What’s it like to be a female tech entrepreneur?

By Dr. Freada Kapor Klein, Partner at Kapor Capital and Dr. Allison Scott, Chief Research Officer at the Kapor Center

It’s been roughly one year since the summer of Silicon Valley’s discontent. Women’s stories of their encounters with creepy VCs may not have surprised us, but they did usher in a series of expulsions, hand-wringing and — because this is Silicon Valley — opportunities to cash in on the movement.

Many of us have fielded questions from reporters and colleagues on this dubious anniversary. Have things, they ask, improved for female entrepreneurs? The quick answer is that there has been progress…for some women.

The reality is that progress has been two steps forward, one step back and one step sideways.

The good news is that women who accuse men of unwelcome behavior are now generally believed at the outset. That’s unequivocally forward movement.

The bad news is that so much of the conversation about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and disparities, and mistreatment has utilized a unidimensional gender lens — one that assumes that all women have the same experiences and challenges — and one that ignores intersectional identities and the unique challenges facing women from marginalized and vulnerable backgrounds (women of color, LGBTQ women, immigrant women, low-income women, etc.) despite decades of scholarship on intersectionality and #whitefeminism. That’s a giant step backwards.

And the frustrating sideways step: The unidimensional gender lens then informs solutions or initiatives, adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach to increasing gender diversity in tech, entrepreneurship, and venture capital and leaving women of color behind. In an effort to make things better quickly, we’re not thinking deeply, comprehensively, strategically or with an intersectional lens.

What are the specific challenges facing female entrepreneurs?

This summer, the Kapor Center research team, in conjunction with Kapor Capital and Female Founders Office Hours, sought to gain insights from a sample of female founders within their networks by conducting a pilot survey. We asked them about their experiences in raising venture funding for their startups. Specifically, we asked if they’ve been on the receiving end of a number of inappropriate behaviors, both subtle and overt — everything from comments, assumptions, and rudeness to bullying and outright harassment.

54 founders responded, and here is a summary of their experiences.

There were many shared experiences of overt biases that applied to women of all backgrounds:

  • Nearly 60% of women — women from all racial backgrounds — experienced unwanted comments or jokes about their gender.
  • 77% of women experienced rudeness, condescending, or unfriendly behavior from investors during pitches.

Female entrepreneurs from all backgrounds also shared experiences of more subtle bias from investors, including stereotypes and assumptions about ability, assumptions about knowledge of the sector, questions about personal life, comments about personality and appearance.

Yet, there were also some very different experiences described by women of color:

  • Underrepresented women of color were more than three times as likely to report bullying than White women (75% vs 22%) while East/South/Southeast Asian women did not report incidents of bullying.
  • Underrepresented women of color were more than 8 times as likely to experience unwanted comments or jokes about their race than White women (57% vs 7%) and 4 times as likely as East/South/Southeast Asian women (57% vs. 14%).
  • East/South/Southeast Asian women were significantly more likely to experience unwelcome comments about accent, language or country of origin while pitching than White women (43% vs. 4%).
  • Underrepresented women of color were significantly more likely to be stereotyped as too bossy or aggressive than women from other backgrounds.
  • Frighteningly, underrepresented women of color were nearly 10 times as likely to report experiencing non-consensual touching.

Importantly, experiences which on the whole don’t appear very common among women overall (e.g., bullying, jokes about race, called bossy/aggressive, comments about language/accent), are happening with frequency among subgroups of women.

We’ve long understood that women from different backgrounds have very different experiences. Gender-based harassment, including sexual harassment, is more prevalent with women of color, but the sheer magnitude of difference among female entrepreneurs reported in this survey surprised us.

And that’s what has been so frustrating about “solutions” that focus exclusively on gender but ignore racial or ethnic overlays — they overlook the experiences of those most likely to face obstacles and harassment of all types.

Well-intended efforts can cause harm

There is no doubt that the women-powered initiatives to combat bias and harassment in Silicon Valley spring from positive intentions. That doesn’t mean that they are effective for everyone, and it likely means they are primarily helping one group of women — white and privileged — while doing nothing to address what the data show: that black and brown women are subjected to gender-based bias, harassment and general incivility at rates higher than white or and Asian women, on top of the race-based biases. Solutions must be research-based and reflect that women from different racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic, cultural, immigration, and sexual orientation backgrounds have very different experiences to navigate.

When Kapor Capital portfolio company CEOs and investors came together with Female Founders Office Hours VCs and entrepreneurs, a lively discussion centered around who should women founders take advice from? Almost everyone had been told at some point to “act more like men”; some who tried it found out that “acting like a man” didn’t necessarily mean that one would get treated like a man with a favorable outcome. This recognition needs to be applied to different groups of women — i.e. just because a particular approach worked for me as a white woman, doesn’t mean that it will be effective, let alone comfortable, for Black, Latinx or Asian women.

