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Venture Capital Comes to the Theater: An Interview With Jennifer Wilson

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When I first met Jennifer Wilson at a dinner party in my Paris apartment, I knew she had helped save a house in Hailey, Idaho, which was Ezra Pound's birthplace. Saving his home was an easy battle when compared to her struggle to raise $20 million dollars to create a venture capital fund for female entrepreneurs.

Jennifer, who is not new to the world of conflict, grew up in Iowa where her father was the governor. In the late 1980s, when she worked in an Iowa state agency designed to provide money for new tech companies, she became aware of how few of the applicants were women. She decided to start a venture capital fund. While dealing with disappointments and closed doors, she met and married Jean Hoerni, one of the founders of the Silicon Valley. Her dream was put on hold but the lessons she learned were not.

With humor and her insights, Wilson has written a play that portrays the obstacles she faced as she tried to break into that male-dominated world. Her play, And That's What Little Girls Are Made Of, is currently at the Tides Theater (formerly the San Francisco Playhouse) until November 4th, where it explores a world that still exists.
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She said, Jean Hoerni, who died in 1997, would have been proud of her play and her accomplishments. These lessons, her experiences, and how they relate to today's world are the focus of this interview.

Why did you decide to use theater as a medium for telling your story?

I've observed that issues relating to women in general are avoided. Call it anti-feminism or anti-woman. Call it anything you like, but don't turn away from it, because the impact of avoiding these issues has become critical. There is all kinds of stuff in the news at the moment about how important it is to bring women into the circle; important in many ways, most of which have an economic impact. But generally speaking, people still don't want to talk about it. So I felt that creating an entertaining play would be a sneaky way to achieve my objective in a "made you look" mode. Also, I make a point of placing the action in 1989, over two decades ago. That enables the audience to observe, to listen and then to contemplate whether things have changed.

Are you still in contact with friends from the Silicon Valley? Do you think women have a better chance of crashing the "glass ceiling" there than in businesses such as banking, large corporations or government?

I've had no contact with the SV people I befriended 20 years ago. When I married Jean I basically began a new life, kept my head down, and bowed out of anything related to venture capital and the business world in general. But I've observed that, if anything, it's more difficult for women to get ahead in SV because of the technology culture. Have you followed the announcement of former Google exec Marissa Mayer as new CEO of Yahoo!? Google the discussion that exploded when it was revealed that she was very pregnant when she was hired. There was a huge backlash from both genders but many men in particular about how a woman cannot be an effective chief executive and a mother at the same time. Very, very interesting. The play explores many of the roadblocks for women, no matter what field they're in. We just have to figure this out.

Are women better off establishing their own businesses or are those pitfalls the point of your play?

I'd like to see women integrated into every single aspect of American life. However, women who start their own businesses face the additional challenge of raising capital. So I suppose I'd have to say that ascending the ladder in an area that doesn't require capital investment provides a certain advantage by exclusion. Still, there will always be attraction of capital issues, no matter what one's line of work. Political candidates have to raise money for their elections. Corporate executives have to attract by persuasion internal investment for their particular operations. One of the issues included in the play is the sad fact that women cannot count on other women to invest, as women are less likely to take risk. Women conserve their funds much more than men.

What have been your biggest obstacles in writing and producing your play? Is there a glass ceiling in theater?

When I decided to turn the book into a play I realized that I had a lot to learn. (I wrote the unpublished book entitled Diary of a Mad Businesswoman as a Northeastern University Visiting Scholar in 1998/99.) I initially approached individual theater companies and entered competitions. Finally I connected with Suze Allen, a dramaturg with whom I worked all summer. Suze helped me turn the play into a more dramatically appealing work. It's my impression that theater companies are relatively inbred and rarely take a chance on a newcomer. Because I have no history at all in this world of theater, I can't say for sure that new work by an unknown writer has no chance of being read, much less produced.

What has surprised, dismayed or pleased you about the process of getting your play produced?

I'm very attracted to new experiences, so this has been nothing but pleasure for me. Finding the right actors, finding the right director, locating the ideal venue, finding the right PR person, etc. I've loving seeing the actors in their costumes, watching the tech crew finalize lighting and sound, taking care of all the little details. I'm so lucky to have found the perfect director, Jennifer Welch, with whom I seem to have a cosmic bond that's enabled us to move this project forward without controversy. Although of course I know that theater is a fine art, watching Jennifer craft the performance has been mind-blowing. I've enjoyed every single aspect of this adventure and I feel very fortunate that I've had the experience.

An aspect of the play that I find particularly interesting is the issue of identity. The three actors play different aspects of me (as well as taking on the identity of other people at various points) making the point that all of us have different aspects of our character, in addition to making different impressions on the people with whom we come into contact.

What women do you admire who have broken through the glass ceiling?

Here in the Bay Area we're lucky to have a few women who have achieved extraordinary success. In addition to Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has made her mark. Also, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and her predecessor Carly Fiorina, surely must inspire women. There are other women in corporate America who've reached the top. I admire them all, knowing the obstacles they've had to overcome. I also have a great deal of respect for Hillary Clinton. I hope we can somehow capture her brain and skills for the rest of her life. I'm convinced that fear of powerful women is what keeps many American women from contributing to the extent of their abilities.