Under Silicon Valley’s Rough Turf, Tunnels of Women’s Networks Spread

[Corrected 7/11/17, 11:02 am. See below.] Revelations about gender bias and crude sexual harassment at Uber have been followed by similar claims by women against Silicon Valley venture capital investors, leaving a weary impression that the deck is almost hopelessly stacked against women in tech.

But women aren’t facing these challenges alone, female entrepreneurs say—not if they tap into the dense ecosystem of engineers’ groups, startup founders’ organizations, meet-ups, conferences, mentoring relationships, and female-friendly investors that have evolved in parallel with established Silicon Valley institutions mostly staffed by men.

“Networking is one of the most valuable things you can do,” says Laura Montoya, director of the East Bay chapter of Women Who Code and a startup founder.

If anything, women’s groups—representing thousands of members—seem energized by the eruptions of public attention to gender discrimination and harassment that arose after former Uber engineer Susan Fowler and other women accused powerful men in the tech industry of pressuring them sexually, touching, or groping them. Female entrepreneurs accused a venture firm founder in the technology news publication The Information on June 22, and ten more women named other VCs in a New York Times story on June 30. [Details added on The Information ‘s coverage.]

“One of the positive things about the current situation is that there’s intense focus on it that could drive some change,” says Elizabeth Iorns, co-founder of Palo Alto, CA-based Science Exchange, a marketplace for contract research services.

Up until now, women have rarely brought their complaints out into the open—often for fear of retaliation in an industry still mainly populated by men.

But the recent incidents have unleashed an urge to encourage more of these realities about life in Silicon Valley to bubble up to the surface. “People are getting more open,” Iorns says.

Although the number of women who came forward recently was relatively small, their public revelations ended with serious consequences for male executives accused—a rare phenomenon. Fowler’s scathing blogpost about tolerance of sexual harassment at Uber helped trigger a company investigation that ended in founder Travis Kalanick’s ouster as CEO, as well as the departures of some of his closest associates in top management. In the wake of The Information’s  story and The Times article, two of the accused venture capital firm partners left their jobs, and some publicly apologized. [Details added on The Information’s coverage.]

“I was really surprised that anything has come from that,” says Michelle Glauser, founder of Techtonica, a non-profit tech training and job development organization for low-income women and other underrepresented groups. “Fortunately for Susan, the waves just kept coming.”

While those recent revelations haven’t yet opened the floodgates to a mass of open complaints, women in Silicon Valley had already been quietly warning each other for some time about company managers and investors who have a track record of coarse sexual advances, sexist comments, and bias against women, Glauser says. Women share their stories online in an extensive network of groups such as Geek Feminism, the Women in Tech Slack channel, and Google groups like Systers and DevChicks, she says.

“It’s so active, and there are a million of them,” Glauser says.

Even if a male venture partner or company executive hasn’t been outed on the front page of a national newspaper, his behavior might already be the subject of scorching accounts by women on their group channels, possibly damaging his reputation among hundreds or thousands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This could come as a shock to some of those men if they haven’t been directly confronted about their conduct. That’s because women have learned to develop a thick skin, mask their disgust, and keep an eye on advancing their careers, female entrepreneurs say. But within women’s networks, a venture capital firm partner or supervisor who hits on women while holding some form of power over their jobs, or their access to financing, is denounced with words such as “ape-like,” abuser, jerk, creep, or predator.

Science Exchange’s Iorns says informal information exchanges about men in tech increased in the wake of The Times series on sexual harassment in the industry. On the Facebook page of the private group Female Founders, women were offering to help others by sharing their experiences pitching investors, Iorns says. Those confidences may be made offline, in private phone calls or direct messages rather than in Web postings, she says.

While some of the women’s groups are private, however, others are open to anyone, and sometimes they name names. A Geek Feminism wiki is keeping an annotated list of news reports on VCs accused of harassment and gender or racial bias.

Still, there’s no single, open source where all women, regardless of the depth of their professional connections, can efficiently find out how to avoid VC firms that won’t give them a fair shot at funding, or that tolerate sexual predators in their midst. But a number of women entrepreneurs have been thinking about how to create a systematic tool that could provide that sort of information.

After talking over the problem at the recent Female Founders Conference, startup founder Melissa McCool and nine other women entrepreneurs and coders started work on an online, crowdsourced public directory to rank VC firms—a sort of “Yelp for female startup founders,” as McCool describes it. Within a few days, startup founder Vivienne Lee, CEO of YouMeWho, had software written for the website, McCool says.

The 10-member group has a tentative date to go live July 27 with the site, dubbed FairFunders, as an “MVP.” That’s short for a startup developers’ term, “minimal viable product”—an initial version that can be tested with users and built out according to their feedback. The FairFunders group plans to gather facts for a profile of each investment firm, such as its ratio of female partners, and the number of women-led companies it has backed. McCool, the founder of San Diego health IT startup Stellicare, has envisioned ways to honor companies on the site when they follow equitable practices, and to recognize improvements at less inclusive firms. But the site would also serve to alert women about firms that raise serious concerns.

