Women + Tech — don’t be that d.
The tech headlines are not about Trump for once but about the blow-up of Binary Capital following an expose in the Information of one of its general partners, Justin Caldbeck. TL;DR : urgh.
Reid Hoffman cut through the chase by talking about the power dynamics at play and provided a rallying cry with the #decencypledge whilst Brad Feld at Foundry went one level further in identifying practical steps Foundry will take in implementing a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment.
The response from industry feels muted. I think it’s in part because it’s cringeworthy to hear male VC’s talk to other male VC’s about why and how not to sexually objectify women, and in part because there’s a risk of being opportunistic and self-righteous (Exhibit 1). It’s also because we all have to look in the mirror. I may not always been perfect myself, but I’m firmly an ally.
We all have a duty to each other to drive sexism out of our industry.
Whether you wear high heels or a cardigan (or both), are a shy PhD in Physics or a power sales alpha type, you deserve professionalism and respect in all circumstances.
When you go in to pitch a VC, you should be able to walk into that room confidently, knowing that you’re going to be judged on merit alone, that you’re not going to be subjected to any kind of sexual innuendo, no matter how mild.
Switching context is the worst, say when you come ready for a business dinner and realize you’ve been trapped into a dinner date. It’s what second-rate movies casting agents do. This isn’t the eighties anymore, and we are all better than this. It’s happened to my own partner a few times, and it’s despicable.
When it comes to tech community after-hours or even private parties, I have learned from experience that it’s much better to consider that as a VC, you are ALWAYS on duty. It’s not because it’s 1AM at someone’s party, no matter how chilled everyone is, that suddenly you’re not “the VC” anymore.
A few years ago, I made a woman uncomfortable at a party. She wasn’t someone I was working with or looking to fund, and we were in my mind in that very different “context”, but she wasn’t, and she got concerned about whether her standing in the market would be impacted. I lacked the awareness. I didn’t realize how concerning these situations can be for women because of the impact it can have on their career; I just had no clue. I have long since apologized to her, but I learned a valuable lesson in being mindful that day. A few years on, after divorce, therapy and a new relationship, I avoid these situations altogether, but nevertheless being aware of our impact is something we need to do continuously.
Bottom line, for a male VC: distance comes with the territory, in all circumstances.
It’s clear it’s way tougher for women than most of us (men) realize, even if we think we do. We have to put ourselves in their shoes and do much more every day to correct our biases and level the playing field. Make it safe to be yourself.
As Cool Girl put it :
If you don’t feel safe to be yourself, you’ll find someone safe to be.
I was in a meeting only last month when someone mentioned two women I know: “I’m not sure I could fund them, they are both pregnant, you know?”. I choked in my coffee and tried to defend my friends, but too gently: “Oh, I trust them to do well and I know for a fact they have got the full infrastructure set up”. It’s been on my mind ever since; I wish I had done more.
I am sure we have all been part of the problem, consciously or unconsciously, perhaps simply by talking over someone or by tolerating a stupid joke. It’s important we all be part of the solution. I’m 100% there.
I have in the past been on a few occasions unaware at parties and been flirty. If I offended anyone or made anyone feel uncomfortable in any way, I am truly sorry. As soon as I was made aware of the Nantucket situation in 2014, I felt terrible and reached out to offer an apology. I meant it at the time and I mean it today. I am ashamed and saddened that I made this person uncomfortable. I regret doing this and took active steps in 2014 and 2015 (some described above) to ensure it would never happen again.
With these situations, of course, you always wonder what else there is. To be clear, I have never used my position as a VC inappropriately and no complaint has ever been made against me for my behavior.
I think sexism and misogyny have absolutely no place in our industry. I invite you to reach out to the women I backed to hear how I championed them. I have long been saying that VC’s must earn the trust and support of founders (male or female) by providing meaningful help & having their back — not by waving a chequebook or asserting power. I am 100% supportive of long lasting efforts to root out any form of conscious or unconscious bias or behavior that keep women down or make their life harder in our industry.