Op-Ed: Want to see Silicon Valley’s sexism in action? Just sit through a pitch meeting
When Yada Piyajomkwan and I pitched our international online investment startup to venture capitalists, it was Yada who got grilled like she was at her grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner. Do you have a boyfriend? When do you plan on marrying? Are you dating Anderson? (No, no and no.)
In more than 50 pitches to top venture firms and angel investors from Silicon Valley to Singapore, Yada received many more personal-relationship questions than I did. On their own, such questions may seem harmless. But more than a dozen times, these were the only questions Yada got asked; all the business-related questions came to me. We almost got used it to it — sexism as the norm.
The problem was worse in Asia, but don’t kid yourself, there were some jaw-dropping moments in the United States too. One former partner at a top venture firm told an investor friend straight out, “I’m worried about investing in them because Yada may get married and drop out of the company.”
Do you have a boyfriend? When do you plan on marrying?
In a way it was a backhanded compliment about Yada’s value to our effort, but it was also a stark reminder that whatever the source of the attitude, it has to be addressed. According to the business database Crunchbase, only 17% of technology investment dollars in 2018 were directed to companies with at least one female founder. Some might celebrate that — it represents an all-time high. But it made me angry. I have an obligation to raise that number, to be part of the solution, to be Yada’s ally.
For starters, I have to listen carefully and be aware of my blind spots. Until those 50 pitches alongside Yada, I didn’t really get what she and other women are up against in Silicon Valley. When I wasn’t in the room, it only got worse. “No really,” someone asked Yada once when I took a bathroom break, “you don’t have a boyfriend? How old are you?” I have to ask myself, have I ever said something that clueless to a colleague?
In Indonesia another potential investor commented, “It’s weird — you’re a girl who likes boxing and hiking, doesn’t have a boyfriend and is living and working in a foreign country.” (Yada is from Thailand, operates our company in Indonesia and loves sports.) In the moment, I didn’t think much of it. Only later did I realize I never heard anyone think twice about a sporty, single guy working abroad. I should have spoken up. In fact, Yada is a Fulbright scholar, has an MBA from Stanford and has worked for McKinsey and Co. in offices in the U.S. and Asia. Nothing weird there, just amazing.
I started to use my privilege to point out the injustices. Yada was, rightly I think given the circumstances, hesitant to call them out herself, worried that she’d come off as overly sensitive, feeding into the narrative of women being emotional.
Once when she got the boyfriend question in Singapore and I notably wasn’t asked about a girlfriend, I responded with a joke: “Oh, we’re married to our work.” Now, I would be much more confrontational: “Why do you ask? If you want to know about her commitment, I can tell you she works just as many hours as I do. We both have the same goals about balancing work and personal life.”
It’s a problem that federal equal employment regulations only prevent questions about relationship status and other gendered personal issues in formal job interviews; these rules don’t apply to venture pitches. But even if a law could be passed to try to force potential investors to treat men and women equally, I can’t believe the attitude imbalance I saw would disappear anytime soon. That will require a mindset shift one powerful person — one man — at a time.
Yada and I got the investors we needed, but I can’t forget the sexism we encountered. It will soon be pitching season again in Silicon Valley. Venture capitalists, think before you ask another boyfriend question.
Anderson Sumarli, an MBA graduate of Stanford, and Yada Piyajomkwan have founded a startup to help middle-income Indonesians invest online.
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