Investment firms would receive an overall star rating like Yelp’s, and maybe a second score for their performance on issues related to fairness. Raters could also add comments on their experiences with the firm, either anonymously or under their own names. Participants will have to register via Facebook or LinkedIn so that FairFunders can verify that “it is a real person,” McCool says.

But some women, even though they see an urgent need for such a warning system because they find sexual harassment so pervasive, have reservations about anonymous reporting in a public forum.

“When you anonymize these stories, they lose their power,” says Magdalena Yesil, a member of the angel investor group Broadway Angels, and executive chair of the online car search and finance company DriveInformed. The concern is that anonymous accounts may be disbelieved because the unidentified accuser could turn out to be an ex-spouse or a disgruntled employee, she says. [An earlier version of this story misspelled Magdalena Yesil’s name. We regret the error.]

However, Yesil and other female entrepreneurs want more women with legitimate beefs to get the support they need to speak out publicly, and name their abusers.

“Calling it out by name is really important because otherwise we’re protecting them, and it goes on and on,” Yesil says.

Iorns says it’s just as important to share information about venture capital firms that don’t tolerate sexual exploitation and bias, so women can feel safe in pursuing those opportunities. She says the incidents of “people behaving horribly” detailed in the Times story reflect a minority of VC firms, rather than a majority, she says.

“There are really great investors out there who have done nothing but support women founders,” Iorns says. “If we surface them, they’ll get better deal flow.”

Could venture firms reassure women founders by signing an “Anti-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Statement,” as proposed recently by the New England Venture Capital Association? Iorns is skeptical.

“It’s very easy to sign a pledge,” Iorns says. Instead, she says, VCs could bring on more women as investment partners, and recruit more women as “scouts,” who work their networks in a hunt for promising startups. The VC firms entrust scouts with a batch of capital to invest, and then share the upside with them. But right now, most scouts are men, Iorns says. Putting women in these roles would naturally increase investment opportunities for VCs among startup founders they’re less likely to have in their contact lists—–talented women, Iorns says.

“Those are concrete changes they could make tomorrow that could make a real difference,” Iorns says.

The idea of an online honor roll compiled by female founders could work well by rewarding well-intentioned VCs who act on their principles, Iorns says. But also, venture capital firms that didn’t make the list might start to worry, “Why aren’t we on it?”

Women Who Code’s Montoya also likes the idea. “I would be much more in favor of reporting, ‘I had a great experience with this VC.’ ” Montoya is the founder of Accel.ai, a training accelerator for people interested in working with artificial intelligence software.

Beyond trying to help women avoid investment firms riddled with sexism, Montoya says support groups play a key role in strengthening women’s resolve to resist unwanted advances. “Sometimes all you really need is for someone to say, ‘You’re right to stand up for yourself,’ ” Montoya says.

Montoya has had do so often enough, she says. She recalls a daytime business discussion that suddenly turned into blunt proposition, and a VC’s invitation to continue a business meeting at a dance club. “Unfortunately, it’s incredibly common,” she says. “I think it happens to just about everybody.”

Although women lose business opportunities by rebuffing such ploys by VCs, Montoya says, “Women have to be willing to walk away.”

In recent years, it’s gotten a bit easier for women founders to take that walk.

A growing web of angel investor groups has arisen with a mission to help women startup founders score their first financing rounds. These include big outfits such as Golden Seeds, Astia Angels, Pipeline Angels, Female Founders Fund, and Broadway Angels, as well as smaller regional networks like Sofia Fund in Minnesota.

Women make up a steadily increasing share of angel investors, says Marianne Hudson, executive director of Angel Capital Association, a professional organization for angel investors in the United States and Canada. The percentage of women attending the group’s annual conference has stair-stepped from 25 percent two years ago to 35 percent at this year’s event, which was attended by 650 participants, Hudson says. Half the speakers were women.

Hudson says the rising numbers of women entrepreneurs who have made good has yielded an increase in the numbers of female angel investors, and many of them are passionate about supporting women-led companies. Her association includes 15 angel groups focused on investing in companies headed by women. Big groups such as Astia and Golden Seeds have also drawn more women into angel investing by offering training programs, Hudson says.

These mission-driven angel groups often co-invest, and may also cobble together multiple financing rounds for the same startup, sometimes taking the fundraising total up to amounts in the range of Series A rounds, Hudson says.

As these angel investors’ groups develop relationships with venture capital firms, their portfolio companies should stand a better chance of drawing larger VC investments, Hudson says. Angel groups in her association are spread across all 50 states and Canada, and they form investing syndicates via conference calls.

Angel groups committed to helping women might be a safe harbor for female entrepreneurs, Broadway Angels member Yesil says. But drawing gender lines may not be necessary, she says. “Not every male-dominated venture firm is abusive.”

Iorns says newbie female founders could be more vulnerable to unwelcome sexual advances if they haven’t yet raised any financing from institutional investors.

But once women founders “go up the power chain” by advancing their companies and raising money, Yesil says, they have fewer problems with harassment.

“If you’ve got a hot, fast-growth company where your customers really love you, the power’s in your hands,” Yesil says. “That’s the best defense.”

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