Man! I Feel Like a Woman! (Women Playing The Startup Game)

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By Lisa Suennen (Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Psilos Group) Back in July 2011, Vivek Wadhwa, a highly regarded entrepreneur, author and academic, wrote an article describing five myths about entrepreneurs. Among the five myths he sought to debunk was that women are less-suited than men to succeed in the technology and/or venture-backed economy.

Among all the “myths” in Wadwha’s piece, this was one that set off a cacophony of response in peHUB, with some claiming that women are treated just as well as men and a few reaffirming how different women’s experiences can be.

Interestingly, almost all of the commentary was from men, probably because there were too few women from VC and private equity to read the story in the first place. (Irony alert)

Most men simply do not see the problem at all or believe it is their problem to solve. Remarkably few men with whom I have spoken believe that there is truly a difference in how women are treated in the field while virtually all women feel that the differences are both blatant and problematic.

The fact that women comprise fewer than 10% of all venture-backed entrepreneurs and VC/PE partners is simply viewed by most men as an interesting fact, not a problem that needs aggressive attention. Few men see their own actions as chauvinistic and, honestly, most of the time those negative actions (while lame) are not overt or intentional. Those who do actually view women as inferior would never cop to it so they certainly wouldn’t take action to attract the other side except, perhaps, for dating purposes.

As I reflected on the topic, I realized that the right question to ask is this: If they want change, what do women have to do to be better accepted into the VC/PE community? History shows us that any successful revolution is led by the oppressed, not the oppressor. Therefore, it is up to us double X-chromosome bearers to change our own world if we want to go from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

So how do women change the environment to become accepted by our male counterparts and be taken seriously in the VC/PE world as partner or entrepreneur? In my humble opinion, this can’t be addressed as a gender problem, per se, but as one of marketplace confusion. Rather than focusing on the existence of a gender problem, women need to think of it and approach it as a marketing problem just as we would address a marketing challenge at any of our portfolio companies. In other words, we need to learn how to package ourselves for the audience with whom we want to work. To quote the old adage, “you gotta dance with the one that brung you.” In this case we need to dance with the men who lead the VC and PE firms in which we want to excel.

I am not suggesting that women need to change who they are and become more like men if we want to succeed. Let’s be honest, each and everyone one of us is a chameleon in every day life, fine-tuning our personalities and behaviors to respond to the different people with whom we interact in different situations. What I am suggesting is that the color of chameleon we need to be today in the VC/PE world is one that fits in with the customary way of doing business. We can make change from inside and honor our own way of doing things, but first we have to get there.

First of all, this means understanding what makes your target market tick and learning how to deliver it. If the partners gather around and talk sports or cars or gadgets, get smart about those things and don’t stand on the sidelines. As VC/PE investors we are learning about new technologies and people all the time when we look at deals. There is no reason you can’t apply those same skills to understanding the intricacies of baseball and football. Go in on the Final Four pool. Get in the game.

People like people who like what they like. A senior female partner at a very prestigious venture fund recently told me that they held a basketball game at their annual LP meeting. When she first got on the court to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys, they were a little freaked out. When she started hard fouling them and they realized she was in it to win it, they forgot she was a girl, turned on the competitive steam and she became an equal player in the game. As she conveyed the story, she expressed that the experience made a positive difference in how she was treated afterwards. Of course, this marketing strategy works whether it is sports or some other hobby, but find out what gets your team’s attention and become a part of it.

Attitude is everything in marketing. You have to exude confidence and act the part. You may not feel you are treated equally, but you must project that you are quite confident that you are at least equal, maybe better. When you hear the comment that makes you cringe, face into it and don’t run away. Women get asked all the time whether they are able to handle work and their children. Instead of being annoyed and simply responding “yes,” take the opportunity to throw it right back. “Yes, I have it well under control, you say, “but I am worried that you are going to have the same problem…what are you doing to ensure you can handle your family and work?” A fellow female VC recently told me she attended a Board meeting 10 days after delivering a child while one of the male Board members failed to show because he had an infected finger.

As a women, when you are told that it might be better for someone else to handle a complicated investment situation (when the clear implication is because that other person is male), don’t steam and look away. Instead come right out and say, “You’re right, it is better for someone more junior to handle it -- he needs the experience.” Humor is the best antidote to antagonism, I have found. By gracefully pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation and laughing about it, you break down people’s barriers. Don’t get mad, get sarcastic.

