I have just returned from a trip to Colorado for a meeting of my Aspen Institute Health Innovation Fellowship group. When we meet, a large portion of our time is taken up discussing great works of literature that inform such questions as “What is A Great Society?” and “What Do You Want Your Legacy to Be?” and “What is Happiness?” It’s some pretty deep stuff.
Among the texts we read and discussed last week was the great speech delivered by Frederick Douglass entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” You know Douglass. He was recently cited as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” But bizarre as that was, this speech of his is truly one of the great works of written and oratory genius and the discussion was well timed, going into July 4th week as we were. Douglass’ speech was ostensibly about the importance of Independence Day but was really about how July 4th, which meant (and means) so much to white citizens, meant nothing to the enslaved African Americans on American shores who did not share any of the joys and privileges of American freedom.
Douglass delivered the speech on July 5th, 1852 to an audience comprised mainly of (white) women from the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. His argument was that the very existence of slavery was anathema to the concept of a free America and he admonished the crowd, who would likely have said they were sympathetic to his cause, for their hypocrisy in the face of ongoing slavery due in part to their lack of action. In its simplest form, he accused his audience of plenty of talk but no action to truly change the plight of those who do not benefit from the implicit freedoms embodied by any celebration of the Fourth of July. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” said Douglass.
During the same week I read the Douglass piece, the week leading up to July 4th, the venture capital industry, of which I am a part, was rocked by widespread revelations and confessions regarding deeply rooted sexual harassment problems. Many of these involved are particularly well-known and here-to-fore well-regarded male investors. And hearing about these travails of women entrepreneurs made me hearken back to Douglass’ text and think about the lessons that are within it for those men (and women) in the venture capital field who actually do not believe that sexual harassment is acceptable but who do nothing about it.
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty…is shared by you, not by me.”—Frederick Douglass
Notably, the statements of the numerous women who came forward last week en masse to expose the horrible and inappropriate behavior of too many in the venture capital world were, to those of us who have lived in it a long time, not entirely revelatory. Women have for decades striven to be treated equally to men and while we have come a long way, baby, we have a long way to go. This is, in small part, because of our own willingness to hold ourselves back. But it is in large part due to the unwillingness of the men who are undoubtedly in control in many situations to act as their best selves. The vast majority of men in venture capital are not guilty of the crimes committed by those exposed this week, but these same men often sit and listen to the complaints of the women they know and do absolutely nothing about it. Or worse, they blame it on the woman involved suggesting she somehow brought it on herself by being attractive or smart or overly aggressive or too submissive or god knows what. Or even worse than that, they know of the bad behavior of their colleagues and they let it slide. Unfortunately, I have engaged in numerous conversations on this issue with men I know and otherwise respect only to be disappointed in their willingness to engage. Sometimes they even remind me how mean women are to other women as justification for their inaction. Helpful. Thanks. Not.
So on this anniversary of Douglass’ speech and in light of the avalanche of revelations that have been coming for weeks, months, years, it is time for you venture capital people, male and female, to act and to stop sitting back and hoping someone will do it for you. But I’m especially talking to the guys today. As journalist Lauren Duca says, “Somehow not supporting women is a crime only for women.” But guess what? In this day and age, it is very much a workplace crime no matter who you are and especially when you are a man who wants to be seen as progressive, diversity-oriented and modern.
But rather than remind you of the myriad of transgressions that have been committed by some of my venture colleagues and reported by the New York Times, Fortune, and Tech Crunch, I am going to go with 10 suggestions for what you can actually do to ACT. Because you can. In fact, your actions can make a difference in the lives of female entrepreneurs and investors and even your own. Since the single most frequent excuse I hear for inaction is not knowing what to do, here are some concrete ideas for you if you are in venture capital and you genuinely want to see this reign of terror against women end. Here are my suggestions to effect change:
- Get Help If You Need It. So obviously, if you are in a pitch meeting or working with female entrepreneurs and have an urge to touch them or say something inappropriate, don’t. Don’t wonder if they might want to hear you out. They don’t. Don’t throw caution to the wind, get help. How would you feel if your daughter, wife, sister had to fend off these kind of advances every day? I have news for you: they probably do. So get help before someone finds out you need it. Want to get help the newfangled tech way, reach out to TelaDoc and ask for their Breakthrough mental health referral program.
- Call Out Bad Behavior When You See It. If you have heard from a female entrepreneur or investor that they have been treated inappropriately (whether sexually or in a discriminatory way) by your colleagues, believe them and ask them to formally complain. Don’t try to explain to them how they maybe just heard it wrong. Default to belief rather than disbelief for a change. Then carry your female colleague’s formal complaint forward to your partners to be fully investigated by someone who is objective. Don’t keep it a nice little secret between you and those who have been wronged and assure them you will chat with the guy and it won’t happen again. Odds are you are wrong and it will happen repeatedly. Don’t wait until the press reports on the bad behavior because if you know and did not act, you are complicit. As my dad always says, the cover-up is worse than the crime and you know it. Just ask anyone at Uber. I bet they wished they had acted sooner now that a big chunk of their business has gone to Lyft.
