Nobody Made Me Write This
A Female Perspective From Inside the Tech/VC World
As a pregnant female employee of a venture capital firm in San Francisco, I pay particular attention to coverage around bad behavior in the tech community. The recent news about Binary Capital seems like the icing on the cake of a year filled with similarly disappointing stories. Tech is a small world, and often the news mentions familiar faces and names in this tight-knit environment.
I work for SOSV, a global seed-stage venture capital firm, and am thus at the dead-center of the world that all the news is about. I run our San Francisco hardware accelerator, called HAX Growth, where I mentor 40+ tech startups per year. My firm employs 36 women out of 88 employees across our seven global offices. Three men and one woman report to me. The head of our legal and global operations teams are women. SOSV has invested in ~550 companies in the past decade, and 46% of our startups have at least one female founder. At present, SOSV is the #1 seed investor for female-founded startups.
None of these things attracted me to the job initially; what attracted me was the opportunity to work with growth-stage startups in a significant way. I was recruited to SOSV from a cushy innovation job at Target Corporation, where great lengths were employed to attract and retain female and minority talent. So in the wave of the recent set of revelations about harassment in the tech industry, I’ve thought more about the prevalence of inappropriate behavior in the startup world. Am I missing something?
I was particularly struck by a recent post by a friend of mine on Facebook: “If you’ve been sexually harassed in tech & want to go on the record, direct message me. Many are going on the record right now, & there’s some safety in numbers.”
Numbers? This made me sad. As a female in a management position for a venture capital firm, is it unusual that I haven’t been harassed? That my male colleagues stop and listen when I talk, encourage me to speak at events and conferences, and ask (instead of tell) me what I want my maternity leave to be?
Do I get these advantages because I am confident, sometimes outspoken? Or is it because I am really tall? Because my parents gave me gender-neutral toys as a child and referred to God without pronouns? Jokes aside, why are some women getting the short end of the stick? And who are these nasty men on the other side of harassment allegations? And in the case of the allegations against Justin Caldbeck, why did the cycle perpetuate until there was an army of accusers to vouch for his sleaziness?
At SOSV, we do the same things every other VC does. Our founders sign code of conduct agreements, we have a system of anonymous reporting in place, and most of our offices run a conduct training at the beginning of each accelerator program. Nothing remarkable. SOSV has actively promoted and retained female talent, but the six investment partners at SOSV (including my boss) are all male. If this is a recipe for disaster, why haven’t I witnessed any inappropriate behavior in my 18 months with the firm?
The startups we invest in hail from all over the world, which one might argue is also a recipe for cultural misunderstandings or inappropriate behavior. Last week, a startup founder whose second language is English told me I was looking taller than usual and asked me what it was like to be pregnant. Work appropriate? Maybe not. Hilarious and well-meaning? Definitely. We recently invested in a company that makes an IoT-enabled sex toy. The founder spent eight weeks with us in San Francisco developing his business plan and sales strategy. Not once did the sex-laden conversation about his product cross the line to unprofessional. I am often at booze-laden events until the wee hours with male colleagues and startup founders, and have never had to wonder if I should avoid being alone with one of them.
Do I want the startups I work with to be afraid to be themselves, whatever that means in their culture? One of my good friends works at a local non-profit, and she recently lamented about the time and energy her team has spent dealing with “microaggressions” lately. This would be my personal hell. I am surrounded by diversity on all sides, and if we stopped working every time someone unintentionally offended someone else, we’d never get anything done. However, do I want the founders we invest in, both male and female, to feel safe and supported? You bet. So how do I accomplish one without the other?
I’ve concluded that I must be witnessing the opposite end of the spectrum. I attended a formal dinner last week sponsored by Qualcomm Ventures where the topic of the evening was retail technology. Of the 20 or so high-profile attendees in the round-table discussion, perhaps five were women. The women drove the majority of the conversation and made the best observations. Nobody interrupted or acted rudely toward the dominant female speakers. Yesterday, our lead biotech investment partner and father of two happily sat down with me to look at my recent 3D sonogram pictures. Is this all too warm and fuzzy? Maybe, but this is why I marvel so much at all the bad news. I can’t reconcile it.
