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

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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 … Next Page »

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