Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Getting real about gender issues

There’s been a lot of talk recently about female founders, discrimination in the start up world, and what we can do about it.  There have been countless articles, studies, and op-eds talking about what are the challenges for “female entrepreneurs”.  Those who have the courage to express their opinions and personal experiences are simultaneously praised for their bravery and viciously criticised for their skewed interpretation of the issues at hand.  There is no obvious answer for, “Why do only 13 percent of venture-backed companies have at least one female co-founder?” or “Why do women make up only 4.2% of partner level VC’s in the US?”  It’s dumb and unfair, and I want to be part of changing those numbers.  In order to do that, though, I have to stop walking on eggshells and own up to something important.

Regardless of my opinion on these issues, I must admit I often find myself holding my tongue and not saying what I really think. Not because I’m afraid of disagreement - I’m fine with that. It’s much more shameful to admit than that.  Mostly, I am afraid to let go of the idea that I can be totally objective.  That’s the ideal, isn’t it?  I don’t want to be seen as “biased”, “sexist”, “unsupportive” or “overly supportive”.  Especially when I am making decisions to invest or not invest on behalf of our partners, the last thing I want them to think is that my analysis may be skewed by prejudice.  

However, it is precisely this fear that is keeping these unbalanced statistics firmly in their place.  Forget the numbers themselves, the conversation about minorities and entrepreneurship is not going anywhere until we all get real, acknowledge where we are coming from, and start saying what we really think.  

Let’s face the facts — absolutely every single person is biased when it comes to gender issues.  Except for a very small subset of the population who have experienced the world as both genders at different times (who we should all pay close attention to because they can provide the most accurate description of the differences between society’s perceptions of men and women), we are born either a man or a woman.  You can’t help how you’re born, or how you grew up, or the set of experiences that have formed your current mindset.  So, guess what?  You are biased.  I am biased.  We are biologically hardwired to be biased.  So why is everyone pretending that they’re not?  

Instead of striving for complete objectivity, we should all take ownership of our biases so we can fully embrace and benefit from diversity.  Diversity of experience, mindset, and purpose is a competitive advantage, but only if we allow it to be by being honest about where we're coming from.  Hello, I am a white American female in my late-20's. I went to an Ivy League school, worked on Wall Street, then at a VC-backed education start up in New York and Hong Kong.  I now live a privileged life of an expat in Asia.  Does that define who I am?  No.  Has it shaped how I see the world?  Absolutely.  

As a woman in VC, I want to support female entrepreneurs.  I really do.  But yes, sometimes I am unintentionally harder on them than their male counterparts.  I have experienced the disadvantages of being a woman in male-dominated industries like finance and tech.  I believe I have had to fight a little harder than a male in my position would have, and sometimes I take that out on other women by expecting the same from them.  I am very aware of this bias.  I’m owning it right here, right now.  I hope I can change that, but I’ll never have the chance if I don’t acknowledge it.  

As part of a team of two at Fresco, we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, professional capacities, and personal interests.  We communicate well, but most certainly approach problems in different ways.  Being aware of our differences and open to new ways of thinking has been a huge advantage for us in the investment process.  Out of our 28 companies, 50% have at least one female co-founder.  We don’t have quotas, and we never set out to encourage female co-founders, it simply happened as a byproduct of owning our biases and staying open to new possibilities.  I hope that through continued awareness and honesty, we can continue to peel back the layers of our own prejudices and create the space for diversity to truly flourish.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Starting from scratch

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. – Albert Einstein

In classic Hong Kong fashion, I have spent the last year living in an apartment that is cozy, convenient, and compact.  Yes, just like a shoebox.  Naturally, as I hit my two year mark in this bustling metropolis that I love so much, moving to a bigger apartment that can actually fit furniture inside of it feels like a rite of passage.  As much as I love my Murphy bed and the cabinets that are pre-built into my walls, I'm thrilled to finally have enough space that I can actually choose what it might look like.

