In open letter, female founders push for positive women-in-tech stories

Female co-founders and CEOs push for message of empowerment in tech #ChoosePossibility

The dearth of women in leadership roles, the glass ceilings, the gender discrimination — Sukhinder Singh Cassidy had heard it all.

As founder of online video shopping start-up Joyus, she was well aware of the biases against women and minorities in her industry, and understood that diversity remained a challenge for tech companies big and small. But she believed that the ongoing media coverage overlooked the success stories.

“The thing that was really absent from the narrative was the voice of women founders,” she said. “You'll see a lot of well-educated people commenting on women in tech entrepreneurship, but you will not find commentary from women founders themselves.”

Singh Cassidy confronted that problem head-on this week, penning an open letter on tech blog Re/Code that encouraged women and the media to steer the dialogue toward the “missing perspective on women in tech.”

More than 50 female founders and executives of companies — including TaskRabbit, Gilt, One Kings Lane and Aspect Ventures — co-signed the letter, which was posted Wednesday.

The media, they wrote, should spotlight successful women and positive statistics. That would encourage more to strive for the top rungs of Silicon Valley, or simply join the industry in the first place, they said.

The letter is built on the notion that “you need to see it to be it,” Singh Cassidy, who previously worked at Accel Partners, Google and Amazon, said in an interview.

“Innovation systems thrive on stretch goals and possibility,” she said. “My point is not that negative signals don't count. My point is if you want to swing the pendulum to make progress, you actually need to show people progress is possible.”

Founders of several women's advocacy groups generally agreed with that sentiment, but cautioned against glossing over the many real problems that women in tech face.

Men often constitute more than 90% of the engineering workforce at the biggest Silicon Valley tech firms, and an increasing number of gender bias lawsuits have been filed by women, most famously the Ellen Pao sex discrimination trial this spring. Many women have simply walked away from the industry.

“You can't ignore disturbing statistics,” said Carolyn Leighton, founder of Women in Technology International in West L.A. “Certainly a lot of women may feel that the conversation is too skewed … but like everything in life we can take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity.”

Melinda Epler, founder of Change Catalyst, an online platform for female entrepreneurs, said that it's crucial “to give women a place to celebrate what they have accomplished.”

To that end, her San Francisco organization regularly holds events for women with the goal of helping them “come away feeling really invigorated.”

That being said, the darker parts of working in tech also need to be told, Epler said, recalling how a couple of years ago, she faced some gender bias issues while working at a tech company “and it was really helpful for me to read about other people's stories and learn that I wasn't alone.”

Wednesday's letter includes survey data that Singh Cassidy gathered from fellow founders and chief executives that challenge existing notions of what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Among the findings:

--Despite the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, it's possible for women without those backgrounds to successfully launch tech companies. Eighty-four percent of the company founders who responded to Singh Cassidy's survey did not hail from STEM disciplines.

--Nearly 1 in 3 of the women surveyed said they founded their companies when they already had children.

--Sixty-seven percent of respondents could cite an incident of perceived bias in the workplace, and 65% said they encountered bias in the fundraising process.

The letter also includes ways companies, investors and entrepreneurs can give women the best chance at succeeding by trying ideas such as:

--Investing in family-planning and leave policies early and with commitment.

--Making sure investors and board members treat female founders and CEOs with the same level of candor, directness, expectation and measurement that they would any other CEO or founder.

--Asking venture capitalists to monitor their own biases by tracking their female-versus-male statistics in the deal pipeline, from initial pitches to funding.

“There are lots of women rising and succeeding in technology,” said Ruzwana Bashir, CEO of Peek, who co-signed the letter. “Instead of saying the challenges they face are insurmountable, why not focus on the women who have succeeded and understand what they did so we can have more people succeed?”

Singh Cassidy said she considers herself lucky. Coming from the male-dominated investment banking industry, she said, she received support from mentors throughout her career so that when she encountered negative signals in tech, she had built up the confidence to push through it.

New entrepreneurs starting out in tech may not have that luxury, and she said she hopes that if there's one thing her letter achieves, it's to send a positive signal that empowers women.

“Progress in big issues is often measured in steps,” she said. “Often, it's many little steps.”

Twitter: @traceylien, @byandreachang

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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6:13 p.m.: This article has been updated with changes throughout.

This article was first published at 2:20 pm.

 

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