A Response to the Mike Arrington Throwdown™

I’ve spent the past couple weeks watching with increased frustration as the blogosphere responds to The Mike Arrington Throwdown™. For those of you who haven’t been following the brouhaha it all began when:

1. Shira Ovide posted on WSJ.com about the lack of women leaders in emerging tech, to which

2. Michael Arrington posted that women should stop blaming men for their problems, which

3. Leah Culver docilely agreed with, to which

4. Rachel Sklar laid the smack down and

5. Slate.com posted a recap of.

Got it? Good.

That part that’s been frustrating me the most about this discussion is that people (including the women) are ignoring the obvious: subconscious biases exist, and they have an effect. More so than any other field, business is about networking. It is nearly impossible to cultivate a wildly successful company without some help from others, whether that assistance is as minor as making an introduction or as substantial as cutting a cheque. There is substantial psychological research that shows we’re more likely to help people who are similar to us. Speaking from personal experience, I’ll openly admit that I get really excited when I meet people who remind me of myself – little girls who love playing with Legos, teens who are all about space exploration, scientists with not a lick of business experience who find themselves in the unlikely position of starting a company – and I want to do everything I can to help them, just as others have helped me.

Given that both the tech space and the investor space are so heavily male dominated, you can see how women may be at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.

So why is this potential bias being ignored in this conversation? I think that people are so afraid of triggering the Arrington reaction that they’re burying their heads in the sand and coming up with other (potentially legitimate but still ridiculous sounding) explanations for the lack of successful women-run tech businesses. “Women don’t take risks”. “Women would rather be graphic designers than technologists.” “There’s a childbearing conundrum.” (Really Emily Olson? Really?!) I think people need to take a step back and understand that pointing out potential subconscious biases is not the same as accusing people of intentional sexism. I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that white, male tech entrepreneurs are engaged in some sort of secret conspiracy to keep women and minorities out of the field. I’ve certainly never encountered any blatantly sexist or racist behavior. (In fact, in my 18 years of education and entrepreneurship in male-dominated tech fields, I’ve only ever heard one overtly sexist comment and it was uttered by a woman.) I’m merely saying that there is a potential bias, and we should be able to acknowledge it and discuss its effects without people feeling like they’re being blamed for something and defensively dismissing the conversation as petulant whining.

I spent three months earlier this year on a fundraising frenzy, pitching to a total of 35 VCs, Angel Groups, and other investment representatives. Only 4 of the 35 partners I pitched to were women, and less than a handful of the men appeared to be in their 30s. I was not able to secure a deal. I think there are many factors that may be contributing to my company’s lack of fundraising success including:

1. It’s a difficult economic environment in which to raise money, period.

2. US investors are wary of hardware and consumer products, and my company’s primary product line is both.

3. We don’t have someone with a MBA on our management team.

4. Investors have a difficult time relating to me, a twenty-something non-white woman (who looks like she’s 18), whose academic background is in the sciences, who doesn’t have a lick of formal business education, and who’s running her company out of a smaller, traditionally blue collar city. The more you relate to someone, the more you trust them, and the more you trust them, the more likely you are to give them a huge chunk of your money.

I think the effect of #4 is likely much smaller than those of #s 1-3 if there’s even an effect at all. Regardless, pretending like #4 doesn’t even exist does a disservice to everyone – those of us that don’t fit the mold of a “tech entrepreneur”, and the traditional investors and businesspeople who could benefit from (and profit off of) the work that we’re doing.

So what can we do to overcome these potential biases? Fred Wilson, a partner at Union Square Ventures, posted in support of creating “XX Combinator”, a Y Combinator type startup accelerator for women-led companies. While I think this is a great idea, in my experience there is no lack of pre-seed/seed money for tech startups. (My company’s been living off of it for over two years!) The brick wall is Series A money. How can we get more Series A money in the hands of women entrepreneurs?

1. First, we need to acknowledge that these biases exist, and that they are likely having an effect. (This isn’t about pointing fingers and assigning blame, it’s about admitting there is a problem so we can move forward and solve it.)

