The “weather conditions” in the industry are so foul that women cannot chart the course to the top. Venture capital is unique in that the path to success has no path. It’s up to each individual to carve his or her own way (and constantly redesign it). I love this quote, advising women in the industry, from the late great Kathryn Gould, deified by many of today’s greats in venture (mostly men) as the ultimate source of mentorship through tough love:

If someone isn’t listening to you [as a woman], it’s because your argument in weak. If you think instead that they aren’t listening because you’re a woman, if you allow yourself that false luxury [of thinking you’re being discriminated against], you won’t grow.

We have long observed that radical self-belief, rapid thesis development from that self-belief, and unique talent environments to drive the thesis are three keys that set the top 5% of venture capitalists apart from the rest of the crowd. If the person has the radical self-belief and a good head on their shoulders, everything else can be accelerated rapidly.

If the atmosphere in venture capital is, however, not welcoming for women, they won’t have the time and energy to steer their career through rough waters, much less chart the unique course that will take them to the top 5%. They will take their talents elsewhere. And then we all lose. However, there are women who clearly are acting in the spirit of Kathryn Gould’s advice against extreme resistance and, through “radical self-belief,” are pushing their way through to success. We need to support and celebrate them as the standard bearers for other women coming up in our world.

4. Due to pervasive issues across our society, the pipeline is not producing female VCs TODAY at the proper number. This pipeline is a system that begins in preschool, one clearly riddled with systemic dysfunction for girls who would choose a career in math, science, and engineering and eventually technology entrepreneurship and investing.

Mike Moritz’s gift may be just this message: Women are clearly qualified and will join the highest ranks of venture, but right now, they are fighting on at least four levels to get there. The next question should be: How do we address the dysfunction, open the opportunity to everyone, and build the platforms that enable all venture investors — women and men — to maximize their learning curves, networks, and success.


Phil WickhamPhil Wickham is CEO of the Kauffman Fellows. Phil was in the Charter Class of the Kauffman Fellows Program, serving his fellowship under Ed Kania at OneLiberty Ventures in Boston, and was founding Vice-Chairman of the KF Board. Prior to joining the CVE staff, Phil served as a General Partner at JAFCO America Ventures and at Copan, based in Munich, Germany. In his venture career, Phil made over 30 investments, including Twitter, Ikanos, Web Methods, Com21, and Trilibis. Phil received his BSME from the University of Arizona and his MBA from Rensselaer. He serves on the boards of Trilibis and Lawson America. phil@kfp.org