Not so subtle discrimination in the startup community.

On June 3, a new startup accelerator, FounderFuel launched. The group, located in Montreal, Canada, but funding startups internationally launched with 85 members, but not one woman.

“At FounderFuel we believe startup success is more about the people than the idea. We take a lot of care in choosing the smartest and most resourceful, dedicated and passionate people we can find.”

It seems that those are men.

Even men involved in the startup scene noticed. David Crow, cofounder of Influitive Corporation, posted on Startup North that he was disappointed that so few women were participating at FounderFuel and and GrowLab, a Vancouver startup accelerator with a single female team member.

“These programs need to do better on encouraging diversity and actively seeking out different viewpoints.”

Crow even listed specific Canadian women who he felt should have been invited. His suggestions included Leila Boujnane of Idee Inc., Suzie Dingwall Williams of Venture Law Associates, Maggie Fox of Social Media Group, Tara Hunt and Cassandra Girard of Shwowp!, Kristine Matulis of Firstround Marketing, April Dunford of RocketWatcher, Amber MacArthur of MGImedia, and Gosia Green of LearnHub.

When challenged on the issue, FounderFuel admitted that they made a mistake.

“It wasn’t malicious, it wasn’t intentional – sometimes we are just oblivious to our ignorance …”

They apologized for not including any women on the invitation-only roster. They promised to follow up on the only two invitations that had been sent to women, and invite another 9. Then they quickly added April Dunford, Head of Global Enterprise Market Strategy at Huawei to the front page of their mentor list. They also opened the mentorship program to applicants.

These are great first steps. Assuming that all the women accept, and that no men are added to the list, women would then still make up about 11 per cent of the team. But the fact that public pressure was required for FounderFuel to admit their “Blissful ignorance” is telling.

Women are sadly underrepresented in the field of technology. During a town Hall meeting this April attended by President Obama, it was announced that women make up only 25% of the technology workforce, and only 18% of  those taking computer science courses.

The numbers are even smaller when it comes to startups. Women head up only 10 per cent of startups in the US, despite the fact that 40 per cent of all businesses are 50 percent or more owned by women.

It’s not just about the numbers. Subtle discrimination is also at play. Jessica Livingston, a founding partner at Y Combinator the seed-stage venture firm, backs this up.

“It’s been true in the past and probably is still true to some extent that investors discriminate against women. Not necessarily consciously, but their models of the ideal founder are current successful founders, who are mostly men.”

And sometimes it is conscious. Even Livingston’s Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham has stated the following on his own blog (as reported by  Zuhairah Scott Washington of Forbes).

“One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon…Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.”

And subtle discrimination isn’t limited to startup accelerators. On the same day that FounderFuel launched, the Montreal Gazette posted a story on the International Startup Festival’s plan to recruit grandmothers to judge startup pitches at their July event, also in Montreal.

“We always say that your grandmother should understand what your business is about,” organizer Philippe Telio told the paper. “So we thought it would be fun to have actual grandmothers judging.”

Telio didn’t ask for grandfathers. He singled out older women as the least likely to be tech-savy, (even while asking for those grandmothers to be tech-savy). Of course, that’s if you believe the stereotype. In fact, according to Inside Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on Facebook as of 2009  is women over 55. Had Telio inserted any other marginalized group into that sentence, he might have received an even stronger public response.

“”We always say that your grandmother should understand what your business is about” Then. Just. Stop. Saying. That.” Montreal-based marketing consultant and digital legacy expert Adele McAlear argued in a twitter post.

Why grandmothers? Is there something special about older women that makes them less able to be tech savy? Does Telio think it’s ok to insult the intelligence of grandmothers? Or is it just one more way that subtle sexism in the startup community operates to discourage women from participating.

Just ask Tara Hunt, whose recent blog post on subtle discrimination in tech industry was featured in the Wall Street Journal, also on June 3.

I’ve had the same conversation with every kickass woman CEO, founder, executive and entrepreneur I know. It goes like, “They don’t say it, but I *know* they treat me differently. They aren’t taking me seriously because I don’t act like a man and when I act like a man, they call me difficult.”

