When I started writing about the gender disparity I saw in Silicon Valley, I took intense fire from the boys club. I received a barrage of hate mail, immature online chatter and personal attacks on me over Twitter. A handful of prominent investors called my writings garbage; one called me a loser and a fraud. They could get away with this because such frat-boy behavior was considered acceptable in Silicon Valley.
But things are changing for the better. There is outrage at the sexism that is coming to light in Silicon Valley; solutions are being discussed and implemented; women are beginning to help each other; and the venture-capital system is looking at itself critically and mending its ways.
This was a view upon which most of the hundreds of women who helped crowd-create my upcoming book, Innovating Women, agreed. Each had followed a different path to success, because there was no single problem or solution. There were some common themes, however.
1. Support system: Many women said that they had a great network of family and friends who believed in them and provided a support system that proved essential in dealing with problems such as funding and hectic work-hours. Phaedra Pardue, cloud and content consultant for Sohonet Media Network, said: "My close network includes my colleagues and my mother-in-law Madalene Simons, who was one of the first female stockbrokers. While she always looks picture perfect in her lovely suits and petite frame, she packed a powerful presence that was undeniably a game-changer in her industry. In fact, I knew her long before I ever met my husband, as we both belonged to Portlandia, a women's networking group for female business executives in Portland, Oregon. If I could give any advice to those starting their career, find a group of like-minded people to connect with. It has made all the difference for me."
2. Mentors: Most women found male and female mentors to be invaluable. Megan Groves, a digital-marketing consultant, said: "I've had a long list of mentors over the years myself, in academia, business, and for general life guidance, and most have been men. Several live in different cities, but we've kept in touch with regular Skype calls and in-person meetings when we find ourselves in the same area. I've seen that many men have a genuine interest in helping bring out the best in the women around them, even when other women may or may not share that desire. I think it's important to seek out women to trust and learn from, but I also believe in accepting support where we can find it."
3. Educational tracking: Xerox Chief Technology Officer Sophie Vandebroek shared her shock at finding out that only one girl at her daughter's school was put in the advanced math program, and that her daughter and her daughter's friends were put in the regular level despite their achievements. "I called the other moms and we complained and then they put the girls back in advanced math. So even schools unconsciously put the girls into less scientific fields, and once you do that in the middle school, you lose them. So you have to really be on top of them. It was the same girls that got into advance math in the middle school that then ended up all getting into science, three of them engineers and the fourth one is now in medical school."
4. Giving back to the community: Kay Koplovitz founded USA Network and turned it into a leading cable network. After exiting from it, she went on to found Springboard Enterprises, which has helped more than 550 women-led companies get off the ground. These companies have raised more than $5.5 billion and created more than 10,000 jobs since their inception.
Lynn Tilton, who now owns a holding company that manages 75 companies with a total of more than $8 billion in annual revenue, faced grueling obstacles on her road to success. Yet she now obsesses over helping others behind her. She wrote: "My dream is to end the plague of joblessness. But my new hope is to inspire women to unearth their collective strength, deeply rooted in female creativity and compassion, so that we might find a way to unite on our journeys. We can be smart, sexy, and sophisticated and still rule the world. Perhaps this evolution must start with young girls before they grow jaded."
"I have reintroduced an old cosmetic brand--Jane Cosmetics--for younger women, where for every one cosmetic item that is purchased, the company gives one to a shelter for battered women in your community--'buy one, give one to a neighbor in need.' It is my confidence that through this company we can help teach a younger generation of women that compassion is contagious and that kindness can be the new cool. I have dedicated my efforts and my companies' sponsorship to support Dean Kamen in his FIRST robotics competition in order to attract a larger populace of girls by making certain they never feel the need to choose between brains and beauty. I am in the process of posting the X Prize that I have designed and funded, that which will offer an extra $5 million to any winning X Prize team that boasts a female CEO and women in half its leadership roles in women. Perhaps the size of the prize will inspire the drafting of brilliant women to the technology teams advancing solutions to the world's largest problems."
5. Conviction and defiance: The discussions made clear that women entrepreneurs all understood that sacrifice and risks were involved but remained determined to achieve their goals. They knew they would have to think smarter and work harder and deal with sexism.
Heidi Roizen described how, when she was an entrepreneur, a PC manufacturer's senior vice president, who had been instrumental in crafting a large deal she was about to close, asked her to accept a gift--in his unzipped pants. She let the deal fall apart.
Another time, while she was pitching a Boston-based VC, "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," wrote Roizen. She says she found it rather hard to concentrate on her pitch and did not get a term sheet from that firm.
And once, while pregnant, she was asked by a male Silicon Valley investor how she'd be able to perform after her baby was born. According to Roizen, he said: "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?"
Yet Roizen persevered. She obtained financing from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and became a partner herself at that firm.
Because of the success of women such as these, there are strong role models.
Because women are now outnumbering men in higher education, advancing technologies are making it possible to start world-changing companies without the need for venture capital, so the playing field is becoming level.
And because of the maternal instincts and resulting empathy that many women have, they are best positioned to solve the biggest problems of humanity.
This is why I believe it is so important to support and encourage women to join the innovation economy.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke's engineering school and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley.
Innovating Women will be released on September 9.
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