WiLab Loves: Six Savvy Women VCs Explain Why Diversity Matters
Over the past month, six successful venture investors who also happen to be women talked to me about the importance of diversity.
Those women include Rebecca Lynn of Canvas Venture Fund, Maha Ibrahim of Canaan Partners, Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Kate Mitchell of Scale Venture Partners, and Broadway Angels co-founders Jennifer Fonstad (who also co-founded Aspect Ventures) and Sonja Hoel Perkins (who is also a managing partner at Menlo Ventures). (For their comments, they all landed on Bizwomen’s list of women to watch this week.)
They argued that women investors bring value to the startups they back and to the Silicon Valley venture firms they represent.
They talked about why so few women like them are now in the industry and whether they think that will change.
And they talked about the impact from a steady string of headlines about hostile conditions toward women in Valley technology circles.
I’ve culled the following comments from those interviews — conducted separately — and grouped them loosely by topic.
What do female investors bring to the table that is unique?
I think, from a woman’s perspective, that my interest as an investor and the way that I relate to entrepreneurs is a little bit different.
It’s not that I am saying that women and men are completely different. But I do think that if you are one of the only people around the table who is a woman, by definition, you’re different.
There are plenty of quantitative studies that show that women generally tend to communicate differently and tend to think differently. So I would say, yeah, I have had a different perspective from other folks around the table.
I don’t think that my insights are necessarily gender-based. I think the way that I message those insights is different from how a man might, but not the message and not the content itself.
A third of the investment professionals at Canaan are females. There are two female general partners and four junior investment professionals. This was not purposeful, but it was a good thing. There turned out to be a positive outcome out of all this.
What we did was to hire the best people, who just happened to be a diverse set of individuals. We are inclusive and therefore represent the whole gamut of what an entrepreneur looks like: male, female, black, white, brown, immigrant and so forth.
When we counted last year, we discovered that 20 percent of the founders of companies we have invested in are female. This has to be by virtue of the fact that we as a firm are attracting a broader set of individuals.
Having said all of that, every female founder who comes to my door has a story that they tell me about an issue that they have had with another venture firm. Usually, their first reaction when we walk in the room is, “I really wanted to meet you. It’s really encouraging to see a female sitting across the table from me, and I feel more relaxed.”
CEOs tell me sometimes, particularly if they are male, that there are times when they want to talk to somebody big and powerful — you know, an eye-to-eye, football type of situation. But with some problems, sometimes it may be easier to call somebody who looks like your sister. I think that’s probably the most gender-specific thing I can think of.
But it’s important to have a breadth of skills around the table and a breadth of styles and sensibilities. Diversity matters, and that diversity can be a lot of things. It could be ethnic. It could be age. It could be technical experience versus business experience. Gender is just one of the types of diversity you want.
My husband is from Detroit, and I remember, when we were first dating many years ago, going to Poletown where the Packard plant was. There were studies done about that plant and about groups working together. If you are building Packards or whatever car in Poletown, it was a repetitive thing. You wanted homogeneity on that line. In fact, it was even better if not only were they all from Poland, but also the same part of Poland. Shared habits in the ways they worked helped to ensure consistency in the product. It didn’t matter if it was men or women on the line. Sameness in that situation was a good thing.
But in problem solving, sameness is not good. There are so many good studies that show that being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.
Sometimes if you are all the same, it leads to group thinking, and it can lead to some types of unhealthy competition — like the locker room-type situation where some guys compete to see who can tell the crudest joke. That hasn’t happened around me. Does that mean that none of our partners who are male tell a dirty joke every once in a while in the locker room? No. But they don’t do it around me or other women. It’s not because they are cowards. It just isn’t what you would do at the dinner table, and it isn’t something you would do around the board room, either.