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.