People are, by and large, drawn to people who can laugh at themselves and bring humor to diffuse difficult situations. It is one of the greatest tools at your disposal. All too often I have been in groups of VC/PE men who start telling dirty jokes and then feel a little uncomfortable when they realize I am within ear-shot. To me that is the perfect opportunity to tell one of those jokes right back and join the club. Just like in the basketball game, once they get over the shock that you elbowed them in the ribs (or the funny bone) by beating them at their own game, the guys visibly relax.

Behavior in the board room can be one of the biggest challenges female VC/PE partners face. Board dynamics can be aggressive and confrontational and the real work is often done outside the meeting. Those that get heard are often those with close prior relationships and mutual experience, which means that it is rarely women leading the charge. This is a place where strategic self-marketing is really essential. You must take the time to get to know each board member personally. Spend time with them and actively let them know that you are eminently qualified to be there by discussing your own background and accomplishments. Get to know them socially so you have that reservoir of good will when you need to draw on it. Don’t get hung up on the fact that they haven’t reached out to do this with you; this is about your own marketing strategy.

Several women VC/PE partners have told me that their fellow board members ignore their big ideas, yet the same idea from a man is welcomed as gospel. To address this they have adopted an approach of co-opting a fellow (male) board member to propose the idea in order to get it accepted. The ultimate problem, as they see it, is that they can get done what they want to get done (by using someone else to push the idea through), but it is an annoying way to live and they don’t get credit for the good idea. “Why,” they say, “can’t we get both a successful outcome and recognition for it?”

I say you have to go for both. Use the process that you have found successful to get your ideas heard, but then, after it is done, make sure that you tell the group that it was your idea in the first place and provide evidence by expanding on it further. It may take a while, but eventually they will start to listen when you make the proposal yourself. If you can partner with one of your male counterparts on the board to actively help you reinforce your value by stating it out loud, even better. In marketing, endorsements are always a valuable tool

Women are notoriously bad at tooting their own horns, but we have to belly up to the bar and say, “I did that!” if we want to be recognized for our accomplishments. Men tend to be far more comfortable promoting their own achievements, but women shy away from doing the same. We suffer too often from either self-doubt or a fear of how we will be viewed if we pat ourselves on the backs, yet we yearn for the same recognition as anyone would when we do well. It is the very definition of marketing to highlight the attributes of what you have to sell. If you can’t stand behind your product and shout out its glory to the world, you are not using your full marketing arsenal.

In the end, the very best way to be taken seriously as a woman (or a man) is to deliver results time and time again. When you make good investment decisions and shepherd your deals to a great outcome, you become very hard to ignore. But the truth of the matter is, even the very best and most essential products need marketing to support their rise to market leadership and this thought applies well to women seeking to join the ranks of the VC/PE elite. As Peter Drucker once said, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. “ Drucker also said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” There is no better battle cry for today’s female VC/PE professional.

Note from the blogger: Today’s post was generated as a result of a request by PE Hub’s editor, Jon Marino, who asked me to author a piece for his publication about how male venture capital and private equity executives could “redeem themselves” in the eyes of women in the field. As you can see if you read further, I took another tack with the story, as I am pretty confident that most of the men in my profession don’t view it as their job to redeem themselves for this purpose.

I have been fascinated by the feedback I get on the articles I write on the male/female interaction in my field, as nearly 100% of the emails and written comments I get are from men. Women colleagues will sometimes mention they have read them, but male colleagues take action and write -— very interesting. The comments I get from my male fans and detractors range from telling me I am completely off-base and borderline insane (hard to argue with that one) to resounding apologies that men are, in fact, the root of all evil, at least when it comes to the gender-based tensions in the world of finance. Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, as they say.

I am sure this particular post will be met with some controversy, particularly among my female readers. No doubt there will be many that disagree with my diagnosis and prescription. Since I spend my time working in the healthcare field, this puts me shoulder-to-shoulder with my medical colleagues. Oh well, if you try to please everyone, no one will be happy. I look forward to hearing from you! And to those of my female colleagues who shared their stories with me, thanks!

PS. The title of this post is from a Shania Twain song, in case you were wondering.

This post was originally posted at Venture Valkyrie.

About the guest blogger: Lisa Suennen is the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Psilos Group, a healthcare investment firm focused on providing venture and growth capital to companies operating in the healthcare economy. She serves as a Director on the Board of several Psilos portfolio companies, including AngioScore (chairman), PatientSafe Solutions, OmniGuide and VeraLight (chairman). Lisa blogs at Venture Valkyrie. Follow her on Twitter at @VentureValkyrie.