Entrepreneurs

Sexism and Silicon Valley: Women can't raise cash and now we have one more reason why

Founder and Partner at 500 Startups, Dave McClure speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015. McClure resigned from 500 Startups after a New York Times report said he sent inappropriate messages to a female entrepreneur.
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Founder and Partner at 500 Startups, Dave McClure speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015. McClure resigned from 500 Startups after a New York Times report said he sent inappropriate messages to a female entrepreneur.

When Jen O'Neal was raising money for her travel start-up two years ago, she was invited to pitch to all the partners and associates at a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

The conference table was huge and the slides for her presentation were projected onto a massive screen. As she began to address the room, she glanced around. Four women, none of them investing partners, were all squeezed into small chairs against the side wall.

"I don't think I fully appreciated the expression 'to have a seat at the table' until that day," says O'Neal, CEO of Tripping.com, which crawls the Web for vacation property and home-sharing listings and has raised $55 million in venture capital.

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Yet that's the reality in Silicon Valley, where men control the power and the purse: Very few women get a seat on either side of the table.

Industry studies for years have documented the sizable gender gap in funding start-ups. The common explanation for women raising a sliver of the financing essential to the growth of Facebook, Google and Uber is that venture capitalists tend to back entrepreneurs who have succeeded before or who fit a certain mold. Think Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page: Young and geeky, white or Asian male, often in jeans and T-shirt, who dreamed up an idea while banging out the code in a dorm room or garage.

In recent weeks, another explanation has emerged: A pattern of suggestive remarks and sexual propositions, casual misogyny, groping and assaults that is too often a part of the capital-raising process for women.

Women have come forward to describe the sexual advances that come with negotiating financing, jobs and partnerships — and retaliation, such as an abrupt end to the business conversation if they rebuff a sexual come-on. They recall interviews with investors that quickly show they're not taken seriously, or situations that make clear they're outsiders who need to prove themselves far more than men do.

Hanna Aase, founder and CEO of video-profile platform Wonderloop, recalls sessions pitching investors for capital that often resulted in more pick-up lines than term sheets.

"The second question I get after 'What do you do?' is 'What do you do for fun?'" she says. "The third investor question: 'Do you like being called Hannah Montana?'"

Some women have thrown up their hands, frustrated by years of pitches that go nowhere or quickly segue into invitations for a late-night drink. A small but growing number of women are forming women-only investment networks, or raising starter capital in other ways.

With venture capital's big money bro-culture behavior coming to light, there's a new fear, mingled with the relief: That, in reaction, male financiers will avoid women founders altogether. There's talk of some men following the "Mike Pence rule," referring to the vice president's comment years ago that he does not eat alone with any women other than his wife.

Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of food start-up Kuli Kuli, says she has already heard of investors canceling meetings with female founders and she's worried. "I think that's the wrong reaction," Curtis says.

Gaining access to the capital, counsel and contacts they need to turn a big idea into the next big thing is already tough enough, women say.

When Tripping.com's O'Neal walks into the room, she says she's usually the only woman in it. In hundreds of pitch meetings, she has only ever encountered a handful of female venture capitalists.

Chrissa McFarlane, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based start-up Patientory.com, which uses blockchain to secure digital health records, says when she was trying to raise seed money in Silicon Valley, she was the only African-American woman — and the only African American period — anywhere in sight. She says she's sure she would have had more luck landing an investment had she been a white or Asian man in a hoodie.

Even as women — and women of color — scale corporate ranks, the number of female investing partners at venture capital firms is shrinking. In 1999, 10% of the partners were women. By 2014, it was 6%. Many top venture capital firms in Silicon Valley don't have a single female investing partner. And, when they do, many female investors feel so heavily scrutinized for taking risks on other women that they limit how frequently they make those investments.

That's a significant challenge for women, who are starting their own tech companies in greater numbers even as the funding gap between male- and female-led start-ups keeps widening. Last year male entrepreneurs received $58.2 billion in venture capital. Women received $1.5 billion, or just 2.5%, according to PitchBook.

None of the most highly valued tech start-ups, called unicorns, has a female chief executive, though studies show that companies with female leadership perform better than those with male leadership. According to venture firm First Round Capital, its investments in companies with at least one female founder performed 63% better than the all-male founder teams.

Until recently, bringing home some big returns has insulated venture capital from criticism over the lopsided demographics of investments. But being outed for sexist and discriminatory behavior is drawing troubling parallels to the "boom-boom room" era of Wall Street in the 1980s and 1990s.

So far, the uproar has prompted the resignations of two investors who purportedly used their positions to make unwanted sexual advances to women. This week, Ignition Partners, a venture firm in Bellevue, Wash., said it asked for a partner's resignation after a complaint of misconduct.

Several women who are trying to raise money for their start-ups told USA TODAY they are still too fearful of reprisals to publicly complain about inappropriate behavior. But more women are speaking out about their experiences.

Melinda Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, a group that promotes diversity in the tech industry, says she scrapped her plans to open an accelerator for women-led companies shortly after meeting with a potential investor and diversity ally at a coffee shop.

He moved his hand close to hers, let his knee brush against hers and advised her that male investors would find her attractive and she should say nothing when they spoke to her or touched her in inappropriate ways. "Don't complain, don't talk about it," he said. "Because investors talk to each other, you'll be blacklisted and you'll never be able to raise money."

Some investors and trade groups are exploring ways to stamp out this sort of behavior. LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman has called on venture capitalists to sign a decency pledge. Sallie Krawcheck, the Wall Street veteran who is now CEO and founder of digital investment platform for women Ellevest, says they should sign a funding pledge instead.

Women say they can't always be sure lacking a Y chromosome is the reason they don't land funding, but they know the playing field is far from equal. It takes them longer to secure funding and the checks are frequently smaller, the valuations lower. 

Research shows that women seeking funding are asked very different questions than men (about risks versus prospects) and are held to higher standards (judged on what they have already achieved versus what they have the potential to achieve), both of which affect how much, if any, capital they receive. A study in Sweden found that venture capitalists describe male entrepreneurs as "young and promising" and female entrepreneurs as "young and inexperienced."

If they are pitching a product targeted at women, female founders frequently get told: "I'll check with my wife."

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This article originally appeared on USA Today.