Shortly after Kathryn Tucker started Red Rover, an app that showcases local events for kids, she pitched the idea to an angel investor at a New York tech event. But it didn't go over well. When she finished her pitch, the investor said he didn't invest in women.
When she asked why, he told her. "I don't like the way women think," he said. "They haven't mastered linear thinking." To prove his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritize her to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment her, he told Tucker she was different. "You're more male," he said.
Tucker didn't need to hear any more. "I said, 'Thanks very much,' walked out, and never spoke to him again," she recalled earlier this year, as part of a panel discussion on "fundraising while female" at the annual Internet Week conference in New York.
It was one of many stories shared during a panel that painted the tech world as a place that—for all its efforts to push into the future with apps and gadgets and online services—is still very much stuck in the past when it comes to attitudes involving gender. Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio, an advocacy group for women in tech, shared the story of an investor who said he doesn't invest in women he doesn't find attractive. Another gave women in the audience a tip for pitching VCs: "Wear a wedding ring."
For women who have experienced this bias—and there are many—the simple act of talking about it is taboo.
As unsettling as they were, these stories only begin to describe the obstacles facing women in the tech world. We've all seen the numbers. According to a recent report from Pitchbook, only 13 percent of venture-backed companies had at least one female co-founder. In the software sector, women-run businesses accounted for just 10 percent of all venture capital deals. And that's a drastic improvement.
There are any number of reasons for this. People have argued that because there are fewer women in computer science, there might be fewer women pitching these VCs. But research also shows that gender discrimination of varying degrees—both conscious and subconscious—is alive and well among tech's overwhelmingly white, male investors. And the stories shared by many women—on that Internet Week panel and beyond—bear this out.
Certainly, not all venture capitalists discriminate against female founders. Not all female founders feel they've been discriminated against. Not all female founders deserve to be funded. And yes, there are many stories that will restore your faith in the industry. "I've had only wonderful experiences in pitching investors," says Jessica Mah, founder of the accounting and payroll services startup InDinero. "Most, if not all, have been very supportive and respectful."
But there's another truth to remember: For every story you hear about investors behaving badly, there are far worse stories that many women wouldn't dare to tell. "The most common thing I hear from other women is: 'Oh the stories I'll tell once I'm far enough along that I don't have to worry about being shamed,'" says Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of the job search and career advice site The Muse.
For women who have experienced this bias—and there are many—the simple act of talking about it is taboo. There's a notion that acknowledging the problem only exacerbates it. No one wants to be known as the woman who cried sexism for fear of being labeled a tattletale, a liability, or, at the very least, not worth the trouble. And yet, it's only through these stories that we can begin to understand that the statistics aren't the result of some fluke or mass oversight, but a very real problem that needs to be solved.
'I'm So Relieved. I Thought I Was the Only One'
Minshew has a few stories of her own. Two months into fundraising for The Muse, she attended a dinner held by a group of young tech entrepreneurs. The guest of honor was someone Minshew calls a "well-known investor and former entrepreneur." During the dinner, he approached Minshew, one of the only women at the event, to say he found her company interesting and wanted to meet later and dig deeper into the business model.
They swapped cards. She emailed him a pitch deck. And she scheduled a meeting through the investor's assistant for 4 pm the following Tuesday. At the last minute, the investor said his schedule had changed and asked if Minshew was free to meet at the bar in his hotel that night. "That obviously wasn't ideal," Minshew tells WIRED, "but I felt like he had my deck, and I scheduled it with his assistant." So she went.
Male founders generally don't have to make so many mental calculations about an investor's intent before agreeing to meet at a bar.
It was a typical meeting until the investor asked Minshew to move over to a couch, where he sat down so close to her that his body was leaning against the entire left side of hers, his arm around her back, and his line of questioning, Minshew says, turned personal. "I was pretty upset and trying to direct the conversation back to business. He was definitely not going back to business," she remembers. "I was sitting with my arm in a blocking position because he was so close. I was basically pushing his chest off me. So after not long, I said 'I have to leave' and left."
Afterword, Minshew wondered which warning signs she might have overlooked before the meeting, but would soon come to learn this is an all-too familiar scenario for young female founders. When she tells the story to other women in the field, they typically sympathize. "The biggest response from women entrepreneurs was: 'Oh, I'm so relieved. I thought I was the only one.'"
