SVB’s Claire Lee: ‘Time to end the single-digit club’

4 Apr 2018

Silicon Valley Bank’s Claire Lee, who will be speaking at the upcoming Inspirefest in June. Image: Silicon Valley Bank

Younger entrepreneurs in technology and finance don’t see obstacles in their path, Claire Lee tells John Kennedy.

As I speak with Claire Lee, she is buzzing after attending an event last week in San Francisco with former first lady Michelle Obama.

We talked about role models and ending what she describes as the ‘single-digit club’. It is my second time talking to Lee in just a few months, and she previously outlined her views on start-up life. Before that, several years ago, we bumped into each other in San Francisco at a tech industry event. She had her 10-week-old baby boy, Benjamin, strapped to her chest while mingling with start-ups and judging pitches. Totally in her element.

‘There is no pipeline problem; there’s an exclusion problem’

Lee, who will be a speaker at the upcoming Inspirefest in June, is a native of Wicklow but has that can-do attitude that is characteristic of enterprising Californians.

She is the head of early-stage banking at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), a towering force in the Bay Area and increasingly global tech scene, working with the majority of high-growth, venture-backed start-ups in top innovation centres.

Since 2012, SVB has lent $160m to 20 Irish tech and life sciences businesses, including AMCS, Accuris, Boxever, Diaceutics, Movidius, Qumas, Openet and Swrve.

Prior to joining SVB, Lee worked with Microsoft and before that with IBM, where she started her career as a graduate. Somewhere in all of this, Lee has managed to find time to advise the US Department of State and was a driving force behind the global entrepreneurship summit at Stanford in 2016, headlined by former president Barack Obama. Lee is also an active mentor and adviser to industry platforms such as Astia Global, and sits on the board of FreeFrom, aiming to rehabilitate victims of domestic violence through financial freedom and entrepreneurship.

The time for talk is over

I asked if she thinks we have we turned a corner in the ongoing debate around sexism in Silicon Valley and Hollywood with the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and all of the revelations of the past year.

‘We turned a corner this year, creating awareness and seeing consequences for bad behaviour’

Lee believes a foundation has been laid now that people are talking about it, but stressed that this talk needs to turn into real action.

“There are so many initiatives. People are trying to make things better. What we need is more action. All the panels, events, meetings are great but how do we make sure that moves the needle?

“What we need now is to have this movement, this groundswell, become something meaningful and manifest in better practices and behaviours. We need to capture that momentum and create sustainable change.

“We turned a corner this year, creating awareness and seeing consequences for bad behaviour. We see folks standing up and saying, ‘That does not work for me’, which is a fundamental first step here. At least from my perspective, the first and perhaps the most significant move is seeing people (of both genders and all backgrounds) speak up and say, ‘This is not OK – we need to do better.’

“We are dispelling the myth that it is a pipeline problem and that there aren’t enough qualified candidates among women, people of colour, those who did not attend an Ivy League college. We need to build diverse workplaces. There is no pipeline problem; there’s an exclusion problem. We need to give everyone a seat at the table, not just those that look and think the same as us.

“There’s also an acute concentration of wealth in certain geographies and demographics. We are seeing more initiatives attacking this concentration and making access to capital more democratic – for example, Rise of the Rest.”

Ending the single-digit club

SVB’s Claire Lee: ‘Time to end the single-digit club’

From left: Senator Elizabeth Warren with Claire Lee. Image: Claire Lee

What has Lee especially fired up is the single-digit club, referring to the 6pc of general partners in venture capital firms that are women, the 2pc to 4pc of venture capital that goes to women founders and the 6pc of female investors in rising tides such as cryptocurrency.

‘When you have concentrations of wealth and lack of representation, the problem becomes both acute and chronic. Money matters’

“6pc of the GPs (partners in VC firms) are women. These are the people making the investment decisions. They determine where the money flows. If we don’t have more representation at that table, these statistics will never shift. Inclusion and representation matter.”

The paltry amount of venture capital going to female founders is aggravating for Lee. “That number is just astounding. Even now, it is just staggering to see. Why is it going backwards? I’ve met so many awesome female founders that all share the trials and tribulations from fundraising. This needs to change.

“Then I heard from my EIR (entrepreneur in residence), Shruti Shah, about women in cryptocurrency, the latest phenomenon to hit our industry. She told me that 94pc of the people involved in blockchain (and hence set to gain from this) are male, meaning only 6pc of participants are female. So, that becomes yet another ‘male phenomenon’. Thank goodness people are taking notice now and organising women in blockchain events.

“When you have concentrations of wealth and lack of representation, the problem becomes both acute and chronic. Money matters. We need to get more money into the hands of smart men and women on both sides of the equation. We need more women on boards and in the C-suite. Our start-up outlook report shows only 57pc of start-ups have at least one woman engaged in senior leadership roles and, worse still, 71pc don’t have one woman on their board. That’s just not good enough. The data is disappointing. It’s time to end the single-digit club.”

Breaking Brotopia, shattering stereotypes

Lee has a point. In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of women graduating with STEM qualifications and working in the tech industry was substantially healthier than today. We do appear to be going backwards. So, what went wrong?

‘We see a generation breaking through. They will create a kind of multiplier effect. Women now have the confidence to say, “Yep, that’s where I’m headed and that is what I want to be”’

One of the reasons Lee maintains this happened is because women are opting out of the workplace. The sense of entitlement and elitism in Silicon Valley is well documented by Emily Chang in Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.

