Thirty years ago, no one thought we’d still be talking about discrimination, gender bias, and sexual harassment in 2019. Unfortunately, we are. Changing cultural norms takes time.
What can women who thrive in the competitive, male-dominated world of Silicon Valley venture capital teach us in the meantime? Plenty. That became clear in recent back-to-back events sponsored by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. The first panel featured “one word” of advice from women leaders while the other centered around the new book Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime.
Through “one word” of advice, trailblazing Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurs Karen Boezi, Joanna Drake, and Laurie Yoler shared personal stories and hard-won lessons learned. They are all involved with Broadway Angels, an early-stage, private group of investors who all happen to be women.
Laurie Yoler's one word of career advice: “Inquire.” Learning to ask the right questions, she says, has been critical to her success, exposing her to a wide-variety of topics and diverse people. This inquiring mindset and broad perspective is necessary for someone who invests in startups and serves on many boards. Laurie also advocates inquiring to know when and how to ask strategic questions that can guide business decisions.
“Raise” encapsulates executive and investor Joanna Drake’s belief that every woman entrepreneur must know how to fundraise to succeed. Her own awakening came when she realized how few women were involved in creating products and companies that impact daily life. Male-dominated venture firms rarely fund women founders. So, Drake herself became a VC committed to helping women entrepreneurs.
“Believe,” says executive and investor Karen Boezi, who cofounded the new San Francisco Girls' School. Attending an all-girls high school herself, Boezi gained the confidence to check references on her first boss to ensure that he was an advocate for women. Throughout her career, she chose male executives and partners who believed in her, providing her with challenges and opportunities to grow and succeed. Everyone, she says, should believe they have a seat at the table. There’s a good business reason to do so: diversity leads to profits.
How do these women handle gender biased behavior? “With humor,” they say, because you need to be invited back in the room. Call out bad behavior, but not harshly, and recognize your own biases to ensure you have empathy for others. Humor, self-awareness, empathy—these “soft” skills are often labeled as female. Playing to these strengths while also “playing the game” turns out to be the key to success in venture capital… or any career.
Laurie Yoler moderated the second panel, which featured investor Sonja Hoel Perkins, executive Abe Kleinfeld, and author Julian Guthrie. Her new book, Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley's Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, follows the lives and careers of four women venture capitalists, an industry only 6 percent female. Despite their differences, the women employed similar strategies for becoming insiders (including using humor to defuse tension), and their stories have largely not been told. Laurie shares her own untold story of the early days at Tesla, long before anyone had heard of Elon Musk.
Sonja Hoel Perkins has a collection of insightful sayings as well as “tricks” for getting along with male CEOs. One of those CEOs, honorary Alpha Girl Abe Kleinfeld, represented men who, like him, “didn’t really notice that Sonja was a woman,” focusing instead on her talents and appreciating the clear expectations she set for him, a rarity in Abe’s experience. Sonja explains her common-sense formula for advising CEOs and evaluating businesses and the gender differences that emerge when a company must be sold or shut down.
One would think that a humane, ego-free, female-oriented approach to helping employees find jobs and serving customers when a company folds clearly demonstrates how women in business can contribute to a healthier economy and society. So why aren’t there more? Abe Kleinfeld describes how culture change can begin by hiring that first woman.
Not only can a company’s culture change when a woman is hired, but when a woman like Sonja is on the board, the company’s potential might be more effectively evaluated as well. Unlike male VCs, Sonja checks to ask a CEO how s/he feels after a difficult board meeting. It’s not just because she cares. The answer can tell her if the CEO is too dispirited to make necessary changes. Selling a company when it still has value just before it’s headed downhill is just plain smart business.
Men who let their egos get in the way by conflating their own success with risky startups are demonstrating what Julian Guthrie’s research shows is a male formula for success. Alpha Girls succeed in a very different way, one based on incremental advancement that can be a useful model for other women in male-dominated industries. They’ve played the game strategically and now they’ve acquired enough credibility and success to try to change it from the inside—they’re the Trojan horses in the industry.
The stories of these Alpha Girls introduce new role models for girls and new models for career success. The panelists’ “one words” of advice are powerful and inspiring messages for women and men who strive to create win-win cultures in business and in life. They are: Connection, Forward, and . . . Love.
The Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum captures the legacy—and advances the future—of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley and around the world. The center explores the people, companies, and communities that are transforming the human experience through technology innovation, economic value creation, and social impact. Our mission: to inform, influence, and inspire the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders changing the world.