Hunt is a Montreal-based startup entrepreneur and author, and one of the most influential women in technology, according to Fast Company Magazine.  She’s so active in the startup community that she’s actually mentored some of the 85 men at FounderFuel. Hunt is also the CEO & Co-Founder of a startup, Buyosphere. But she wasn’t initially invited to the FounderFuel club.

“Looking at the list makes me giggle. Many of those listed came to me for mentorship at one time,” she posted on twitter.

The startup community in Montreal is a diverse, vibrant bunch of interesting people doing exciting things. But stories like the ones on Startup Festival and FounderFuel have become increasingly frustrating.

Maybe the startup community isn’t really a boys club. I certainly hope it isn’t. But the attitude of Philippe Telio, and the organizers of FounderFuel tell me there is something that needs fixing.

Shannon is the CEO and founder of Café Noir Design, a boutique Web Design agency in Montreal. She holds graduate degrees in psychology and journalism. Also mother of three.

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Join the Conversation

  • Liesl

    Love this post! It’s a comprehensive round up of the discussions around women in tech & startups, and so carefully links to all the respective conversations for anyone trying to catch up on the raging debates.

    The FounderFuel response to all the discussion, where they repeated the phrase “blissful ignorance” over and over again, is exactly the problem. I don’t think any of us believed they were WILLFULLY excluding women. And the widespread tech ignorance does, indeed, appear to be somewhat blissful. Also, while their blog post was categorized in “Humble Pie,” they didn’t link out to any of the pieces to which they were responding, to allow the reader to contextualize their response.

    The grandmother panel is a clear farcical publicity stunt. “Your grandmother should understand your business idea,” is at once ageist AND sexist. My grandmothers are gone, but they kicked ass and their understanding far eclipsed that of your average male in the sacred-for-some-ungodly-reason 18-34 year-old demographic.

  • Shannon Smith

    Don’t like it? Change it!

    Get involved in the startup scene by offering your wisdom. Apply to mentor at FounderFuel. You aren’t required to be in Montreal.

    They opened mentorships up to applicants. Would be a shame if no women stepped up.

  • Alistair

    Okay, I have a few thoughts on this subject. And I’m going to take the time to lay them out in considerable detail, because this is the kind of discussion that can get out of hand clearly. I’d really appreciate it if you took the time to read through it.

    First, a bit of context. I help run conferences. I’m also in charge of content for Startup Festival, and the “grandma as a judge” idea was mainly mine. I’m also mentor at Founderfuel, and a partner at Year One Labs (which also doesn’t have female mentors, despite our efforts to recruit some.)

    I’m not going to address mentorship and VC/incubator gender makeup here. But I would like to offer a bit of insight into the role of conference organizers, and into the criticism of Startupfestival in particular. I count many of the women in the Montreal tech community as friends, including many of those who’ve debated this post on Twitter and elsewhere; hopefully they’ll still be friends when I’m done.

    The lack of women in prominent roles at technology events is a serious problem. It’s a subject that’s been discussed a lot, most recently by Tara Hunt, and perhaps most visibly by Michael Arrington. It’s worse because it’s a self-perpetuating problem: without women as role models, fewer women grab the mic.

    I know from whence I speak. I’ve been running conference content for over ten years now, for more than a dozen different conference brands. Those include O’Reilly’s Strata conference; Techweb’s Interop and Cloud Connect conferences, the aforementioned Startup Festival, and many others. I choose who speaks, and what they speak about. The major conferences I run get roughly 500 responses to a Call for Papers, each of which is a submission by someone on a subject, and I have to read through all of them and select the best ones. That’s about three thousand submissions a year.

    The conferences I’m involved with lean towards the technical. Platform and networking events are particularly guilty of being male-only; if you think women are under-represented in startup and social media events, consider that roughly one percent of CFP submissions I see for a telecommunications conference offer a female speaker. (Now that I think of it, it would be a really interesting to dig into this in more detail.)

    I go out of my way to find female speakers. I’m often the one saying, “there aren’t any women here.” With Startupfestival we’ve actively sought good female speakers for the conference, and Chris Shipley has been involved from the outset. Even if they don’t submit a proposal to a CFP, I chase down smart female presenters myself. The folks who organize events try to fix this, too. O’Reilly, in particular, tries really hard to find interesting women, and roughly 75 percent of O’Reilly’s events team is female. In my experience, female presenters are amazing, getting better audience reviews in exit surveys and presenting excellent content without trying to pitch their product or company. (Again, this would make for a great study.)

