Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that, back in 2009, a woman I knew well at the time accused me of touching her face at a mutual friend’s party in Las Vegas.
At the time, we had known each other for years, were in a private party setting in Vegas, not a work event, with no investor-investee relationship, we were not in business together, we didn’t work together in any capacity, and I also wasn’t even a venture capitalist yet as I didn’t close my first fund until May of 2010. There was no imbalance of power between us.
While I dispute the account of what happened that day, eight years ago, I do own that in the past, especially in the early days of my career, I have sometimes played a role in the larger phenomenon of women not always feeling welcome in our industry.
And that’s the point. I wrote this post below, not only in response to one particular article, but out of recognition of an upbringing, an industry, a system, and a culture teeming with examples of the unfair impact of words, deeds, and inaction, including some of mine.
I saw some of you confused by the timing of my original post. I struggled with it too. In the end, it felt as if there would never be any good time since the subject matter is so charged at the moment. So, I decided to simply post it when I finished writing rather than saving it as a tactical response to an allegation. Overall, this is not just a one-time exercise. It’s a living outline of work that is going to take years and your feedback will continually shape it.
Most importantly, I am still grateful for Susan and all of the strong women speaking up on these vital issues. These women are teaching with their courage. Every story that’s told yields another glimpse into such powerful feelings and experiences from which we all keep learning.
The words that follow are my heartfelt process for reconciliation and growing the work I have been doing for years to bring about permanent change in our industry and our lives.
This week saw deserved outrage over the treatment of female entrepreneurs. The examples that the many brave women in tech have finally brought to light are objectively awful. Venture capitalists benefit from an imbalance of power when working with founders, so investors exploiting the vulnerability of women seeking funding is simply abusive.
Twitter is abuzz with appropriate vitriol toward the perpetrators and an industry which looks the other way, and it has been heartening to see men in our business making pledges to behave with common decency.
However, if you follow my Tweets closely, you might’ve noticed that I didn’t jump in with the mob. I retweeted a bit and liked a few Tweets, but this entire time, I’ve been struggling about how to weigh in.
Why? Because as more and more brave women have come forward to share their own tales and experiences from the hostile environment of the tech world, it has become clear to me there is a much bigger underlying issue in this industry, and I am realizing at times I was a part of that.
Over the last week, I have spoken with friends, friends of friends, heard from people from my past including stories of how I’d behaved, and read incredibly thoughtful and courageous essays. I’ve learned that it’s often the less obvious, yet pervasive and questionable, everyday behaviors of men in our industry that collectively make it inhospitable for women.
Listening to these stories, and being reminded of my past, I now understand I personally contributed to the problem.
I am sorry.
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.
I am sorry.
In my mind, because I hadn’t acted in a way that exploited an imbalance of power or vulnerability in a VC-founder relationship, I’ve generally considered myself one of the “good guys.”
But’s that’s the crucial lesson I am learning right now in real-time: It’s the unrelenting, day-to-day culture of dismissiveness that creates a continually bleak environment for women and other underrepresented groups. I contributed to that, and am thus responsible for the unfairly harder road that everyone other than white men must travel in our industry.
I am sorry.
It’s also become clear to me that I didn’t consistently use my power and influence to call out bad behavior by industry peers. The passive acceptance of exclusionary words and deeds is not okay. In the earlier years of my career, I made my own attempts to fit in and be accepted as one of the tribe of Sand Hill Road guys. Along the way, I looked the other way and didn’t speak up at times I should have. I didn’t highlight blatantly discriminatory hiring and I didn’t call bullshit on overtly gender-biased investing.
But as I have listened to more tales from the past, it’s become clearer: I had a duty to say and do more on behalf of those who were not in the conversation but nevertheless affected by it. I failed.
I am sorry.
As a white guy, even before I made any money, I benefitted from extensive privilege. I was raised by very progressive parents who worked hard to grow my sense of empathy and imbue upon me my responsibility to help those less fortunate than I have been. I grew up in a safe, loving home, never afraid of police abuse. I was able to go to a great university and law school and I have had the opportunity to work for top companies never once fearing discrimination nor prejudice.