When and where do these lines get crossed, and why has inappropriate behavior become a disease in the tech community? Why has it taken so long to uncover some of these outrageous situations? There will always be bad eggs, but how can a company prevent these bad eggs from becoming major decision-makers? Should investors be held at a higher standard?
I think it starts in two places: at the beginning, and at the top. My final interview at SOSV was with the founding partner, Sean O’Sullivan. Sean is the godfather of mapping software and coined the term “cloud computing”. He’s a big deal. At the end of my interview with Sean, he mentioned to me that it was important to him that SOSV be an inclusive environment, and that I should know that in advance. He talked to me about his disadvantaged childhood. He told me that if I decided to take the job, I should never feel shy about reaching out. About anything. I left the interview struck by how candid he had been at the end of the interview. His own regard for capable and powerful women was set from his own experience being raised by a single mom. I didn’t take the job because of this conversation alone, but it has shaped the way I think about my support system over the last 18 months.
Luckily, I haven’t needed to talk to Sean about anything outside of job-related topics and the occasional book recommendation. But I believe that Sean’s comments were evidence of a significant cultural attribute that would be difficult for a company to fabricate after a scandal occurs or the culture sours. Sean believes that everyone should get a shot based on merit, and he makes that clear from day one. I am welcome to contact the man who’s initials are on the company letterhead at any time. I think that’s important, and it’s hard to fake.
If a company wants to succeed, the leaders need to clarify their position on inclusivity and behavior from before an investment occurs or an employee is hired. There can be no ambiguity around who to speak with if something fishy happens. I empathize with the HR team down the street at Uber who are frantically trying to re-build the company’s culture. The “ask for permission, beg for forgiveness” approach will never work because it doesn’t translate to a safe and functional workplace. It’s been amusing to watch companies and other VCs scrap together codes of conduct in response to these recent scandals. While well-intentioned, it’s hard to retrofit a safe environment for women.
It doesn’t take a female or minority to take the lead on these positions, either. It takes a five minute conversation at the beginning of the hiring or due diligence process. Workplace equality and behavioral tolerance can’t be delicate conversations.
To answer my own question from earlier, I do believe that venture capital investors should be held to a higher standard. Major investors, like those from Binary Capital, have outsized decision-making roles in the companies in which they invest. These are visible and operative positions that have the power to affect every employee of the startup. The decisions they make, in bulk, result in the shift of entire industries. If doctors have to make an oath not to harm patients, why shouldn’t the most visible harbingers of wealth in the tech community be held to similar standards?
I hope the recent news leads to changes in the tech community at all levels. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in VC, it’s that people respond to incentives. Money is a very strong incentive. Binary Capital is winding down in the wake of the recent scandals. Uber will likely have trouble attracting new customers at the same rate as before the events of this year. Female founders will take deals to firms they believe are supportive of women.
Cheers to the women who were brave enough to speak up, but the responsibility shouldn’t be on these victims to propel change. Investors should drive the conversation around inclusivity and behavior before scandal erupts. Founders, both male and female, need to feel comfortable asking investors about policies toward harassment without it being an awkward conversation. Likewise, a founder should be evaluated for his or her ability to create a positive work environment for future employees.
These aren’t ground-breaking topics, and conversations about workplace policies shouldn’t be brushed aside as awkward. A female biotech founder recently asked me how she should respond to an investor who asked her to meet him over drinks to discuss investment. It sounded like a date. I told her to simply reschedule to a coffee and assume positive intent. Sure enough, this investor routinely meets teams for drinks and was just as happy to adjust to coffee, but I’m glad she was comfortable asking for the change. Let’s keep making founders like her feel comfortable and safe. Change needs to happen before the outcome is scandal.
Originally published at sosv.com on June 28, 2017.