As a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, VC and board member, Heidi Roizen was — and often continues to be — the only woman in the room. She’s faced her fair share of awkward situations.
By Heidi Roizen (Operating Partner, DFJ)
Early in T/Maker’s life, I was working on a company-defining deal with a major PC manufacturer. We were on track to do about a million in revenue that year. This deal had the potential to bring in another quarter million, plus deliver millions of dollars in the years to come if it went well. It was huge.
The PC manufacturer’s senior vice president who had been instrumental in crafting the deal suggested he and I sign over dinner in San Francisco to celebrate. When I arrived at the restaurant, I found it a bit awkward to be seated at a table for four yet to be in two seats right next to each other. But it was a French restaurant and that seemed to be the style, so down I sat.
Wine was brought and toasts were made to our great future together. About halfway through the dinner he told me he had also brought me a present, but it was under the table, and would I please give him my hand so he could give it to me. I gave him my hand, and he placed it in his unzipped pants.
Yes, this really happened.
I left the restaurant very quickly. The deal fell apart. When I told my brother (T/Maker’s co-founder and chief software architect) what happened, he totally supported my decision to bolt.
The Long Road to Finding the Right Venture Capital Partner
Years later, we decided to raise venture capital. I was meeting with a Boston-based VC in his office. He had a window behind his head and, unbeknownst to him or the other people in the office, I could see a reflection in that window of what was going on behind my head in the corridor (all-glass offices can be quite revealing in this way.) As I pitched him, one of his partners engaged in a pantomime in the corridor, making a circle with the fingers of one hand while poking his other fingers through the circle, then thrusting his hips in a sexual fashion. I found it rather hard to concentrate on my pitch. I did not get a term sheet from that firm.
Luckily, I did get a term sheet from Hummer Winblad. We closed our series A with them and we continued to grow the business. A few years later, I was pitching our B round at a Sand Hill firm. This time, I was five months pregnant with my first child, so I was pretty sure no one would be doing hip thrusts in the background. The pitch had gone well and I was meeting with the partner who was going to lead the deal. I was feeling the forward momentum, until the partner said the following:
“My partners are concerned that when you have this baby you are going to lose interest in the company and not be a good CEO. How can you assure us that won’t happen?”
I did not get a term sheet from that firm either. But I did get a term sheet from DFJ, and they and Hummer Winblad went on to get a nice return for believing in me, even in all my pregnant glory. (And, this is one of the reasons why I am now a partner at DFJ – I have always found the DFJ crew to be incredibly supportive of women.)
Sadly, I have many stories like the above, and so do my fellow women entrepreneurs (though I leave it to them to divulge their own.)
“Being a Girl” Really Does Make a Difference
What’s my point?
Just that it is different for women entrepreneurs. We face challenges that our male counterparts do not.
So what’s a girl to do?
In many situations my answer is: You have to simply walk away. When I was a CEO, I operated under the principle that if I was not treated properly, it was not worth doing business with the other party. I also believed that if one door was slammed in my face, there was always another door to knock on. I was persistent and lucky — I did find enough other doors that were accepting and I was able to build a successful business.
It pains and somewhat embarrasses me that I am not recommending calling out bad behavior and shaming the individual or individuals responsible. In a perfect world, people would have to account for their behavior. But as an entrepreneur who spent years in a daily battle for existence, I did not feel like I could afford the hit I’d take in exposing these incidents. (Again, not criminal behavior. I suffered a few unwelcome gropes at late-night Comdex parties and the like, but never felt like I was in danger. I was always able to walk away unharmed.)
I do think things have improved, though of course I’m not an entrepreneur anymore so perhaps it is situational. I am still (sadly) often the only woman in the room — but my position as a board member in a room full of other board members and senior executives creates an environment where professionalism and civility tend to rule. Plus, let’s be honest — I’m now in my mid-fifties, so I have probably gone from the “tempting to grope” category to the “likely to be invisible” category.
I’ve also developed a pretty thick skin and don’t take offense at some things that the me-of-30-years-ago might have found offensive. For each of us there is fine line between things that are colorful but harmless speech and things that are truly offensive. In fact I’ve been called out for using the expression “come to Jesus” by a devout Christian and “the pot calling the kettle black” by an African American entrepreneur – I had no idea those might be offensive to other people. And in my British board meetings they use the expression “tits up” without a thought that I might find that a bit blush-worthy. I’ve learned there’s no malintent behind their usage so I just let it go.
Turning Awkward Situations into Bonding Experiences
That is why I encourage my fellow female trailblazers to look for the intent behind the words. Offensive language is often unintentional, and sometimes you can turn an awkward situation into a bonding experience.
For example, during the dot-com bust, I was a partner at venture firm Mobius and we were dealing with a lot of trauma in our portfolio. We held an off-site with all the deal partners plus our new general counsel Jason Mendelson (now a partner at Foundry and a fantastic venture capitalist and human being.) As we reviewed the portfolio deal by deal, many of the deals needed more funding and at that time no VCs were following anyone else’s deals, so it was up to us to decide who would get more dough. Each of us fought hard for every deal we managed. After hearing about a dozen of these pleas, my partner Brad Feld (another mensch and great VC who is also a partner at Foundry) pushed back from the table, stood up, and said,
“This is bullshit. Each one of us is just sitting here with his dick in his hand asking for more money without truly justifying it.”
Jason looked nervously at me, wondering how I was going to react.
“This is making me very uncomfortable,” I said.
“Because I don’t even have a dick to hold.”
Without skipping a beat, Brad replied, “Well if you need a dick to hold you can borrow mine anytime.”
I already knew Brad as a great guy and a huge supporter of women, and I took it for the joke it was intended to be. Everyone laughed. It broke the tension of the meeting and was a bonding moment for us all.
No List of “Quick Tips” for Women to Follow
Frankly, I’m struggling with how to end this post, because there is no list of quick tips, no way to tie this topic up with a bright bow and be done with it. I hope that by exposing my stories and my opinions I’m providing a perspective for my male readers to consider, one that they might not otherwise have had. For my female readers, I hope this has offered some useful ways to think about situations they may face, and – if all else fails – at least provides the comforting knowledge that they are not alone.
What advice do you have for other women who face similarly awkward situations?
This post originally appeared on Heidi Roizen’s Adventures in Entrepreneurship.