It was the kind of call every founder wants. One of my close friends from Berkeley had introduced me to an investor in his local tech community, and after weeks of trying to connect, we finally found a morning we were both free for a good, long chat.
Everything clicked on that call. He got the concept, loved what we were building, had amazing insight about our tech, gave great advice about key hires, and so I took the plunge (already having been told he doesn’t invest in our space), and asked if he might want to join our current round. He reiterated that it’s not his arena, but said he’d actually consider this one. That’s how much he liked it. I was elated.
We decided to talk again, so figured out the day we’d both be back from various travels and he said, “Great! Why don’t you ping me then?”
I replied, “You got it.”
Then, the ridiculous notion that I was just like any other CEO of a potential unicorn tech startup all went south when he said, “Wait, I’m sorry…is that one of those phrases I’m not supposed to use with you?”
“…is that one of those phrases I’m not supposed to use with you?”
I had no idea what he was taking about, but he was honestly concerned that “ping me” might have taken on some new meaning or be somehow offensive and he missed the memo. It was thoughtful of him to ask, and I was really impressed that he did. I assured him it was not a problem, and we both laughed about it and got off the phone.
But there it was. No matter how well we connected, or what he thought of my company, it was still somewhere in his mind that I’m a “female CEO,” and working with me might be a minefield of dangers he has to think about. Not because of anything he would ever do, or anything I would ever do, but because men neither of us has ever met couldn’t control their bro-havior, and that poisons these waters for the rest of us, women and men.
Investing in a company or hiring someone for your team is not a binary decision. It’s not a switch that is on or off. It’s a thousand micro-decisions, all of which taken together lead to an outcome. As long as sexual harassment happens, and brave women speak out about it, and men suffer the much-deserved consequences of their actions, all women are going to be harmed by it. All of us are going to be seen first as women (and thus, trickier to navigate), and second as executives, engineers, product managers, investors, hackers, etc.
Our brains protect us under all circumstances.
All of human existence is about survival. Our brains have evolved to protect us, under all circumstances, from that which might cause us harm. They release cortisol when we encounter the unfamiliar, and they release dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin when we’re happy and safe.
Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone. It’s what makes your shoulders go tense and your palms sweat when something unexpected happens, like discovering the company on stage right before you is using all your same cool graphics. It’s how your brain responds, completely subconsciously, when the founders who just walked in to pitch look nothing like any other team you’ve ever invested in.
It doesn’t matter how open-minded you are — your brain sets the mood. When the unexpected enters, you already have an elevated level of stress to overcome. This is why the “gut-feeling” part of investing is such a sucker-punch to anyone who doesn’t look like the cast of Silicon Valley.
Aileen Lee, founder and partner of Cowboy Ventures, has a great rant against the phrase, “good guy” (which you can see here, starting at 3:06:37), because it’s a way of not having to put into hard metrics why some founders seem like a safe bet and others don’t. It’s used to justify backing the CEO whose presence causes the release of endorphins in the brains of most people in the room, and rejecting the founders whose presence triggers cortisol, whether anyone realizes that’s happening or not.
Every XY chromosome in the startup world starts to wonder, “Am I going to be the subject of an incendiary blog post?”
So now, thanks to the actions of a few selfish jerks, my mere presence creates an added level of stress. My very femaleness is a threat. Through no fault of the decent, scrupulous men I’m meeting with, and no fault of mine, and absolutely no fault of any woman who has ever come forward to expose someone who exploited his position of power to make himself feel more desirable than he actually is, every XY chromosome in the startup world starts to wonder, “Am I going to be the subject of an incendiary blog post?”
Here’s the simple answer: “No! As long as you behave with women exactly the same as you would if it were a male founder standing in front of you.” (So stop and ask yourself, if this was a man, would I stroke his shoulder as I suggested we meet again? Would I comment on how well his tee-shirt flatters his figure? If not, don’t do it to her!)
Sadly, the much simpler answer is: “No. As long as you don’t work with women.”
Of course, no one would ever say that. But somewhere in that amygdala, a synapse fires towards flight in the face of an unnamed potential danger. Stress hormones flood the bloodstream. You can’t explain it. You don’t know why. But whatever makes you feel comfortable and happy around the people who look and act like you is what makes you come up with logical, explicable, totally defensible reasons not to work with someone who you “just don’t have confidence in,” (and people think women are overly hormonal…sheesh!)
Let’s change what our brains include within the realm of expectation.
So let’s figure out together how to make this work — for everyone. We need to make sure women get the same opportunities and access to capital as their equally qualified male counterparts, and that men who aren’t bad actors can invest in, mentor and advance women in their organizations without having to worry about what they might read about themselves years later.
Let’s alter the reality of this industry enough to change what our brains include within the realm of expectation. If you close your eyes and picture a huge tech conference, where the CEO of this year’s hottest startup just walked out to speak, I know that right now, that person you’re picturing on stage doesn’t look like me. But in the not-too-distant future, the CEO of that unicorn startup will look like me. In fact, I bet she’ll look exactly like me. And you don’t want to miss out on that just because it takes a little extra effort to make everyone in the room feel equally safe, happy and valued.
Valerie Alexander is a CEO, speaker, author, entrepreneur and Silicon Valley O.G. She was one of the lead attorneys who took E*TRADE public back in the day. She’s keynoted some amazing conferences, written a bunch of books, including How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”), and she’s currently the founder and CEO of Goalkeeper Media, maker of communication bots to amplify happiness.