The most challenging part of all this, she says, is that most early-stage investing is built on camaraderie, and getting drinks and other informal meetings are great ways to build that camaraderie. Male founders generally don't have to make so many mental calculations about an investor's intent before agreeing to meet at a bar. Female founders do. "Guys can say: 'It was great to meet you at that event. Let's go grab a beer,'" says Danielle Weinblatt, who started the video interview platform, Take the Interview, in 2011. "Women just can't do that. We're inevitably always going to be left out of things, because there are certain lines you can't cross and things that are unspoken parts of the boys club."
'Why Do I Have to Go to Gender-Specific Investors?'
But for Weinblatt, just as frustrating as being excluded from the "boys club" is being funneled toward the "girls club." Throughout her fundraising process, she says, investors have repeatedly directed her to other female investors. She remembers one meeting with a venture capitalist who suggested Weinblatt meet Joanne Wilson, an angel investor who funds primarily female-founders. "Nothing gets under my skin more than when someone says: 'Have you met so and so? She likes investing in women,'" Weinblatt explains. "Why do I have to go to gender-specific investors? Our company is pretty gender agnostic, at this point."
Weinblatt, who closed a $2.2 million Series A funding round last year, knows comments like these are meant to be helpful, and female-focused investors are enabling more women to launch companies. But, she says, being told she needs to find an investor who "likes investing in women" makes her feel like being a woman is something to overcome. "I think that's a terrible way to look at it," she says. "I hate this philosophy that because you're female, woe is you. I don't want someone to feel sorry for me."
When you're a single mother, says Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay, it's even tougher to be taken seriously. The child of a divorce and coming out of a divorce herself, Atwood built SupportPay, an online platform to help divorced parents manage and share child support. But almost as soon as she began pitching investors in 2011, she faced a barrage of doubt as to whether she could handle a company and kids at the same time.
'I hate this philosophy that because you're female, woe is you. I don't want someone to feel sorry for me.'
Atwood says that while their concern is legitimate, it's also a bit backward. She believes it's because she's a single mother—not despite it—that she's a safe bet for investors. "I'm not doing this as a side project. I don't have a spouse supporting me. I'm putting everything on the line, and I'm responsible for a child," she says. "I'm going to do everything possible to make that work."
But being a single mother wasn't Atwood's only problem. She's also a coder. With all the recent efforts from Google, Square, and other organizations to get young girls interested in coding, it's hard to imagine Atwood's ability to code was a drawback when she was trying to get funded. And yet, she says, when she told her investors she had built SupportPay herself, they repeatedly doubted her. "No one believed me," Atwood says.
'This Isn't a 21-Year-Old-Kid-in-a-Hoodie Problem'
Once, an associate at a venture capital firm even gave Atwood a bit of advice after turning her down for funding. "Hire a young guy in a hoodie," he said. "I laughed," Atwood remembers. "Then I said: 'That's a great point, but the reason why there's no solution on the market today is because this isn't a 21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie problem.'"
Luckily for Atwood, after about nine months of getting questioned on everything from her ability to run a business as a single mom to her blonde hair—one investor claimed brunettes are taken more seriously—Atwood landed $1.1 million in funding from several top angel investors, including Draper Associates, Broadway Angels, and Marc Benioff. "They got it," she says. "They saw that my being a woman and my age was an asset."
Indeed all of the women interviewed for this story have found investors who they say have been wholly supportive throughout the process. Even those who have experienced bias, like Tucker, say it's hard to get outraged about outright ignorance. In telling her story, she merely hopes to help convince the investing community that bias does exist, so they can begin to build systems within their firms to "handicap for the bias." "Relying on your gut is not necessarily good business, and they're leaving a lot of money on the table, as a result," she says.
'They got it. They saw that my being a woman and my age was an asset.'
Meanwhile, Minshew says it's been "heartening" to see men in the tech community listen to women's stories and begin to talk about the problem themselves. That, she says, may be the first step toward real change. "Years ago, you could say really horrible, racist things, and people who didn't agree would stay quiet because that was the time we were in. Now, we're in a time where someone says something horribly racist, and other people say: 'Shit, I can't believe you just said that,'" Minshew explains. "My hope is we're moving toward a world in which if one partner at a VC firm knows another partner is behaving inappropriately with female entrepreneurs, it'll be the same sort of shock and outrage. It'll be unacceptable."