    Despite my bias in favor of women, however, I have some bad news. Since the start of the year, I would estimate that half of the females who’ve agreed to speak for me (after much time spent chasing them down) have reneged. By comparison, roughly one in forty of the male speakers I’ve worked with had to switch or cancel (my estimates.)

    This is extremely disappointing for someone who’s trying to fix what he sees as a real problem. They’ve either changed their plans, or replaced themselves late in the game. Erin Rubin replaced herself with John Considine; Gina Trapani pointed me at Anil Dash; Suzanna Acar had to refuse. It happens a lot; I have plenty of other examples.

    I suspect I know why it happens, too. The unfortunate reality is that women who can talk on tech and are willing to pick up the microphone are in huge demand. Every one of those women was busy doing something else—many of them have helped with other events in the past. Folks like Margaret Francis (Lithium), Margaret Dawson (Hubspan), and Maribel Lopez (Lopez Research) are all amazing speakers, and they’ve all participated in an event I’ve run recently—but I know that next time, they’ll be unavailable, because they’re sought after. I feel guilty every time I ask’s fantastic Hilary Mason to join us for yet another event.

    The one conference over which I do have complete control is Bitnorth. This is an informal, Foocamp-meets-TED-meets-Ignite event that’s in its fourth year, and happens in the fall North of Montreal. It’s not just a tech conference, but it’s definitely geeky. We’re nearly at a 50/50 ratio of men to women. It makes the conference better for all, and I try hard to find interesting women to attend each year.

    Christine Davis seemed to agree with this when she attended in 2009, making the point that if an event cares about gender representation, they probably care about the other details, too. Gina Minks said of the 2010 event,“Not once, all weekend, did I ‘feel like a girl’. Not once did I feel the need to put on the posturing cloak – you know proving that I was technical enough to be there.”

    I asked a few of the women who attended Bitnorth 2010 what I could do to help get us to a 50/50 balance in the audience. They all pushed back hard. “I personally feel like opening it up to women first and offering cheaper tickets to women would be pandering,” said one of them, “no one wants to feel like the token female at a conference.” Another suggested, “maybe the only course correction needed is a little bit of intentional female networking. And I can help with that.”

    Within the Montreal community, we also try hard to support women in tech. Ian Rae, a business partner of mine, invested tens of thousands of dollars in a co-working space called RPM, and the Montreal Girl Geeks use it regularly for events, gratis. We also spend time with plenty of Montreal entrepreneurs (including the aforementioned Tara; as a sidenote, VCs like Founderfuel don’t generally appoint CEOs looking for venture capital as mentors, since it’s a conflict of interest; if I were seeking investment at the moment, I wouldn’t be a mentor, either.)

    I’m not trying to pat myself on the back—just to give you some context for what I’m about to say about Startupfestival, so you’ll consider it as more than simply a defensive reaction.

    We thought it would be a good idea to have a non-traditional set of people evaluating startups, in addition to the usual investors, pundits, and self-appointed experts (mea culpa). Generally speaking, a judge is in a position of authority. It’s considered an honor to be asked to judge something, and it means that those who ask it of you respect your judgement.

    The tech industry is a bit too full of testosterone-ridden, technology-for-technology’s sake thinking these days. Good marketers know that common sense, simple value propositions, and easily explained benefits are key to a successful startup, but we forget it all too often.

    We wanted to bring some wisdom and perspective to offset the bubbling froth of a technology event. Plenty of grandmothers have jumped at the opportunity, judging by the many applications we’ve received. They’re clamoring to participate, and telling us all about how technology has changed their lives.

    So the one legitimate complaint I can see in all of this is the “non-technical” label, and the implication that somehow older women aren’t good with technology. That’s our bad, and we should have been clearer.

