Silicon Valley money hasn’t funded equality — it’s just paid for more male entrepreneurs
(An article written and published by NewsMavens: https://newsmavens.com/)
Ari Horie is CEO/Founder of Silicon Valley based Women’s Startup Lab. Women’s Startup Lab is dedicated to creating the world where women thrive and succeed through innovation and collaboration. She is working tirelessly to change the landscape of Silicon Valley by creating opportunities for female start up founders to accelerate their path to success and funding.
Zuzanna Ziomecka: Do you find that the approach to women in technology and innovation differs in Europe from what you experience in Silicon Valley?
Ari Horie: Absolutely, though Europe is too big an arena to say that it “is this or that”. But in general when I talk about women in business or women in technology, there is much more of a sense here that, “We’ve solved that problem”.
ZZ: Do you believe that?
I don’t think so. Maybe in some countries. People from the Nordic countries, for example, absolutely swear everybody is equal. In other places it’s interesting to note how men react — they’re so confident that inequality is just not an issue while women from the same place tell me, “No, we do have a problem”.
Italy was interesting in this way. The men there told me, “We don’t have a problem, women are strong in my country”. But the women said, “No, it’s a men’s world. We have a problem”.
ZZ: So I guess that makes Silicon Valley more self-aware.
Yes, absolutely, especially since the MeToo movement. There’s a lot of focus to become self-aware, accept challenges like women’s equal representation and take action. I had a gentleman talk to me very passionately on this European tour about women enjoying great equality in his country. These convictions get expressed very emotionally here. Perhaps it’s part of European culture that men are supposed to be more vocal in this way.
In American culture they are more politically correct and afraid of being wrong, so men don’t get that passionate about pushing back. The first thing they do is say: “Yes, that has been the topic and it’s terrible, I know we have to do something”. So culturally, they’re not only aware, they’re afraid of the issue and so they don’t come right at me to argue.
ZZ: I hear what you’re saying. There is a lot of conviction in Europe that we’re further ahead than America on social issues, which creates huge blind spots over real problems which therefore don’t get solved. That being said, looking at the statistics coming out of self-aware Silicon Valley, I don’t see the needle moving. According to the numbers and reports — not much has changed for women in your neck of the woods. Why is that?
The reason Silicon Valley is powerful is because there’s just so much money there. You can push through a single idea and scale it to the world because of this money and high concentration of talent. But the town itself is very small. It’s not a large group of people who are designing and building democratic systems. Things grow fast in Silicon Valley because it is a really small community of people who have power and all basically know each other. When such a small, tight knit community has so much global power, it creates the impression that they’re global thinkers, but they’re just a small band of people, who — once they start believing something — tend to stick with it, if it works.
ZZ: Are you saying that men dominating this community is something that’s working?
Well… it’s a formula — 93% of Silicone Valley is male. Somebody made a joke recently that their company is really diverse because 20% attended Stanford in ’91, 30% were at Stanford in ’97, etc… I don’t know what the stat is exactly, but it seems like everyone is either from Stanford or Harvard. I’m not saying that they’re knowingly discriminating against people from other colleges, it just happens that way naturally.
When they talk, for example, they always refer to each other using the names of frat houses they were in and what year they graduated. And when they meet someone new, they say “Hi, oh, you graduated from X, I noticed”, “Yeah”, “Do you know so and so?”, “Yeah, he’s a great guy”. So it’s not just a small and tight community, it’s also educationally very selective. This creates invisible walls and a culture dependent on hermetic social networks.
After a while this stops being interesting and diverse and means that technological innovation is being driven by a very privileged group of people, who are not equipped to see much less to solve many of the world’s biggest problems.
ZZ: And your strategy to bring more women into this community?
Not necessarily. It’s really hard to change what’s working for people. Instead, I’m trying to create something else, something that will work for women. Of course, part of the effort is having some of the people in Silicon Valley be part of our mission and champion female entrepreneurs. They already have a network, and a pipeline they’re getting from friends. We are trying to help women tap into that. We want to create our own methodology for female entrepreneurs.
ZZ: Do women entrepreneurs need something different than male entrepreneurs?
Yes, they need different things because their challenges are different. People of color face a very different set of roadblocks than white men, even if their qualifications are identical. The same is true for start ups from other parts of the world do. Some of the greatest companies outside of Silicon Valley never make it, you know. They have a great idea, a great team with PhDs but they never make it because they don’t get early-stage support.
Women have the same challenge.
So one thing they need is help finding money, and two — finding a supporter who can lend them some inner circle Silicon Valley credibility to get them to the next stage. A great idea, a great team and early attraction aren’t enough, you see. To get to the next stage which involves big funding, you need a great network.
ZZ: Does it has to all happen there? Do you have to move to Silicon Valley to create a successful startup?
Yes and No. Over 90% of Silicon Valley investors only want to invest in startups that are local. So moving could be the right thing. But traditionally, Silicon Valley has a hard time investing in women led companies because the VC community is made up of mainly male investors. So for women founders it makes sense to come to SV to get the wealth of information, insight, and build a network but often female entrepreneurs notice that it’s when they come home after from Silicon Valley that they start getting local traction. Because they had a Silicon Valley advisor and now have a Silicon Valley network and global strategic partners. Often times that makes local investors pay serious attention.
Entrepreneurs who come back from Silicon Valley often also come back more confident. They think, “I knew I had something special, but now, when I’m in Silicon Valley talking to a lot of amazing people, I know that this idea can be really, really big”. So they go home with a sense of confidence and credibility which makes their world start shifting.
ZZ: I read your introduction to Marta Zucker’s new book, (Global Women in the Start-up World: Conversations in Silicon Valley) in which you said that when women network, we tend to gravitate towards personal topics rather than work. Can you tell me more about this?
What I’ve read and also what we observe is that women in networking are very relationally driven compared to men, who have a greater transactional tendency. Men will get together and talk about an investment they’ve recently made, or some big account that they’ve gotten and how they got it. They like to talk about facts, business-related numbers and tactics.
Women, on the other hand, get together and talk about the emotional part of their lives and work because they’re trying to connect. They have a natural tendency to talk about intangible values. It’s a way of building trust.
They’re saying, “We need trust to build a relationship and do something together”. Meanwhile, men are saying “Hey, I’m capable. I know something that you don’t know”. Over time, the amount of information that women get from each other is more limited. As men continue to advance, they keep talking about careers and businesses which is a way of helping each other. I think this has created a gap.
ZZ: Men are looking for business contact while women are making friends? The goal is different?
Many powerful women say that their friends are not businesswomen or they’re not entrepreneurs. And that makes sense. When you think about female entrepreneurs talking to other female entrepreneurs that are at the same phase, the chance of having an osmosis relationship tends to be smaller. But men obviously have a larger community to share information constantly.
ZZ: So how do you deal with this?
One way is awareness. You have to be aware that a part of the social norm is that women are supposed to be humble, but that doesn’t mean that they’re less than other people. If you don’t conform to the norm, you get called a bitch or intimidating. Just by being yourself, you get labeled so much more than men do. So practicing or letting your guard down around other women entrepreneurs can be a great relief.
ZZ: How else do you help them overcome some of the difficulties women entrepreneurs face?
The relationships you get first. Secondly, we bring an advisor from Silicon Valley who is committed and coming in with intent to support. This part is really important to us. These advisors don’t come in and say “I want you know how great and how smart I am because I’m a famous Silicon Valley person. You often see this obnoxious attitude in Silicon Valley big wigs. Many got rich and famous so quickly that it turned them into foul mouthed jerks. Meanwhile, the women in our program praise every single advisor, because no matter how big they are, they make sure participants understand what they need to do to become successful as well.
People say “I can’t believe famous people truly care and — on this micro-level — want to know about my business, and have strategic conversations with me.” Some advisors give out their cell phone numbers because they want to stay in touch and help. That doesn’t happen with other accelerators.
ZZ: So instead of changing Silicon Valley, you’re building this alternative route for women to tap into its resources?
We can’t change society fast enough, but we can change our mindset to drive success that works for women. Recognizing the unique challenges and invisible walls that we face teaches us to overcome or bypass barriers and spend less energy on them. That frees up focus for opportunities and chasing down what we need and what works. At the end of the day — you choose your life and you decide how you’re going to use your company to push through your mission and your talent. We hope that after the conversation and education we give during the program, our women founders leave with a strong sense that it’s not about what the outside world expects, allows or does it’s about trying to be a bullet-proof entrepreneur.
ZZ: How did you get into this, Ari?
I think it has a lot to do with Eastern and Western culture. I grew up in Japan. As a child there you learn about the greater good and the power of a team, a group of people coming together, supporting each other and committed to the outcome no matter what it is. You learn to value the amazing love, connection and commitment that individuals give to work as a team. But part of that is you being asked to diminish your individual talent, creativity, desires and dreams for the sake of the group.
When I came to America, it was an “aha moment” — “Wow, I get to do what I want to do and I don’t have to worry about disappointing other people”. I really appreciate that about American culture because you can be responsible for yourself and it’s okay to say what matters to you and do something about it. But the cost is that if everybody is focusing on what they can do, how good they are, I feel like they’re missing out on the miracle that happens when other people step in to help you. It completely takes you to the next level. I see this in Women’s Startup Lab, also when we work with a corporation — a big part of it is hito, two people leaning on each other.
ZZ: What does Hito mean?
The philosophy of Hito is that you’re great, but when you have others, you can be extraordinary. Magic happens in this space because the collaborative power of Hito makes each individual more powerful and confident. That’s the power of community, and that the formula we are creating to really help female entrepreneurs. We also do a lot of personal development work.
In order to be successful, women need to understand that its not just about them getting support, but being a part of a passionate, purpose driven community that they can both receive and contribute to.
Instead of telling women to “be passionate” we dig deeper to where their passion come from and identify what weakens it. These passion killers are usually fears. And though we all have them, as entrepreneurs we need to face and reconcile our fears in order to gain clarity and integrity of purpose. Preparing founders mentally is an important part of our success formula.
ZZ: This is to build intrinsic motivation and make sure they know what they’re getting into?
Not what they’re getting into, they’re already in it! But it goes deeper, because being an entrepreneur is a really challenging path. If they are solid knowing who they are, their value, what drives them — that really helps them to stay focused in any challenge. They know how to make a decision and prioritize to do the right things for their companies. Building self-worth and awareness is part of the program and is essential in our formula.
ZZ: Were you an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley before you set up the accelerator?
I was. I had a startup when I saw this phenomenon of exclusion in Silicon Valley and started Women’s Startup Lab as a side project. I pursued my early stage company for about a year before I decided to focus on Women’s Lab because I felt that it could make a bigger impact on the world.
ZZ: Do you have impact in Japan?
My family is not in Japan anymore. But they think of this as a great change. Japanese women are very submissive, so it’s very rare that they a operate at scale in a different country. I think that’s why I get picked up on Japanese media all the time. Some people say I’m kind of an underdog, because I come from another country and manage to execute things in Silicon Valley’s closed community.
I really don’t think anybody expected Women’s Lab to be around for 6 years and continue to grow. I consider myself a nontraditional role model and, hopefully give women and girls in Japan a sense that they don’t need other people’s permission to do something that matters to them.
ZZ: Even though cultures differ and attention to diversity issues is varied, everywhere I go, women feel guilty for following their dreams rather than taking care of their families. So your mission has resonance all over the world. I wonder what you see when you look into the future. What’s next?
I travel to different parts of the world, because women’s issues are everywhere. Everybody is making an effort to solve women’s problems within their region. But what I found is that there’s an opportunity in women expanding their business to places where they resonate, not just where they are reside physically. I think that’s the way to look at how women can succeed. We work with a number of different countries, whether it’s a government, a university or a philanthropic individual, interested in providing women with a global platform so they can rise above their own country or suppressive culture. They can still physically be at home, but with explosive digital innovation and a powerful network of female entrepreneurs they can continue to seek opportunities in different parts of the world instead of feeling stuck where they are.
ZZ: Wait, how would that work exactly?
Women’s Startup Lab wants to create a global network of accelerator and residential programs for women to grow locally but learn and expand globally. In practice that means they can pack up and go for one week, or even one month, to a country that has the most advanced technology for their field. For example, if a woman works in fintech, she can go to Singapore with Women’s Startup Lab to work with an amazing advisor who really wants to see more women in this field. She can pack up, go and explore the opportunities and them bring them home and out them to use. We’d love to do that with Poland as well.
ZZ: My last question is about success — do women define success differently than men?
I think so. I think there’s a monetary currency to value men’s worth and success. Women have another currency to measure their success. “I want to do something that makes a difference for my community, my family, for the children in our future” — that’s what we hear all the time. It starts with people. I think that’s so important, given how technology expands, becomes powerful and invasive. Women are saying — “Look, is this technology valuable for us human beings?” versus: “This technology is cool. Let’s make it powerful and collect as much data as we can to make money”.
Women want to talk about human impact. They often decide what kind of business idea they have in both ways — the money opportunity, but also emotional currency for the society and the community. When she rises, the community rises; when she succeeds, the world succeeds.