2. Women in high positions of influence need to get more involved. (This almost doesn’t need to be said because it’s happening. A lot.) My fundraising efforts began when one of my fellow grad school alumni, who also happens to be a woman CEO, made introductions to three people in the Silicon Valley investor community, who all also happened to be women. Those three introductions led to 34 pitches, as well as great experiences working with Astia and Golden Seeds. We need more of this! (And that goes for me too – I need to do a better job of actively seeking out women who are in the early stages of forming a company and offering any assistance I can provide, rather than waiting for people to find me and ask for help.)

3. Changing established social structures takes time, and typically requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches. On the top end, we somehow need to get more diversity in the upper echelons of business. And I don’t just mean race or gender, I mean age, and geography, and socio-economic background, and sexual orientation, etc. The more variation in the life experience of the entrepreneurial community, the easier it will be for atypical newcomers to make connections with mentors and investors. Unfortunately there’s no obvious way to make this happen, other than simply waiting for minority entrepreneurs to become successful and make their way to the top.

4. The gatekeepers at the top of the entreprenueral food chain need to be smarter about their criteria when choosing who to admit at the bottom. Thirteen years ago, the percentage of women in the incoming freshman class at the tech school I attended for undergrad was ~11%. This year it’s ~54%. The CS department at the tech school I attended for grad school has seen a similar increase in numbers. They were able to accomplish this simply by tweaking their admissions criteria to 1) de-emphasize prior experience in CS, and 2) emphasize proven success in other areas. They had found that young girls weren’t directed to or given the same opportunities in tech during their primary education back in the late 80s/early 90s, and so women weren’t applying with the same amount of previous experience as their male counterparts. However, they were just as capable – the standard predictors of academic success (test scores, GPAs, etc.) were comparable. Expanding consideration to people who may not have taken any CS classes in high school, but totally kicked ass in AP Bio seems so brilliantly obvious, in retrospect.

I often hear that investors like to fund CEOs who are on their second or third venture. Well, women entrepreneurs are a lot newer to the tech space; most of us haven’t been in the game long enough to have already worked on a couple of prior projects. And many of us don’t have MBAs because (for whatever reasons) running a tech company wasn’t part of our original plan. Emerging tech business is basically in the exact same spot CS was 15-20 years ago, and we need to borrow some of the strategies in their playbook. Investors need to start taking risks on women who are only on their first venture and/or don’t have any formal business education, but have demonstrated passion, perseverance, and success in their previous endeavors.

To bring this back full circle, on his blog post Arrington promised that when women took up his challenge and started tech companies, he’d cover them. Well, I was introduced to Arrington almost a year ago, who then in turn introduced me to one of his staff writers. I was interviewed a couple of weeks later, but a story was never published. A few months later, my company applied to Disrupt. We weren’t accepted.

Based on the companies they do feature, I think the reason we haven’t elicited any interest from Tech Crunch is because we’re not working on the kind of tech that gets them all hot and bothered – we’re not geolocating people’s finances in the blogocloud or anything. But wait, let’s poke at that a little closer. Who is “them”? In the last 48 hours, 21 writers have posted to TechCrunch’s blog, 16 of which are male, 17 of which appear to be white, and the majority of which seem to be in their late twenties to late thirties. Although it makes me apprehensive to say this, men and women like different things. (I dislike talking about gender preferences because it feels like approaching the top of a slippery slope that ends in little girls playing with pink EZ Bake Ovens while their brothers chase each other around pretending to shoot each other with toy guns.) Given that the target demographic of our main consumer product is young girls, it’s unsurprising that a bunch of dudes aren’t peeing their pants over it.

But here’s the thing. Just because our tech is probably more interesting to younger, more “right-brained” women than middle aged, “left-brained” men doesn’t mean it’s inferior; it just means it’s different. And guess what. Different is often disruptive.

Mr. Arrington, women tech entrepreneurs are here. The department I was in at the prestigious tech university I attended for grad school has spun out seven companies. Four of them have women CEOs, which is remarkable when you consider that the department had the typical tech gender ratio. Women tech entrepreneurs have been here. We just may not be working on tech that the male-dominated field finds sexy. And when someone as visible as you claims that subconscious biases don’t exist and aren’t having an effect – that women are just blaming men for their problems – it delegitimizes the issue. Please keep that in mind the next time you feel like trolling.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation