Stranger In A Strange Land OR Being A Woman In Tech

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By Kylie Sachs (Partner, Ascend Venture Group)

In the last year, there has been a lot of talk about “the woman thing” and “the black thing” in tech – or specifically, the dearth of women and African-Americans in the technology industry. Is Silicon Valley/the Tech Industry racist and/or sexist? As a woman in tech who works at a minority run/founded/managed firm, I thought I would weigh in with a few thoughts.

First, broad sweeping statements only get you so far and are frankly not that interesting (Dramatic? Yes. Media generating? Possibly. Helpful? I am not so sure). The truth is, we can only speak from our own experiences and we SHOULD do our best to listen when someone else discusses what they’ve been through. The data tell a grim picture, to be sure. But the data doesn’t necessarily get to the root causes and more importantly, the solutions.

When people tell you what they’ve experienced and how they’ve dealt with it, sit with that before judging or being dismissive. Gauge your own reaction. Does this feel familiar to you? If not, imagine what it would be like to be in that person’s shoes. I think that it is through this type of thoughtfulness that we will see change over time.

Here is what I know…

  • When my firm Ascend was raising our second fund, we were asked “How much are you raising?” to which we replied “Target is $150 million; our first fund was $55 million.” And one time we heard back “OK. Seems like a lot for YOU GUYS.” Hmmm… you guys. What does that mean? As it happens, what we were raising was in line with industry trends at the time. Why would that have been a lot for us when we had the traction to back it up?
  • When I first entered venture capital, I made my way to a lot of conferences for entrepreneurs and investors. I would meet someone and introduce myself “Kylie Sachs with Ascend Ventures” So far so good, right? Well, sort of. It was pretty common that after my normal, standard intro, I would get asked “Oh, what do you do for Ascend… marketing?” “Ah, nope.” “Are you doing HR and Admin for them?” “No again! I invest for Ascend. I am on the investing team.” I would bet that not too many guys had to tell someone at such a conference FOR INVESTORS that they were in fact AN INVESTOR. Just a hunch.
  • In a meeting with an entrepreneur a couple of years ago, I asked how he thinks the open source community’s efforts would impact his business. He gave me a hand wave of sorts and moved right along in his presentation. Twenty minutes later, one of my partners asked the same question. The entrepreneur acted as if that was the question that would make or break his business, and then went on to wax strategic about open source for 30 minutes. I was dumbfounded. Had he not heard me? Did I speak in a different tongue?
  • Recently I was at a meeting and a private equity guy looked at me across the table and said “Wow, so you are a working mother. What is that like?” There I was, like a stranger in a strange land… a working mother. A hush came over the room. Maybe it was silent because all of the other guys were reflecting on their own experiences as “working fathers”? What do you think? He then went on to say how he never “let” his wife work since there was no way she could make more money than the babysitter would cost. The table laughed. Awkwardly. Needless to say we didn’t spend much time on his original question. But I tucked into the back of my mind that it might be fun to ask a guy like him what it’s like to be a “working father.”
  • I had breakfast with a young woman who is an associate at a very well-known firm. She is the only woman investor. On the down-low she asked me if I think about wearing glasses or contacts to be taken more seriously (Yes, I have thought about that) and did I have any strategies for making my voice heard in a room full of men (Yes I do). She was dismayed that she was thinking about these things –- she was a couple of years out of college and in her words “I’ve never been so aware of my gender than I am now. I really didn’t think I would have to think about this stuff.” Welcome.
  • Last but not least, I left a meeting a few months ago where the gentleman across the table, to whom we were pitching a business, would not look at me. Oh he said hello, but all questions and all answers and all discussion was with my partner, a man. He didn’t look like a Neanderthal. He just seemed like he didn’t know how to have a business discussion with a woman. I was prepared to move on after we left. But as we debriefed on the meeting afterwards, my colleague asked me if I’d noticed it and could I imagine working with that guy. Apparently I was not alone or being overly-sensitive.

We all have our stories and anecdotes. I don’t think a lot of the –- let’s face it -– White Men understand these types of interactions. They don’t think they are racist or sexist. They don’t know they are asking questions, making assumptions, introducing irritations to women and minorities that they simply wouldn’t ask/make with other white guys.

We tell these stories behind closed doors because we don’t really want the White Men to look at us and think “Oh there she goes again playing the chick card!” Non-sequitur: Card? There’s a card!?!? Do I get benefits and discounts?

So in the end, what to do?

Does this matter? Of course it matters, of course it’s annoying, of course we would rather not have it this way. But it’s in my power to deal with it. There are big, structural ways to deal with it through women’s initiatives (Astia, Springboard, 85broads), outspoken awesome women like Rachel Sklar, African-American incubators, and generally greater exposure (like CNN’s “Black in America” series). These all get us part way there.

The other important part is simply what we do every day as women and/or minorities in this world. We execute. We push ahead. We keep working and perform to the best of our abilities. And we try to avoid or manage jerks along the way.

Is our bar higher? I think so. Is that fair? No. BUT, I can scream and shout about that or I can be commercial about it. I choose the latter. The best defense is a good offense… particularly when you are dealing with a combatant who doesn’t even know he’s initiated a battle.

If I have to work harder to be recognized and acknowledged, that means whatever I am working on might perform better than the competition because I am THAT MUCH MORE on it. And if that is the case, I (we) should win in the end. We will have more points on the board. And if that’s the case, more of us will be in the game. The outcome of greater focus on winning ultimately will be, winning.

This post was originally posted at Chapter XVII.

About the guest blogger: Kylie Sachs is a Partner at Ascend Ventures. She is also CFO of Taxipass. Prior to joining Ascend, Kylie served in several operating and managerial roles at PRIMEDIA and was Director of Corporate and Business Development at 360HipHop, a media company founded by Russell Simmons. She has a background in investment banking. Kylie earned a B.A. in Economics from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Follow her on Twitter at @tismoi.