Our first dinner group, September 2017.

Announcing the Women in VC Blog

2017 has been quite a year for gender, and the VC/startup ecosystem has been no exception.

For many, it’s been an eye opening, sad year. But for me, it has been hopeful (and sad) year. 2017 is the year our industry realized we can and need to change for the better.

My journey in venture

I joined the venture industry many years ago, as the first woman hired to the tech investment team at Kleiner Perkins. For my first 2 years, I was the only woman on the investment team. Back then, there was no conversation about how few women were in the business, no data on women or diversity in tech, and no one was talking about inclusion.

The few women at the time, including myself, thought making a big deal about the dearth of women would not help get more women into jobs, and might even cost us our own. My plan was to show women could be great at venture by working hard, being smart, being valuable to partners and entrepreneurs, and being low maintenance. That strategy worked somewhat. After 8 years, I was promoted to partner, then senior partner; and along the way, I helped hire Trae Vassallo and Ellen Pao. But we unfortunately did not start a trend to hire lots of women at other firms.

One reason is the playing field has been inherently uneven. For many years I thought it wasn’t a big deal that peers, partners and entrepreneurs were bonding and comparing notes outside the office by going to games together, grabbing drinks, having dinners and going on fun trips without inviting any women. But what I didn’t realize is this informal support network was very helpful behind the scenes. The extra time together built trust to share confidential work insights, investment strategies and scoop about ‘hot deals’. Trust and information flow matter. When the CEO of a successful startup is talking with someone about their next round of financing, it’s the difference between “I’ve spent time with him, he’s such a good guy, let’s ping him” versus “Oh, I don’t really know her, does she invest in this space?” For a long time women, including myself, have missed out on the advantages of being part of a network.

There are also other challenges being a woman in venture and tech. I was propositioned by a married, more senior partner at another firm on a business trip, and by an LP at a conference. I was careful to pick my battles when people made biased judgments against women, and unfairly gave less qualified “good guys” the benefit of the doubt. After my 11 years at the firm, a colleague wondered if I’d return to work after maternity leave, because his wife quit after their second pregnancy — he said it was “too hard to have two working parents.”

Despite those challenges, I love this job. And in 2012, I started a seed stage firm, Cowboy Ventures. Cowboy is designed to be a boutique, approachable, collaborative, modern firm offering world-class hands-on help, experience, connections, and community. Backing women is not our mandate (it’s backing great founders and delivering top returns), but 39% of companies we’ve backed have a female co-founder.

The venture ecosystem is uniquely behind the times

And yet. In 2016, women-led tech companies received just 2.19% of venture funding¹. And a recent Crunchbase study showed the 100 most active US based venture firms have only 34 female general partners of 484 in the dataset, less than 7%. Let that sink in. Sadly, all the senior women in the US venture industry (which ~doubled in headcount in the past 12 years, and manages > $330Bn) can still fit in the conference room of one venture firm.

But women now receive more than half the engineering bachelor’s degrees at schools like MIT and Dartmouth, and make up 49% of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd College, 48% at CMU and 39% at MIT² (stick that in your ‘pipeline problem’ and smoke it). There is also much research quantifying how diverse teams make better decisions, and have better financial results. This data indicates where we could, and should be in the venture ecosystem.

We need to improve our numbers and cultures, faster. The good news is there are more women than when I started, and more male allies³. And there is a new awareness and call to action to make positive change. It’s no longer a closeted secret that women are massively underrepresented in tech, or that we have had to endure bias and bad behavior, which are real barriers to retention and success. And we will no longer assume the problem is going to solve itself.

What’s changing: we’re getting organized to help

A few months ago, a group of woman general partners at venture funds got together to brainstorm what we can do to make more progress in our industry, faster. It was the first time since starting in venture that I’ve experienced women getting together to do something like this. We’ve continued to meet every month since then — to compare notes on tech trends and ventures, and to work together to hopefully benefit our industry. It has been exciting, gratifying, and amazingly constructive.

Our first initiative is Female Founder Office Hours (FFOH), announced last month. It’s about bringing together the community of female VCs and the community of female founders, with the goal of kickstarting a virtuous cycle of women in tech helping women in tech.

Last Thursday we held our first event, which brought together 100 female founders and VCs. We had a do-not-miss,-watch-the-video-online talk on seed-stage fundraising by the awesome Jess Lee and Jenny Lefcourt. Then ten different female partners at leading venture firms held office hours with seed stage entrepreneurs to give access to fundraising and business plan advice, while more entrepreneurs networked and got peer support. The interest and energy were beyond our expectations; we’ll share more about it in an upcoming blogpost, and we will be holding more soon.

More good things to come

Since announcing FFOH, we’ve heard from many people who are excited about this movement. Women are signing up to get help and advice, and women and men want to get involved, advise, help and support. Our group has identified a number of areas where we hope to make a measurable difference to improve the venture ecosystem over the coming years. As we make progress on these initiatives, we’ll share more publicly and also ask for your involvement and support.

So, we hope you’ll watch this space to stay posted on who we are and what we’re doing. In the future on this blog you’ll hear from many women in venture capital, founders, and operating executives. These are some of the most important players in the venture landscape, with outstanding insights to share.

It’s a new age in the venture ecosystem. There’s new awareness that diversity builds strength, a drive to reduce harassment and bias, and a new, modern network to improve things, faster. We are just getting started, so please watch this space (and stay in the loop by email here)!

From our November 2017 Dinner / Planning Session

Footnotes:

[1] http://fortune.com/2017/03/13/female-founders-venture-capital/

[2] http://wapo.st/2ceUbha, https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/08/10/542638758, https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2016/september/undergrad-women-engineering-computer-science.html, http://womenineecs.mit.edu/

[3] Thankfully, there is a small but growing number of amazing and collaborative women in the venture ecosystem. Women I started out with like Maha Ibrahim, Stacey Bishop, Patricia Nakache and Theresia Gouw are kicking butt in venture. Formerly all-male firms have recently hired super smart women like Jess Lee at Sequoia, Sarah Tavel at Benchmark, Jenny Lefcourt at Freestyle, Kara Nortman at Upfront, Ann Miura-Ko at Floodgate, Rebecca Kaden at Union Square, Megan Quinn at Spark Capital, Jocelyn Goldfein at Zetta, Renata Quintini at Lux, Hayley Barna at FirstRound, and Steph Palmieri at Uncork, to name a few. New venture firms have been founded by Kirsten Green, Mar Hershenson, Trae Vassallo, the Reach Capital team, Jodi Jahic, Eva Ho, Katie Rae, Susan Lyne, Cindy Padnos, and more. And we have a growing number of inspirational venture-backed ‘unicorn’ CEOs and founder role models like Katrina Lake, Julia Hartz, Anne Wojcicki, Jessica Herrin, Jenn Hyman, Michelle Zatlyn, and Julie Wainwright.