“Chang highlights a culture designed by men, for men,” said Lee.“Scores of women were excluded. But people are standing up and saying ‘no more’ to this.”

At Inspirefest in June, Lee will talk about shattering the stereotypes. She will deconstruct those stories and then go on to introduce a new cadre of individuals that have broken through the barriers.

“We see a generation breaking through. The will create a kind of multiplier effect. Women now have the confidence to say, ‘Yep, that’s where I’m headed and that is what I want to be.’ They are redefining success.

“A lot of emphasis is on creating role models. To quote former first lady Michelle Obama, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ The media has a massive role to play here. I admire Ann and the team at for reporting so much positive, in-depth, real news about innovation in Ireland. Think what kind of a difference that makes for founders and entrepreneurs. It’s a big boost. You are giving a voice to those people, and that in turn helps a huge amount with dispelling the myths and shattering the stereotypes. A lot of the media does not subscribe to that approach, however. Publishing news on a diverse group only helps reset what we think as normal or mainstream.”

Lee points to the work that teams at magazines such as Elle and Vanity Fair are doing to give a voice to female founders and diverse backgrounds. “The homogeneity is slowly shifting. Thanks to these media outlets, we are seeing the message go out far and wide. They are sharing stories of amazingly talented people who have beaten adversity to succeed. Many of them may not have had a voice before. I’m looking forward to meeting many of them in New York this month. Media matters.”

Multiplier effect

SVB’s Claire Lee: ‘Time to end the single-digit club’

From left: Shiza Shahid on the night she received the Elle Women in Tech award, with Claire Lee. Image: Claire Lee

Lee said executives such as herself who have risen the ranks of the industry are increasingly active and engaged.

‘I suppose I didn’t see boundaries. So I didn’t act like there were any’

“It is incumbent on us, if we become successful, to pay it forward, to create this multiplier effect and bring people with us. Lift as you climb.

“I am optimistic. Just this week, Aileen Lee, Stephanie Palmeri, Jess Lee and Sarah Tavel, along with 30 other very accomplished female VCs, have come together to create #AllRaise. Fantastic!

“We are seeing a platform effect. The more people get together to attack the issues, the more momentum we witness. We are seeing more stories of true success organically surface. It should spread like a virus, and eventually become a natural phenomenon. This is a big responsibility. We have to debunk the myths and shatter the stereotypes; we need to give previously excluded constituents a voice. After decades in tech, I can say the reality is somewhat different than the perception. There is wonderful diversity there, if only we can see it.”

In her own career, Lee said she was fortunate to have great mentors and sponsors who took a chance on her, especially when she doubted herself.

“For me, the great thing was starting out as a graduate in IBM – a wonderful training ground. Then to Microsoft. My innate skills were honed. I don’t really know where it comes from (maybe it came from my grandmother because she was a bit of a badass). To be honest, it never occurred to me that we were not equal. I believed in my intuition and I developed enough confidence to influence.

“I suppose I didn’t see boundaries. So I didn’t act like there were any.

“I’m very lucky to have encountered really great champions and mentors and sponsors. And I have to admit, they are all men. Probably the worst boss I ever had was a woman. But, you know, it has nothing to do with gender. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, who see your talents, who support you. Those people threw me in the deep end and made me swim with sharks! It was a tough challenge. But you figure it out and you become resourceful, enterprising. Coincidentally, one of the core values of SVB is enterprising. I identify strongly with that. And I am very lucky to be in a company that allows me to thrive. Something attracted me to Silicon Valley Bank. Maybe it is because the leadership are less likely to want you to fit any stereotype.”

Money talks

SVB’s Claire Lee: ‘Time to end the single-digit club’

Claire with her son Benjamin at his first tech conference in San Francisco several years ago. Image: Claire Lee

Lee points to SVB CEO Greg Becker’s philosophy of ‘bringing your whole self’ to work.

‘This is a generation of young women and women of colour who are saying “enough is enough”. They do not subscribe to the old boys’ club. They are turning it on its head’

“Greg is just as passionate and committed to changing the ratio as I am. We have a unique position in the innovation ecosystem. He knows that we can be a change agent for the industry. We lead by example.”

Lee said she believes that the lack of diversity is widespread and endemic in US society, and it’s wrong to think that it’s only down to a few entitled frat boys in Silicon Valley. As an example, she told me about her dismay at finding that her maternity leave paperwork in the state talked about ‘disability benefit’.

“I’m not disabled. I was having a baby. I am, in fact, able-bodied. And amazing. Today I made an ear. What did you do?” she quips.

Lee is inspired by folks such as Arlan Hamilton from Backstage Capital (who spoke at last year’s Inspirefest) and the next generation of investors such as Sydney Paige Thomas from Precursor Ventures, who are making a huge difference in the funding scene.

“This is a generation of young women and women of colour who are saying ‘enough is enough’. They do not subscribe to the old boys’ club. They are turning it on its head and creating something brand new. They are founding a new club. Something meaningful. Something significant.”

Lee sees a new wave of female funders and founders, and is busy connecting them to sources of capital. Her colleagues in SVB Capital are passionate about directing limited-partnership money into emerging managers and breakout funds.

“I am very, very encouraged by the younger generation. Generation Y is amazing. I’ve a bunch of them working for me. They are bright, tenacious and resourceful. They don’t see boundaries or barriers. It’s refreshing to see. I believe they think differently to prior generations.

“It all comes down to economics, where the money flows. The good news is, the tide is turning in venture and in the tech industry more broadly. The younger people are taking control. They are the ones that are going to see the end of the single-digit club.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your Spring Bird tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years