The Will to Transform and Break things: Rebuilding Silicon Valley For Women

Katheline Jean-Pierre Coleman, Angel Investor, Pipeline Angels

Credit: Gif courtesy of Libby Vanderploeg

Former First Lady Michelle Obama suggested that we “Make more room for women in tech” in Silicon Valley. Current situation shows that it will be hard to succeed as we are building on top of a broken foundation of prevalent sexism and racism. We will need to break things. Hit hard. Destroy some of the foundations first, then build on new foundational principles. The reality is that even if we get more women in tech in our current conditions, they will likely run away seeking greener pastures.

I have been in the Valley for 4 years and every week I wonder “Where am I going next? Should I stay.” As a French canadian black women in the Valley, I can tell you: it really takes something to be a women in tech. It takes everything. Systemic sexism and racism are everywhere. The mythical technology & innovation hub “Silicon Valley” is hearing women’s voices loud and clear. Will companies and individuals have the will to carry on with the necessary transformation? Same for the race challenge by the way.

Let’s look in different places.

#1 The media:the only black women (and the only Black “lead” role) in HBO’s Silicon Valley is a stripper called Mochachino. “Mocha” just in case you didn’t see the color of her skin, it is mocha. “Chino” because in Silicon Valley we drink a lot of coffee.

Female VC portray of Shelly Kapoor Collins is published in the Style section. Is she a fashion model or is she an investor investing in women-founded startups?

#2 Follow the money: Whoever has the money has the power. In the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, the “powerfuls’’ are the VCs. The VCs who came out about their sexual harassment behaviors received countless support from other males who justify the behavior of sexually harassing, touching and assaulting women as “just being a man”. One example below.

#3 The helplessness of men: “Women, please, tell me what to do”

I am speechless when I hear senior executives in the tech industry who “don’t know what to do or where to start”. Really? You were able to make millions as a VC but you can’t figure it out? I’m a firm believer in the skill / will matrix. If you have the will to transform it at your level, then you will develop the skill. I did not have the skill either. I simply Googled it and read multiple abstracts on the topic to solve for the gender gap.

#4 Silicon Valley is a Rape Culture

Let’s name things. What’s all that fuss about sexual harassment? Why does it matter? It matters because it leads to rape which is a crime. Gender blind sexism is an indicator of a rape culture among men and women and studies further showcase that.

Individuals who hold attitudes consistent with the frames of gender-blind sexism are more likely to accept common rape myths.

A “rape culture” is a culture in which we normalize rape and sexual assault. Victims are blamed, either implicitly or explicitly, when these crimes are committed against them. A culture in which other factors such as media objectification make it easier to see women as dehumanised objects for male sexual purposes alone.

Now what? #DecencyPledge

I found a couple of ideas to break things by “Just Googling it”.

  1. Companies can terminate employees with wrongful conduct of sexual harassment, assault and rape.
  2. Companies can correct and adjust salaries to full parity like Marc Benioff who paid $3M to deliver equal pay for Salesforce (article). Additionally companies could analyze and compare salaries not just at current level but at levels of experience in the field.
  3. Companies who “Don’t know what to do” can hire firms like Accenture and Deloitte to break and rebuild. Accenture has built a whole practice to solve for women and diversity.
  4. Top female talent can be enrolled in fast track growth development programs
  5. Companies can launch bias busting trainings focused mainly on systemic sexism, assault, rape and racism. These trainings would be focused on men/women stereotypes and interactions.

Every initiative, every conversation, every individual and every collective act counts towards the transformation of this culture.

What am I doing personally to transform this culture?

When I moved to the Bay Area 4 years ago from Montreal Quebec, I was extremely challenged as a french canadian Black women in tech. I was trying to find my voice. I was on survival mode: I had to “make it”. In montreal, I was named the Gazette’s sexiest geek. Yes there is the word ‘sexy” and a few males made the contenders list. Coming from a different culture, then in Silicon Valley, I was struggling to know when, where and how to speak up, most of the time. I didn’t get the getting-up-the-latter-fast “Game” that multiple US-born tech workers get. I was just a “very nice” Canadian girl in the Valley.

What I did

3 years ago I put myself in a robust communication and leadership training where I stretched myself and achieved a career development goal every 3 months which gave birth to a more rapid career progression at work. It also gave birth to a women leadership development program which I created. So far, 160 women have been coached and developed by senior leaders with a goal of 1000 women by 2020. 160 have rediscovered their authentic voice. What I realized is that…

By rediscovering their authentic voice, women have a say in their career. They have the confidence to speak up, take risks, break things, navigate ambiguity, believe in achieving a position of leadership. Be themselves. BE leaders.

With all these voices on loud speaker this past weeks, women are rediscovering their authentic voice. They are being heard. Gaining their power back. Silicon Valley is listening. When women are self-expressed, they can decide to shape the future of Silicon Valley.

To further impact change, since who owns the money owns the world, I joined Pipeline Angels, an angel investment group for women and LGBTQ, including non-binary fems to invest in women/LGBT/Non-binary fems-founded startups. I put my money where my mouth is, as a new female angel investor in the Valley.

Note: these thoughts are my own, not those of my employer.