I acknowledge all this as a basis for saying that, despite what I naively thought was a broad and liberal worldview, I know there is no way I can fully understand and appreciate the pain, suffering, frustration, and struggle of women in the world of tech.
I am sorry for having caused my share of this mess. I own it.
So what am I going to do about it?
Well, the silver lining is that for the last few years I have been hard at work doing my part to improve our industry for women and other groups who are underrepresented. This week’s revelations and reflections make those efforts more important than ever and I am recommitting to do even more.
1) I will continue to passionately and directly support women and other underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
For the past few years, I have been aggressively and consistently working to help women, as well as other underrepresented groups, as they become entrepreneurs and investors. I started these efforts long before I realized the earlier role I had played in perpetuating the unfairness of our industry.
This space isn’t going to get better unless we put meaningful dollars into companies run by female and minority founders. My track record in this department improved with each year I was in business, but the percentage of my portfolio companies run by women and other underrepresented groups is still way too low. This is the result of homogeneity in my deal flow and referral network (i.e. white guys), bias in my decision making, and general ignorance of markets and products outside of my bubble.
So starting in 2014, I committed to back the next generation of women and minority investors. If the power is going to be rebalanced, it starts with the pursestrings. The venture capitalists are the gatekeepers of this industry and they decide who gets backing and who doesn’t. So, I began helping new, independent general partners get started.
To date, I have invested millions of personal dollars in ten funds run by women and underrepresented minorities. Often I have committed as their first limited partner and encouraged them to use my name and participation to attract other investment. I’ve introduced them to my fund’s most loyal investors and made sure they have had the opportunity to make their case rather than get lost in an inbox. I’ve also connected them to our trusted service providers saving them the time and frustration I experienced when trying to get my first fund off the ground. Above all else, I’ve rolled up my sleeves and spent the time mentoring many of them in how to approach the business itself and how to navigate the inevitable challenges that arise.
The good news: It’s starting to work. I love reading the investor updates from these new VC’s. They are backing companies that would likely be overlooked by white male investors. They find incredibly diverse CEO’s solving refreshingly new and unique problems. Founders are now finding friendlier and more understanding faces in their meetings and gaining advisors who better understand the challenge of starting and running a company as a woman or a member of another underrepresented group. The right deals are getting done and the best founders are getting investment, with much less bias. Along the way, their co-investors are learning by example.
I’m also happy to report that these new VC’s are making money. In fact, a few of these firms are already back out raising their second funds.
Going forward, I will continue to invest my time, energy, and money in leveling the playing field for a new generation of diverse investors.
In doing this, I’m hoping many of you will join me. Together we can make huge advances for fairness and opportunity in our business.
2) I will use the privilege of my voice to strongly advocate for women and other underrepresented groups in tech.
In the Spring of 2015, my friend Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against the VC firm Kleiner Perkins. Despite the verdict, I, like many others in Silicon Valley, believed in the merits of Ellen’s case. But, I was afraid to say so for fear of retribution from one of the industry’s most powerful VC firms.
I soon realized I had a duty to speak up on behalf of all of those who couldn’t. So, I sent this Tweet:
Did I burn a bridge with Kleiner? Undoubtedly. But, frankly, I could afford to, whereas most entrepreneurs would likely have suffered for the same message. More importantly, the feedback I received both publicly and privately helped me understand that I owed it to the women of our industry to keep speaking up.
So for the last couple of years, I’ve been taking advantage of my time on stages and in the press to advocate for women and minorities in the tech industry. The reaction has been great and it’s encouraging to see how much coverage these themes are receiving.
With this in mind, when I was originally invited to be a Shark on Shark Tank, I said that I would participate if they would feature more diverse entrepreneurs from the world of tech during my episodes. Though the show generally does a good job of managing diversity, I specifically wanted America to see women running tech companies with boundless potential. That’s how I ended up meeting Hatch Baby and Toymail, two incredible companies founded and run by women. But more importantly, ten million people saw how excited I and the other Sharks were to invest in those founders.
I am lucky to have the audience I do and the freedom to speak my mind. So, I commit to keep using that platform to help women and other underrepresented groups.