Wanting to help other women doesn’t necessarily mean we will give advice that works for them. In fact, some of our survey respondents told us that some of the most inappropriate behavior they experienced came from white women VCs. Mentors tend to focus on common experiences with their mentees to build connections and to give effective support and guidance. To be sure, there are many experiences that women share, but what about the unique experiences of women of color? Of immigrants who came to the U.S. under very different circumstances? Of ethnic, cultural, language and class differences? White women need to be allies first — understanding their own biases and privileges — before they can be effective mentors and investors, especially for black and brown women founders.

We already see the growing divide between white women and underrepresented women of color in large tech companies. Most women’s ERGs are made up of white and Asian women while African American and Latinx women tend to join ERGs that focus on race and ethnicity — that tells us where women of color identify the biggest problems that need to be addressed.

In our experience running SMASH, a residential program for low income underrepresented high school students of color for the last 15 years (always half girls), we’ve explored issues of confidence and identity in pursuing STEM careers. We find that high school girls of color identify race as a much more significant barrier in their field than gender.

Therein lies the problem — but also the opportunity. What if we skipped the quick fixes and reinvented VC altogether by solving the breadth and depth of the problem with solutions that lifted all boats?

The big tech companies who’ve been focusing on diversity for the last four years are just starting to realize that they’ve neglected women of color. Since VCs are at the beginning of the diversity and inclusion journey, they have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the tech companies and bake in an intersectional lens from the beginning. Both Facebook and Google announced specific efforts in mid-2018 to address what they inadvertently neglected during the four years and hundreds of millions of dollars already spent.

Toward inclusive solutions

If the business case for including more “women” (i.e. white women) is indeed compelling, isn’t it that much more compelling to include women of color?

The need for varied perspectives, more innovative thinking, a better understanding of diverse markets, and the need for new products formulated by unique lived experiences — each of these arguments apply at least as much to women of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ women.

As a recent study by McKinsey shows, the financial performance of companies with racial and ethnic diversity is a full fifty percent greater than for companies with just gender diversity (33% vs. 21%). Yet, according to digitalundivided’s Project Diane report, the amount of tech venture funding going to Black women since 2009 is a miniscule .0006%.

And, lest we forget, women of color will soon be the majority of women in the United States and, of course, already make up the majority of women across the globe.

There is simply no reason — financial or otherwise — to not focus explicitly on finding and funding underrepresented women founders of color.

We’re living through an important inflection point in VC. Power is beginning to shift and redistribute. We’ve got a real opportunity to rebuild VC from the ground up.

It’s a moment to rethink everything: real impact, who gets funded, and what kinds of businesses get funded.

On the other hand, if we’re not careful, we’ll simply succeed in getting a few more people at the table, but not fundamentally altering the system.

Melinda Gates, along with Pivotal Ventures and the Rebooting Representation Tech Coalition, recently announced an ambitious plan to close the gender gap in tech — and was very conscious to focus specifically on increasing the representation of girls of color among computing degree earners. She understands that if you’re not increasing opportunity for all women, you are not really addressing the problem. We’ve got to do the same in VC.

We can start by addressing existing practices that inadvertently shut women of color out. For example, the requirement of a “warm intro” only provides access to a privileged and homogenous group. Arbitrary thresholds for how much money one has raised to qualify to mentor someone else don’t account for the fact that women of color face more barriers raising money.

Alongside the Reboot Representation effort, we can transform the entire tech ecosystem through intentional inclusion and plugging all the leaks along the length of the Leaky Tech Pipeline for all women — with an intentional focus on women of color.

We — Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center — look forward to continuing our work with Melinda, and with anyone who is serious about bringing about real, data-driven solutions in VC.

Our pilot survey, reporting on the experiences of 54 women founders, is more comprehensive than anything that’s been done to date on this subject; as a pilot it points to the need for a much larger study about the experiences of women founders. The results surprised all of us and signal the need to follow-up with a much larger study. We’re interested in hearing from VCs, women founders groups, and entrepreneurs of color who would like to participate in groundbreaking research that can inform inclusive solutions.

Let’s challenge ourselves and our colleagues to ensure that we’re taking a comprehensive, data-driven approach — one that works for all women.

Note: Methods and Definitions

The survey included 54 female-identified founders of tech-based startups. The individual and company demographics of founders include: White (49%), Latinx/Black/Native American (17%), East/South/Southeast Asian (13%), Multiracial (18%) and Other (3%); LGBTQ (8%); 65% were U.S.-born and 35% were immigrants to the U.S.; 77% had one or more co-founders and 23% were solo founders; 42% of companies were in E-commerce, People Operations, or EdTech sectors, with the remaining spread across a wide variety of sectors.

Gender was self-identified by participants in the survey, and the survey was inclusive of transgender and non-binary individuals. Race/ethnicity was also self-identified by participants, and subgroup differences were examined by breaking down into three groups: Underrepresented women of color (Black, Latinx, and Native American women), White, and East/South/Southeast Asian. A larger study with a greater number of participants will allow for more detailed examination of individual subgroup differences.