Dear Male Execs and VCs: “Lean In” with us for the Long Haul

Perspectives from a Female Founder and 500 Startups Alum

I’m the (female) founder and CEO of an enterprise B2B company in the cyber-security space. It has been two years since I was accepted into the 500 Startups accelerator program, and I have observed the unfolding of recent events with a bit of incredulity. The turn of events at 500 Startups over this past weekend is especially shocking. 500 Startups leadership clearly did not live up to the organization’s tag line “Diversity is not just a strategy or tactic. It’s who we are.”

I’m glad to see that Dave McClure has resigned, but as one of the many, many founders from historically underrepresented groups that 500 funded, a complete 500 Startups meltdown would be very depressing. It appears that more information will come to light in the coming days, and many will appropriately call for a more thorough explanation of events. My knowledge of what happened is incomplete, but from what I know now, I hope the 500 Startups LPs and remaining leaders can rebuild the brand, and help lead a change in Silicon Valley culture not just in rhetoric, but in action.

Do the current high profile events really signal a culture shift that will result in long-lasting changes in the balance of power in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere? I would like to think so, but an entrenched structure of power and privilege does not change willingly. I am concerned a backlash is just around the corner. Already, I see responses on social media calling the ever expanding accounts of sexual harassment a “witch hunt” (the irony is priceless), and I think there is real risk that female entrepreneurs may see less meetings and less opportunities if investors shy away from meeting with female founders.

In the past week, many male startup executives and investors have posted a range of apologies, pledges, and general commitments to do better. I welcome these messages, and at the same time can’t help but view them with some skepticism. True commitment to changing the culture of the startup world will not come from timely statements to manage spin, but from years of consistent, committed effort. What will these same VCs have to say 6 months, 1 year, 2 years from now? What action will they have taken to make a difference? I would very much like to hear back from them after this news cycle has blown over and to see concrete examples of how they are helping push forward the culture change they currently advocate.

My guess is we will hear even more stories of sexual harassment now that the floodgates are open.

I have no doubt some men will react with defensiveness, indignation, or frustration.

With that in mind, I would like to borrow a phrase from well-known author and corporate executive Sheryl Sandberg. She argued that women should not shy away from male-dominated power structures, but rather “Lean In” to them, assuming a seat at the table and a role in the conversation even if it felt uncomfortable. To the male execs and VCs out there who are truly committed to changing Silicon Valley culture by changing themselves, I invite you to “lean in” to this conversation rather than defending yourself and then returning to business as usual.

As new stories emerge, you may find yourself thinking, “there’s no way”, “I don’t believe her”, “wow, her anger is really out of line”, “this is a witch hunt”. Rather than feeling vindicated, work to actively resist those thoughts. Put on a new lens. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a woman who has spent years in a career where she knows her pay has been less than men with less experience and competence, where her opportunities to advance have been stymied by discrimination, where her ideas were ignored until they were uttered by a man sitting right next to her.

If you want to play an active role in achieving gender equality, the problem is much bigger than sexual harassment. In addition to not sexually harassing women, here are a few other things you can do right away to affect change:

  1. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t assume you know how women feel or what their experience is like. Ask questions, and listen openly to what you hear. In a recent post, well-known investor Chris Sacca shared his take on how he thought women might have felt as a result of his past actions. In his post, he wrote:
“Particularly when reflecting upon my early years in Silicon Valley, there is no doubt I said and did things that made some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged. In social settings, under the guise of joking, being collegial, flirting, or having a good time, I undoubtedly caused some women to question themselves, retreat, feel alone, and worry they can’t be their authentic selves. By stupidly perpetuating a culture rife with busting chops, teasing, and peer pressure to go out drinking, I made some women feel self-conscious, anxious, and fear they might not be taken seriously.”

Notice a pattern here? The words associated with women are “victim” words: “awkward”, “insecure”, “discouraged”, “retreat”, “self-conscious”, “anxious”, “alone”.

His interpretation may be correct, but what I didn’t hear him say, and I think he’d likely hear from many female entrepreneurs is…

(my text in bold)

“there is no doubt I said and did things that made some women enraged at the unfair playing field in Silicon Valley Venture Capital, embittered that the risk of discussing their frustrations publicly might jeopardize their ability to achieve their entrepreneurial goals, and ultimately determined to push forward in spite of all the hurdles”.

In addition to listening, let’s all work to change the lexicon for female founders to “agency” words, like “persistent”, “unstoppable”, “visionary”, “tenacious”, “fearless”.

2. Work really, really hard to change your own pattern matching. So many recent studies have shown that VCs bring unconscious bias to their decision-making that puts female founders at a significant disadvantage (see here, here, here, and here). When you see a female founder walk into the room, especially if she is building a company in a traditionally male-dominated space, your subconscious will already have a pattern match for you. Rather than let it drive your decision, consciously try on this pattern instead:

Here is a woman who has persisted in an industry where she has probably experienced a lot of discrimination already, but she is so passionate about her idea, that she has managed to build a team and a product around it. To get as far as she has already, in spite of the obstacles I bet she has faced, requires a lot of courage, tenacity, and ability to execute. Those are precisely the traits I look for when I decide to invest in a company.

The National Center for Women In Technology has some great resources for combating unconscious bias and increasing diversity.

3. Change the Ratio: Achieving gender equality means bringing more women into spaces where they have been historically underrepresented. Do what you can to get more women on boards, recruit women into the VC industry, fund more female founders, ensure your companies are recruiting and supporting female engineers, invite women to speak at events and serve on panels.

If your motive is honestly and genuinely to eliminate discrimination and unconscious bias from Venture Capital and startup culture, you will take these steps because it is the path to long-lasting, fundamental change in the industry, and not because you have to, or because it looks good in the moment.

Chris Sacca got it right when he said “It’s the unrelenting, day-to-day culture of dismissiveness that creates a continually bleak environment for women and other underrepresented groups.” As did Brad Feld when he noted “The less visible, but in many cases even more prevalent issue, is that of unconscious bias against women.” Feld when on to say, “We are committed to addressing this as well, but feel we need a little more time to figure out how to best attack this formally.” I hope Chris Sacca, Brad Feld, Reid Hoffman and many others stay the course. The backlash is already here, and we are going to see a lot more posts from angry misogynists who still don’t get it. We need the outpouring of support for women in the tech industry to last far longer than this news cycle, and for male execs and VCs to “lean in” with us for the long haul to change Silicon Valley culture.

Dedra Chamberlin, CEO Cirrus Identity

Thanks to Angie Chang, Shane Ballman, and Mark Rank for input