    I suspect it’s accurate that those of us who grew up without computers or the Internet have a different perspective from those of us who were surrounded by it, and aren’t as comfortable with technology. We could perhaps have avoided the implication by saying: “we want an older generation of judges, since they have a different take on usability and represent a growing demographic; and we want them to be female, since we’ve got enough testosterone in the room.” Would that have been clearer? That was certainly our intent.

    We’re hoping for judges who can see through the hype and find true value. Liesl’s point that “[her grandmothers'] understanding far eclipsed that of your average male in the sacred-for-some-ungodly-reason 18-34 year-old demographic” is precisely why we want grandmothers as judges.

    While I think you’re absolutely right about the under-representation of women in technology, I think it’s unfair to paint Startupfestival with that brush, or with the ageism one.

    Thanks for reading this far.

    TL;DR: We’re saying that appealing to an under-represented demographic is important, and we’re giving a few grandmothers a chance to get directly involved in the international tech scene. I’m not sure how that is bad for women in technology, and if we’ve somehow reinforced the stereotype that older women aren’t smart enough to judge the merits of startups, I’m sorry.

    • Shannon Smith

      All this on a day when 85 men get together and don’t even think about where the women are. You can argue that any one woman shouldn’t be part of that group. But no women? Not one?

      So when you announce a “Granny Den”, with no mention whatsoever about doing it to empower women who aren’t often part of the process… when you don’t write that on your website in big letters, when you don’t point out that grandmothers are smart and knowledgeable and should be at the table… you’ll have to understand that that will not be what comes to women’s minds. Especially as presented in an interview with a male business reporter.

      If you want people to believe that a male-run event in a heavily male-dominated field, that’s logistically tough for women to attend (no childcare, pricey tickets, etc.) wants to empower grandmothers and not just laugh at them, you have to be way more clear about it.

      You say that the “Granny Den” is meant to empower women? Write that on your website. Write it on your blog. Empower women. Prove me wrong. There is nothing I would like better.

  • Belinda Darcey

    I agree with Shannon: “You say that the “Granny Den” is meant to empower women? Write that on your website. Write it on your blog. Empower women.”

    Why not write a post on the FounderFuel blog with some stats re-older users and technology? Otherwise this whole mess is just going to fester further.

    Have you seen the AARP site lately? They have an impressive tech news section:

  • Adele McAlear

    Alistair – thank you for taking the time to explain what you, as a conference organizer, is facing to get women speakers. And thank you for explaining your motivation for having the Granny’s Den. It may seem an obvious endorsement of women to you, but, as a woman, I can say that the way the concept was communicated fell flat.

    I wish that you didn’t have to be so explicit about it, that we’d all just get your good intentions. But, as is clear here, we’re feeling marginalized and frustrated. That’s an easy thing to forget when 1) you don’t live it, and 2) you are clearly taking mindful steps to bring women into the light.

    I do wonder what the ratio of women judges throughout Startup Fest is. How might women come to be a judge? Are they asked, do they apply? What are the qualifications? I only bring this up because the Granny’s Den makes it appear that SF may have more women judges than is actually the case throughout the event. If you want women to be judges, and you don’t have a big enough pool to draw from, making sure that you make the process open and transparent (and applicable to both genders) is very important for us to feel included and represented. But you knew that already. If you are still seeking women participants, please let me know that you need and I’ll gladly put the word out for you.

    It’s great to hear you say, “In my experience, female presenters are amazing, getting better audience reviews in exit surveys and presenting excellent content without trying to pitch their product or company.”

    Recently, I was told by a man who is a prominent speaker and lends a hand to conference organizers in the marketing field that women scored consistently lower than men. In fact, he said that some top-tier women speakers, who were paid more than anyone else on the roster and are very much in demand, scored in the 70s, while lesser-known male speakers who charged much less were scoring in the high 80s and 90s. He said that from a conference organizer’s perspective, it makes it a difficult to spend thousands more to have a woman on the line-up who appears to disappoint the audience.

    I don’t know why your experience differs so much from this other example. Is it a result of a tech conference vs. a marketing one? It makes me wonder if there is an unconscious gender bias by audiences towards male speakers. (Perhaps only in marketing?)

    So much to learn. So much to improve. I want to do my part. I’m glad when others do theirs. Thanks for making your point. Please let me know how I can help you involve more women in your events.