Silicon Valley appears to be the world's greatest meritocracy. Unless you're a female entrepreneur trying to raise venture funding.
Shaherose Charania, center, is one of the founders of the Women 2.0 conference.
In my last two articles, I discussed why, based on my research on immigrant entrepreneurs, I believed that Silicon Valley was the world’s greatest meritocracy. That was before I moved to the Valley and learned that this so-called meritocracy is highly imperfect, omitting women, blacks, and Hispanics. When I researched the dearth of women, I could find no explanation. Women are equally motivated to become entrepreneurs; are equal or more competent at managing businesses; match boys in mathematical achievement; dramatically outnumber men in higher education; and receive more than 50 percent of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates, in the U.S.
So I interviewed more than 300 women in the technology industry, at different levels and in different professions, to find out what was holding them back.
One of the most vibrant networking groups for women in Silicon Valley is Women 2.0. Its founder, Shaherose Charania, has been working tirelessly to overcome the lack of gender diversity in the startup world. She learned the power of networking by volunteering with TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), a mentoring group founded by Indians—Silicon Valley’s most successful immigrant group.
Sharerose told me that she believes that the cause of the diversity problem is twofold. She says there is a lack of role models and mentors for women, and it is harder for women to obtain funding than it is for men. She also told me there are some seriously unenlightened VCs out there. Women 2.0 members told her of venture capitalists and angel investors interrupting pitches with comments such as:
When are you planning to have kids?
Why isn’t he the CEO?
So you moved here because your husband lives here? What if he has to move for work one day? Will you go with him?
You should cut your hair, dress a bit more manly, if you want to be CEO.
Another woman entrepreneur and family friend, Vinita Gupta, told me about her experience as CEO of Digital Link. She bootstrapped this manufacturer of networking equipment until it was named Inc. magazine named it one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in 1997.
Soon after she started raising venture capital, Vinita learned that she was pregnant. VCs kept asking how she planned to handle the situation when her baby arrived. In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article that I encouraged Vinita to write, she asked "How many men, three weeks after their wife reports that she is pregnant, can tell you how much time they will spend with the baby so business is not adversely impacted?" Vinita was annoyed, but persisted. She got her funding after assuring VCs that she would hire a nanny.
Vinita says that she mentors many women entrepreneurs, and that nothing has changed since her days. This is the type of questioning that most other women still face. Some get discouraged after being subjected to such questions. Others probably decide that VCs are not the types of people they want on their boards.
Women say that when they speak up about these issues, they are often met with hostility and anger. I decided to step into the debate myself. Over the last two years, I’ve written extensively about the biases of Silicon Valley.
One of the first of these articles was for TechCrunch, titled “Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC's have a Gender Problem.” Not surprisingly, I was inundated with hateful e-mails, comments on online boards, and personal attacks over Twitter by a small, but visible and loud, group.
I am close friends with and have interacted with dozens of venture capitalists and CEOs in Silicon Valley. On the whole, they are amongst the most open-minded and inclusive people I know. The majority share my belief that we need to fix the gender and race imbalance. Many of my friends thanked me for bringing this issue to the surface and igniting the debate. But a handful of others also told me about inappropriate comments that their peers had made— questioning whether I was “trying to get laid” or had some “other agenda.”
Then some prominent investors tweeted that they “disagree with (all) TC (TechCrunch) posts I’ve ever read by Vivek Wadhwa” and “his posts are garbage.” Silicon Valley’s most influential blogger, TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, wrote a post titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming Me.” He wrote, “statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs, because the press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them. Just so no one will point the accusing finger of discrimination at them.” More recently, others have questioned my qualifications and accused me of “misrepresenting data” and being a “fraud.”
Then I stepped into the even more toxic debate about race.
VIVEK WADHWA is Vice President of Academics and Innovation, Singularity University; Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization and Exec in Residence, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University.