If you have the privilege to freely speak your mind, I hope that you will join me in amplifying messages that can uplift and create opportunities.
3) I will continue to evolve my language and be aware of my biases, and the biases of others, when it comes to women.
Within days of when my first daughter was born, a mountain of pink gifts started showing up at our house. Otherwise well-intentioned friends and relatives repeatedly called her Princess.
As time went on, I saw the bias in how people, men and women, spoke to our daughter. Their remarks almost exclusively focused on her appearance. I would watch folks tell boys standing right next to her how smart they were and then turn to my daughter and compliment what she was wearing. I was dumbfounded as friends discouraged her from getting dirty, and as they insisted that she couldn’t possibly like bugs. (She is currently raising moths. Who knew?)
I felt a great deal of relief when I read the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. From those pages, I came to realize that the Princess Industrial Complex was doing its best to take over our home and claim our girl. I started to read more books by similar researchers, including Redefining Girly. In this process, I learned that girls who grow up immersed in princess culture have worse eating habits, lower self-esteem, and underperform in school. The biases in our language have an actual deleterious health effect on our girls.
As I studied this more, I realized how pervasive harmful language patterns are in our everyday speech between adults. For example, there are overt cases like using words such as “chicks” and “babes.” These are intensely dismissive and deprecating. In parallel, while it’s entirely commonplace among men in business to discuss women’s looks, it’s also far too common for men’s interactions with women to start with an acknowledgement of appearance.
So, as a dad, husband, friend, colleague, and businessperson, I commit to continue to work on unwinding the ingrained bias in my speech and ensure I give every woman the chance to define themselves without being boxed in by language.
I invite you to develop your own awareness around biases ingrained in our patterns of speech that sadly begin at infancy, and which are harmful to an environment of inclusion and fairness.
4) I will continue to listen, learn, and invite feedback as to how I can best help improve this industry and this world for women and other underrepresented groups.
For well-off white guys, it is easy to fall into an echo chamber of bliss. When you’re not struggling and your life isn’t dependent upon the whim of others, the path of least resistance is to simply listen to non-challenging voices. Yet, the resulting insularity is a direct cause of many of these core industry problems involving gender, race, disability, and beyond.
For years, I used Twitter as a place to comfortably follow familiar accounts, folks with whom I had a lot in common. But a while back, I started expanding my feed to follow people who were from outside of my bubble. Among them were two prominent female technologists and activists, Erica Joy and Tracy Chou.
At first, their Tweets about inclusion and the realities of working in Silicon Valley as non-white women were unsettling for me. I wanted to dismiss their observations as being one-off. I resisted admitting that our industry’s workplaces and work practices were so bad for so many. But as time went on, they were opening my eyes and teaching me so much.
So I was particularly excited when these women teamed up with Ellen Pao and other incredible people to create Project Include. In their words, “Project Include is an open community working toward providing meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for tech companies.” I am proud that Lowercase was a launch partner for VC Include. Among their best content is a post giving direct and specific recommendations for venture funds trying to navigate diversity and inclusion. This recent post from Ellen is also a must-read in light of current events.
Beyond this, I need to attend more events that would expose me to more diverse perspectives. At the same time, I need to be more committed to ensuring that events I host are well-attended by women and other folks who are traditionally underrepresented. All the while, I need to consistently solicit feedback and humbly accept advice on how I might best help.
I hope you will do all of this with me.
I am grateful to all of those women who chose to share their stories recently. You were the impetus for a lot of reflection, admission, regret, and commitment to redouble my efforts to give back to our community much more than I have taken.
For my industry peers, I hope this will encourage you to take some time to reflect on what you have said or done or failed to do and what effect that has likely had on women and others in our industry. If a guy who has been working hard for years trying to improve our industry for women can admit he was a part of the problem, maybe you can too. Following that reflection, I hope you will join me in taking action.
But let’s be abundantly clear, this is not a one time thing. It’s a practice. Let’s continually hold each other to higher standards. Let’s become part of the solution by putting our time, energy, voices, and money where our mouths are. Let’s listen and learn to create an industry that is genuinely welcoming to all.