Fix the system: Women entrepreneurs are not broken

10 Jul 2017

Queues form at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The resilience of women founders and investors in the face of appalling derelictions of duty by the Silicon Valley elite is a lesson for us all, writes John Kennedy.

I seethed in my seat on Eimear Noone’s behalf. I felt her rage and disappointment, and basked in her ultimate triumph.

But you see, in the end, she showed them. Hers wasn’t a tech industry story per se, but it could have been any industry. In some ways, it is a broken allegory for never meeting your heroes.

‘We believe women entrepreneurs do not need to be fixed. We are not broken. But what does need to be fixed is the system’

Future Human

Noone was a speaker at Inspirefest 2017 in Dublin, a packed event where men and women sought to inspire one another through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths), as the name of the event implies. Unlike most tech conferences, which seem to be about bros bragging about how they got rich or managed (in their minds) to put a dent in the universe, Inspirefest seeks to provoke, empower and spur both men and women into action through the medium of effective storytelling.

Fix the system: Women entrepreneurs are not broken

Composer and conductor Eimear Noone speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

A former convent girl from Kilconnell, Noone fell in love with the idea of being a composer and orchestra conductor. No doubt people whispered “notions” behind her back but she went to college, studied music and achieved her ambition, winning numerous accolades along the way. Noone composed and conducted the score for the iconic video game World of Warcraft and its expansion Warlords of Draenor, and she is credited with work on games such as Heroes of the Storm, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Reaper of Souls, Hearthstone and Overwatch, among others.

But before all of this, at a critical and impressionable time in her early career, Noone met one of her heroes, a world-famous composer. She told him her ambition, and her hero and the gaggle of men with him laughed in her face. He told her it was an impossible dream. “First of all, you are young. Second, you are Irish. And third, you are a woman.”

But she showed them.

This ambition and grit and determination to overcome any obstacle was evident in various forms at Inspirefest, an event that proved to be a balm or a welcome tonic after the seismic events that shook Silicon Valley, with many disclosures about sexual harassment among elite tech investors.

If there is a theme that re-emerges year after year at Inspirefest, it is the reality that fewer women founders get investment. Less than 7pc of senior leadership in Silicon Valley investment firms are women, with a corresponding low rate of investment in women-led tech firms. It is worse for minorities.

It appears that white male investors are only interested in investing in start-ups that are run by people who look like them, sound like them and either went to or dropped out of the same schools they went to.

Silicon Valley’s blind side permeates the tech world

Yuka Nagashima, in charge of the Astia entrepreneurship programme, said it best: “We believe women entrepreneurs do not need to be fixed. We are not broken. But what does need to be fixed is the system.”

Let those words sink in.

‘There is a systemic exclusion of segments of the population. Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not’

Nagashima, who was busily presenting an Astia Entrepreneurs Showcase and was introducing the panel, didn’t realise it, but she has made one of the most iconic statements yet on Silicon Valley’s blind side.

The blind side is an invisible but impenetrable barrier. “The Silicon Valley elevator pitch: it’s usually made by a rock-star team who are going to crush it in two minutes. Women don’t test well for this. We can master it, but when we deliver the message in that way, we are not liked,” Nagashima said. “We are not likeable to these investors.

“It is not just women, it is people of colour; it is very alpha male. There are even a lot of white men who don’t feel like they belong in that field. We are missing out on a whole world of talent if that is the filter,” she said.

The interesting thing at Inspirefest this year was the level of restraint many of the leading speakers showed when it came to discussing Silicon Valley controversy and the ensuing leadership changes at firms such as 500 Startups.

In previous years, speakers such as Kara Swisher and Sharon Vosmek did not hold back in discussing the blind side and bias, but the spirit this time was about getting on with it and fixing the system.

Fix the system: Women entrepreneurs are not broken

Tracy Chou of Project Include speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

“If only 7pc of senior investment leadership at VC firms are women then who gets a chance?” asked Tracy Chou, an entrepreneur, software engineer and diversity advocate who helped kick off the wave of tech company diversity disclosures with a GitHub repository collecting numbers on women in engineering.

“The lack of diversity means we are missing out on ideas if it only consists of mainly privileged white male VCs.”

Without dwelling too long on the bad behaviour of VCs who took advantage of their power, Chou instead asked: “How did we get here? There were mysteriously more women in venture capital in the past. The trend went the wrong way.”

Chou pointed out that 41pc of women leave tech after 10 years into their career versus 17pc of men.

Why is this? She said it wasn’t just down to having families, as most men would like to assume.

“They are switching to other jobs. Why? Because there is a lack of mentorship, sponsorship and a roadmap for career progression. Susan Fowler wrote about her experience at Uber, Ellen Pao sued her employer for harassment, laying bare workplace practices. We can see this across every industry. Women have to walk a fine line between being too aggressive or subservient. Women are often asked to take on note-taking and other menial tasks at meetings.”

