Women Entrepreneurs and VCs: Doors Will Only Open If We Pound on Them, Loudly and Persistently
After the headlines, there’s more hard work to be done.
Now, sitting on the other side of the table as a co-founder of a health information technology startup, I’m experiencing firsthand what every entrepreneur knows: Raising money is hard. Dealing with potential investors is hard.
And it should be. As a venture capitalist, I was successful because I did my homework. My job may have been to take financial risks, but I took those risks very carefully.
Now, as an entrepreneur, I’m asking investors to share my vision for revolutionizing nutrition care for pre-term infants. I’m asking them to put their money behind something utterly groundbreaking, to not only see value in what I’m doing but to help create value. That should be hard.
However, it should not be hard because I’m a woman. But, as we’ve seen from a summer full of revelations of VCs behaving badly, it often is.
It occurred to me that as we move forward, women in tech will need help to make sure this conversation doesn’t stop as the headlines fade.
Men behaving badly
I understand the complaints women have made because I have experienced some of the same issues when raising capital.
At a recent meeting with an all-male group of potential investors, the two other female members of our leadership team and I were asked, “Do you have any men on your team?” In fact, we do. But, when the CEO has 15 years’ experience in the industry and an MBA, the chief scientific officer is a registered nurse with a PhD and over 10 years researching our product area, and the chief financial officer is a certified public accountant with extensive financial experience, should that matter? The question about our company’s testosterone level was followed by one about who would handle mergers and acquisitions negotiations for us. Those can get quite complicated, the potential investors helpfully informed us.
Our experience isn’t unique. In conversations with other female founders, I didn’t have to dig too deep before similar shocking stories surfaced. One was asked if she consulted her husband when making major business decisions; another fielded queries about how she would manage work and family.
Add to this the by now well-documented gender disparities and harassment in high tech, on both sides of the venture capital equation, and women may be tempted to throw up their collective hands and decide there’s no point trying to break into the club, either as venture capitalist or entrepreneur.
The response is understandable. It’s also the exact opposite of what women — and the startup world — need. We need to speak up, then shake it off and persevere.
The power of raising your voice
In a 2015 Wired article, venture capitalist Nick Beim, a partner at Venrock, acknowledged that some of the gender imbalance so rife in the venture capital realm is due to outright prejudice. But, Beim argues that such blatant discrimination is the exception.
More common, he asserts, is pattern recognition. Which, to drastically paraphrase him, means that male venture capitalists give money to male entrepreneurs because most entrepreneurs they know are male. This is hardly a shocking hypothesis; we’re all more comfortable with the familiar. It’s true when we keep listening to music that was popular when we were in high school. How much more true is it when huge sums of money are at stake?
If Beim’s theory is correct, the best way to make the venture capital world more female-friendly is for women to insert themselves until their presence at the table is no longer a novelty, but routine.
To put it another way, the doors will only open if we pound on them, loudly and persistently.
There is data to suggest we aren’t doing that enough. It may be a result of differences in upbringing or cultural expectations, but men “ask for things,” whether it’s raises or jobs — or capital — at a rate two or three times that of women, according to Jean Clemons, a lecturer in management communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
To be sure, asking doesn’t equal getting. But, at the very least, more women asking for positions, and for funding, puts them in the room. It gets their voices heard. And there is something to be gained from that, even when the answer is no.
Need proof? Look no further than those recent stories about males behaving badly in the venture capital realm. As disturbing as their actions were, look beyond the headlines and you’ll find tidbits of encouragement. After one or two women spoke out, more joined in. And when those voices became a chorus and women insisted on being heard, things happened. Attention was paid. Resignations were tendered. And, perhaps most remarkably of all, apologies were offered.
The brave women who dared to put a crack in venture capital’s cone of silence have provided an opportunity for the rest of us. Women, whether they are entrepreneurs with groundbreaking ideas or venture capitalists turning ideas into projects, need to emulate that bravery. We all need to continue raising our voices and demanding to be heard.
Even — perhaps especially — after the headlines subside.
This story was a guest column by Kauffman Fellow Tammi Jantzen (Class 20) in Entrepreneur.