Well, I was thrilled until I realized that "possibility" also means "responsibility", which really means "work".  All of a sudden I have to figure out what fits where, how big it can be, what it will look like, whether or not it will match everything else, what if it gets spilled on, how much of our budget can we allocate to it, when it is available vs. when we need it and how the hell we will get it to the 17th floor. Starting from scratch starts out feeling like the ultimate freedom of a blank canvas, but shit starts piling up pretty quickly, and all of a sudden you don't feel so free anymore.

I hate to admit it, but this is an uncomfortably familiar feeling.  Graduating from college initially feels like the ultimate freedom - no classes, no semester schedules to juggle, no reason not to live anywhere you want.  Leaving a traditional career path for a start up initially feels like the ultimate freedom - you can create something new, craft your own product, team, and vision.  Oh, but what about paying your bills?  Generating revenue?  Wanting to live close to your friends?  Need to find the right people to hire?  People keep talking about this Lean Start up thing and agile methodology, aren't you supposed to work that in somehow?

When faced with such an overwhelming challenge, a natural first step is to start gathering information.  In the tangible case of furnishing my apartment, I gained a new appreciation for how much money furniture stores must pay brand agencies, because they seem to have successfully manipulated me into believing that where I buy my furniture really says something about what kind of person I am.  Seriously, I have used way too much of my brain capacity wondering if I am still an IKEA person, or does that mean I have commitment issues?  I'm drooling over the clean lines, translucent smoked glass, and trendy gray felt fabrics at BoConcept, but the price range is slightly above my means.  Or, maybe I should stay true to my inner scrappy entrepreneur by scouring GeoExpat (Hong Kong's functioning version of Craigslist), where I can bargain my way to underpaying for high quality, only gently used items that may or may not fit together.  Do I care more about my money or my time?  Go ahead and try to analyze that.

Then the hunt begins - gathering information, comparing dimensions, weighing priorities.  Nothing fits quite right - if the dimensions are perfect and we love it, it can't be delivered until 2015.  Maybe the fit isn't quite right, but it's within our budget, and available immediately, but what if the color doesn't match the other things we have picked out?  No matter what the context, it's excruciatingly frustrating to have a vision of what you want things to be like, but the path to getting there is cluttered with a million uncontrollable variables blocking your way.

Frustrated and teetering on the border between a panic attack and completely shutting down and giving up, we finally stumbled upon some furniture stores in Wan Chai.  We wandered in and started asking about the pieces they had in the showroom. We braced ourselves to mentally prioritise delivery time vs. design vs. price.  The little team working in the shop, a soft spoken yet quietly eager young man and an older more portly Cantonese woman with a designer's eye, patiently watched us debate the numerous variables.  The English speaking young man quietly interrupted and suggested, "Well, we can make it any size you want."  I was so dumbfounded, I asked for clarificaiton multiple times.  Apparently, you can choose literally everything about the furniture you order: the color, dimensions, wood, glass type, door type, fabric color.  It would then be manufactured just across the border in China and delivered to our doorstep for literally one third of the cost of any fancy, Scandinavian furniture store.  Fuck you, IKEA.  Ah yes, I fall deeper in love with Hong Kong every day.

The scariest and most empowering part of this particular metaphor is that when faced with unlimited possibility, we are the ones holding ourselves back.  In some ways, we need these restraints to avoid the sheer panic that comes with truly starting from scratch.  So instead, we search from the existing set of options, trying so hard to fit everyone else's designs and specifications into our own space.    Sure, you can have this job, use this type of methodology or job description template, go to this or that type of furniture store.  Price points, salaries, dimensions, hours, office locations may vary, but really it's all pre-determined.  We just assume that these are the only options available to us, because subconsciously, we think it will be easier that way.   But is it?  As Einstein so wisely put it, we resort to logic to get us where we need to go, but what we really need is just a bit of imagination.

What we forget to embrace is that literally anything is available to us.  Don't see it at the store?  Doesn't matter.  You can decide exactly what your life, your business, your home will be like.  It may take some work, you may have to go to Hong Kong to make it happen, but there's no reason why you can't have things exactly how you want them to be.  You may just need to stumble upon this store in Wan Chai to realize that it's actually possible.  So, there you go.  For Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates.  For me (right now, at least), life is like an unfurnished apartment.