Chou pointed to World Economic Forum research from 2016, which showed that having diversity on teams makes them stronger. The report showed that increased numbers of women in management was associated with a 15pc increase in productivity. As well as this, firms in the top quartile in terms of racial diversity are also likely to have higher profits.

“By 2020, there will be a shortfall of 1m tech workers to fill in the US. There is a systemic exclusion of segments of the population. Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not,” said Chou.

“To correct the course, changing culture will require a lot of hard work. There is a misconception that diversity means lowering the bar,” she said, indicating that tech firms and investors need to rethink recruitment.

“Stanford and MIT are over-fished ponds.”

As well as a pipeline problem in terms of women pursuing and prevailing in tech careers, Chou said the problem is that the industry is reinforcing its own biases.

“The first thing to do is read up on the issues – diversity is important and it is smart for business.

“How do we achieve diversity? Confront the reasons. There is a pipeline problem, and to correct the course and changing the culture will require a lot of hard work.”

Chou described the loss of women to the industry as “death by a thousand paper cuts” where all the slights, repeated over and over again in many companies, drive people out.

Across the board, she said that organisations themselves need to question how they look after workers and encourage their development. “Sometimes we need to remind decision-makers to select people who are not the usual candidates.”

Chou said it also requires leaders being mindful. “Take notes on who is heard at meetings. Make sure meetings are equitable, be inclusive in social activities.”

Invest in tomorrow

The problem is two-sided. First, there aren’t enough women tech founders getting funded. Second, this might change if there were more successful women tech leaders and, as a result, more women investors. But it’s not like there aren’t examples. Just look at the founder of VMware, Diane Greene, or the co-founder of Cisco Systems, Sandy Lerner. But we need more of them.

Fix the system: Women entrepreneurs are not broken

Anne Ravanona, CEO of Global Invest Her, speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘Two-thirds of wealth in the world will be transferred to women by 2020. Our time is coming’

“How do we get more women to become investors?” asked Anne Ravanona, CEO of Global Invest Her.

She pointed to research by the International Finance Corporation, which indicated that the funding gap between men and women stands at $300bn, male versus female. “Facebook is valued at $460bn – that means two thirds of Facebook’s valuation is not getting to a huge population. Less than 10pc of venture dollars goes to women and only 15pc of seed dollars.

“Women are 51pc of the world’s population. What is going on?”

Ravanona explained the definition of bias, whereby people make judgements based on beliefs and not facts. To counter this, she highlighted the need for more women investors.

“We need to invest in the future and we have to teach women very soon what it is to invest. Women control 70pc of purchasing decisions worldwide. In the US, 51pc is in the hands of women.

“Two-thirds of wealth in the world will be transferred to women by 2020. Our time is coming.”

Be the change you want to see in the world

To make change happen, sometimes you have to be that change. That is certainly the case at Enterprise Ireland where conscious and definitive efforts have been made to support women entrepreneurs and effectively change the ratio.

Fix the system: Women entrepreneurs are not broken

Dr Carol Gibbons, director of ICT programmes at Enterprise Ireland, at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘If there was a lack of role models, we brought them. If there was a lack of networks, we created networks’

Dr Carol Gibbons, director of ICT programmes at the State agency, said that last year, Enterprise Ireland invested in 128 companies, up from 104 companies in 2014.

“There were 43 female-led start-ups in 2014. This grew to 63 in 2016.

“We are going in the right direction. In 2011, our CEO Julie Sinnamon took a look at our numbers and found that investment in female founders was only 11pc. She asked what needed to be done.

“We did it. How? If there was a lack of role models, we brought them. If there was a lack of networks, we created networks. If there was a lack of ambition, we pushed forward and asked for that investment that you know will make a difference.”

The revelations of bad behaviour towards women by investors and within tech firms in Silicon Valley began as a trickle and became a flood. It’s not like anyone didn’t know it was happening. It was just not talked about for reasons that included the fear of reprisal, whereby careers could be derailed, or that founders’ companies would not get funding.

There is a danger that people will perceive the problem as only being unique to the tech world. It is not. It happens in a myriad of sectors. But the tech world, a world driven by all things new, should strive to be more egalitarian and equitable. For an industry in a constant state of reinvention, the status quo is appalling.

At the first Inspirefest three years ago, Kimberly Bryant said: “By limiting women in technology, we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions.”

The problem will not be fixed overnight, but a corner has been turned in making the industry – including its leadership and elite investors – realise just how appallingly it has behaved.

Yes, there is a blind side.

But now women are emboldened to speak out and, ultimately, they are emboldened to achieve success on their terms.

The dignity, defiance and determination to prevail that was evident at Inspirefest 2017 proves we are in an important new epoch.

A new chapter in tech industry history is about to be written.

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