- Punish Bad Behavior When You Find It. If you have a partner in your firm or an entrepreneur in a portfolio management team who you know to be acting badly by engaging in sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination, call him out in your partnership and work to have him removed. Yes, it may be possible to get the offender some counseling and rehabilitate him (and that is great and should be done too), but do you want this person’s reputation following you around and your firm to be known as the one that allows this behavior to exist? It seems not to be going well for the ones that did.
- Seek Out Female Entrepreneurs and Give Them a Fair Hearing. Take a look at your deal flow each month and honestly ask yourself whether you are hearing from female entrepreneurs. If you aren’t, make a point to find them. They are out there by the hundreds and maybe even thousands and they are really tired of not getting their fair share of the money. Can you blame them? I’m sure if you are honest with yourself you know that a very large percentage of the male entrepreneurs you backed failed to deliver any kind of decent returns, so you may as well diversify and see if it changes. If you don’t know how to find good female entrepreneurs, you can start with Springboard Enterprises and they can help lead you to plenty in their orbit and elsewhere. Another great place for healthcare investors to find female entrepreneurs is MedTechWomen events (men are entirely welcome to attend) or at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. Or contact me (in healthcare). There are plenty of women entrepreneurs out there and they are really good at what they do. I know I’m missing some groups so feel free, readers, to list them in the Comments section below.
- Require Gender Diversity in Portfolio Company Management Take a look around your portfolio companies. Are there women in leading C-Suite positions in any of them besides HR? Are there enough? Plenty of research demonstrates that gender diverse teams produce better financial returns. So in support of your fiduciary responsibility to your investors, make a point of hiring more women. Step up and require that your portfolio companies at least interview half men and half women for each key role. Demand that women be considered for board seats. Yes, set a damn quota. Quota has become a dirty word for some reason but guess what, it works. If you require that the board have at least two women on it, you can find some pretty great women. Check out Boardspan for a place to start your recruiting. Or ask your female executive friends for referrals. We all have them.
- Demand Equal Pay for Equal Work and Commission An Audit to Enforce It. While you’re examining your portfolio companies and your own firm, take a good look at parity in compensation. Are you working with firms that equally compensate men and women for equal work? Odds are you aren’t and that should be corrected. Demand a compensation audit that includes this issue. A recent one done by independent firm Hired found that on average women in tech are offered 4% less than equally qualified men in Silicon Valley. Additionally, in 63% of situations, women receive lower offers than men for the same jobs at the same companies. I was so impressed when Mark Benioff (CEO of Salesforce) stepped up and corrected this. Everyone should do the same. How would you feel if you knew your wife or daughter was getting paid less than a male colleague for equal or superior work? Take that outrage and spread it around. Make it a mission for good.
- Diversify Your Venture Partnership. And while you’re at it, hire some female partners at your firm – at least one. You say you are waiting to find someone qualified? Oh please, give me a break. Female investors have been delivering fantastic returns for a long time. You can follow some of our successes here at Women’s PE Briefs. Sign up to get this newsletter if you need convincing. Plus, a lot of us show up at this related event, the Women’s Alternative Investment Summit. I am so tired of hearing venture groups say they hire plenty of women only to find they are only in HR, Finance and Administrative positions and not at the Investment Committee table.
- Require Gender Equity in Speaking Engagements. If you are asked to put together a panel at a conference, make sure women are included on your panel. Refuse to participate in conferences where women aren’t appropriately represented on the dais. Make a point of it to the conference organizer and, when they say “oh we can never find women speakers,” which they often do, have three names in your back pocket to hand over. Call the bluff. I have done this myself recently and got an excellent and chastened response plus action to correct. It works. Unintentional bias is real so help good people be intentional about being unbiased when it is not their natural state.
- Serve as a Mentor to a Female Leader. If you really want to help women be successful, volunteer to be a mentor to a female executive. You can sign up to help C-Suite level women be even more successful by joining CSweetener, which formally matches rising female leaders with male and female mentors who have been in senior leadership and who want to give back by committing their time and their advice. Sign up for CSweetener (an organization I co-founded) HERE and support our cause. We are delighted that about 15% of our existing mentor group is male because we believe that if men don’t step up and help women be more successful, gender parity will never be fully realized.
- Be Proud to Be a Man Who Truly Supports Women. Do you really want to hang out with guys who think this makes you weak?
Fortunately, Frederick Douglass concludes his July 4th speech on an optimistic note. He places hope in the next generation and believes that change is not only possible, but inevitable. He says:
Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents…
And he goes on to add: “No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
How about we band together as a venture industry and shine that pervading light? Let’s finally turn this avalanche of bad into a tornado of good and help our fellow men and women achieve equality in the name of equity. Step up and act. It is your time.