On Being A Female In Venture Capital

Above: A visual look at my summer in venture capital.

Standing in my cubicle, I heard a deep, muffled voice in the office kitchen exclaim, “We should hire some more girls here!” On the other side of that conversation, another 20-something male responded, “We have Erica, the summer intern.” And that was that. The two went on as if the problem had been solved with the existence of one female, associate-level, summer-only intern.

Throughout my summer internship as an associate at Boston-based venture capital firm General Catalyst, I was consistently reminded of my place as a woman in a man’s world. Don’t get me wrong, I thorougly enjoyed my internship, as it was an opportunity to learn about an industry I previously had no experience in, and I respect and admire the colleagues I worked alongside.

The fact of the matter, though, is that women — beyond the high-heel-studded secretaries and assistants — don’t exist in venture capital, and that makes for a strange environment when you’re the only woman working on an investment team. A paltry 4.2% of partner-level decision-makers in venture capital are women, even trailing behind the stat that only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

In my case at GC, there were no other women in sight on the investing side. Sure, women existed on the human resources, marketing, and support staff teams — but what message do you think I heard when I was the only woman, at a lowly intern position, sitting in on founder pitches and investment meetings? In short: VC is no place for a woman.

The only time being a woman had any cachet was recruitment for the firm’s co-ed softball team, which was part of a league that mandated teams maintain a minimum female membership. I heard our team discussing one woman’s participation on a particular night, “You don’t have to come tonight, if you don’t want. We don’t really need you, since we already have enough women.” So, the only thing that made her valuable on the team was her gender? I’m sure that was comforting for her and every other woman in ear-shot. I, for one, was disturbed.

Above: A slide in my pitch deck for "Summer Internship Sourcing Areas of Interest" that pointed to my top interest for research, "Female Founders."

Above: A slide in my pitch deck for “Summer Internship Sourcing Areas of Interest” that pointed to my top interest for research, “Female Founders.”

It’s no wonder, then, that my proposal to research “female founders” as a sourcing opportunity for the summer was turned down. When I suggested the topic, pointing to the fact that it would be great to have more women in the tech startup ecosystem, and that I had found data that proved there was a bias towards men in VC, my project lead said it was a great topic, but something that couldn’t exist without me, a woman, coming on full-time. That is to say, all the sourcing I would do over the summer, focused on female founders, wouldn’t be a project the firm was interested in continuing after I was gone — because, hey, who wants to focus on sourcing females only? That should be a woman’s job, right?

Now, let me just pause and say how much my summer mentor — a person I consider a friend and admire to the max — cared about setting me up for success. His aim for my internship was for me to have a wonderful time, utilize some of my strengths to add value for the firm, and come away with a deliverable that lasted long after I was gone. Therefore, he pointed me in a direction that would be most useful for the firm after I left. It just so happens, though, that mapping out the world of female founders was deemed not-so-useful. That wasn’t his fault — it was just a truth we accepted. We then moved on to other topics, and I finally chose to research “the future of work,” another topic I was passionate about pursuing given my own experiences as a non-traditional worker.

My interest in researching and sourcing female founders for deals, though, rose from a Harvard/Wharton/MIT study that found venture capitalists prefer startup pitches from attractive men, above women — and equally disturbing — above unattractive men. In a three-part study, researchers studied gender and physical attractiveness by having investors choose startup pitches to “fund” from a real competition, voice recordings, and video recordings. “Across all three experiments, investors strongly preferred men over women,” US News reported. “In fact, men were more likely to win funding by as much as 60 to 70 percent. Attractive men were viewed even more favorably, getting an additional 36 percent jump in ‘pitch success.'”

These foundings, to me, are just plain disheartening. But to an investor, I thought, this might say “opportunity,” given market biases. Nope. Wasn’t the case. I think it said something like, “Not specialized enough, not important to focus on, and not where the money’s at.”

Female participation in startup entrepreneurship are dismal. Women have won just 7% of venture capital funding and founded just 11% of America’s high growth ventures. There are many factors that lend to these low numbers, but it’s disappointing that part of the problem stems from who’s making decisions in VC. When men prefer “attractive men” and find their pitches more “persuasive, logical and fact-based than were the same pitches narrated by a female voice,” there’s obvious bias at play.

My summer in venture capital, while educational and eye-opening, showed me — among other things — that entrepreneurship is even harder than I imagined. A former colleague of mine called me up last week to discuss her new role in venture capital — she joined a small firm in Silicon Valley after three years at Google, starting out as a community manager and being promoted to a program manager position. We spoke on a number of topics, but one she asked me about, seemingly embarrassed for bringing up, was about “getting hit on.” She had heard from a male colleague that she should “clarify what every meeting is about,” or else she might get herself tangled in a situation with an investor or founder more interested in her than her work. I was shocked to hear that anecdote, but I shared with her my own experiences, of overhearing bro convos and feeling a bit left out of the culture, since I was, by my own existence as a woman, different from everyone else.

I’ll look back at my internship and remember the beautiful report my team and I put together on the future of work, the “product testing” I did to receive Uber ice cream and free Postmates cannolis from Mike’s Pastry, the flowers my boyfriend delivered as a “secret admirer” one day, and the firm’s summer party my favorite colleagues and I put together. I’ll chuckle at the memory of building my own standing desk out of printing paper reams. And I’ll always have my “Camp Catalyst” sweatshirt and “General AlleyCatalysts” bowling tee to remind me of the outings the company sponsored. Reading Brad Feld’s “Venture Deals” (a Sloan alum, I might add!) in two sittings, because it’s that good will stick in my memory, and Monday morning investment team meetings have their special place in my heart.

My summer internship was full of many wonderful memories. I won’t forget, though, the burning sensation I felt in my face every time a secretary walked into a room to remind a partner his next meeting had arrived. Or the strange pride I felt when the only woman on our bowling team hit a strike, putting her ahead of some of our male colleagues — even though we were on the same team, mind you! It will take years for the fealing of outsider-ness to fade. And I count this experience as one more step towards educating myself, a part of the millenial generation, that a lot needs to change in our time at the helm.

While I’m not sure what the future holds for me, I’m drawn towards making sure women are better represented at the table in the worlds of entrepreneurship and venture capital. How to make that happen, I’m not sure. But I’m open to ideas.

Erica Swallow

Erica Swallow is a technology writer, startup entrepreneur, and status quo wrecker. She is currently an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and her thoughts have been published in a number of esteemed outlets, including Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Wall Street Journal, and The Huffington Post, among others.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: How Many Shades of Grey in the Kleiner Perkins’ Sexual Harassment Lawsuit? | Fairygodboss

  2. Yet another conversation you and I need to have once you’re settled back in Arkansas. Some colleagues of mine Jayshica Amarg√≥s and Phyl Amerine are working with Women’s Foundation of Arkansas to do a study on women and entrepreneurship. I have long been a fan of the work that Natalia Oberti Noguera is doing to #changetheratio by educating women on how to become effective angel investors. Through Tonic NWA Fund, we’re starting to see greater engagement of women investors but again at the angel level. Time and again, I have felt many of the same feelings you’ve outlined above when I gather together statistics on the number of women-owned venture-backed companies and presence of women in leadership roles in venture capital. From my limited experience so far in venture investing, due diligence only gets stronger in direct proportion to the diversity on the DD team. We need many voices! At any rate, I would like to chat more one-on-one on what solutions we can spearhead from a programmatic standpoint. Looking forward to catching up!

  3. Pingback: Sexism, Silicon and Smith - Musings on Women, VCs and Entrepreneurship - Erica Starks

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