Since it sprouted in Boston just after World War II, some things haven’t changed about the venture capital business: the desire for outsized returns, the constant hunt for promising startups, the framed documents celebrating stock offerings and acquisitions, and the long conference tables around which partners gather each Monday to debate which companies deserve money.
Another constant at most Boston firms: the partners sitting around those tables are all male. Next year, one of the oldest active firms, Greylock Partners, will mark its 50th anniversary. It has backed companies like Filene’s Basement, Facebook, and Zipcar. But it has never hired a woman to sit at the table and approve deals.
It’s a problem, and one that venture capital firms here and in California have been unable to solve for decades. I try to suggest some constructive ways to change the status quo in my latest Innovation Economy column in The Boston Globe. We also asked two local investors to offer their own perspectives: Maria Cirino, who co-founded her own venture firm, .406 Ventures, in 2005; and Rudina Seseri, a partner at Fairhaven Capital, which she joined as a senior associate in 2007 before becoming a principal, then partner.
By my count, there are about 10 female partners at stand-alone Boston venture firms (I’m not including individual angel investors, or employees of big companies like Novartis who make venture investments.) Seven of them founded or co-founded their own firms, and the other three are at established firms (Seseri, Nilanjana Bhowmik at Longworth, and Maia Heymann at CommonAngels, which manages a fund)… To me, that is fantastic — and it is also a rather loud statement on how challenging women have found it to ascend to partner level at some of Boston’s most prominent and established venture firms.
I welcome your comments on what would move the needle.
Some additional bonus material that didn’t make it into the column is below.
From a woman who has held a junior role at a Boston-area venture firm. She asked for anonymity. I asked her what would help change the current situation.
1) Mentors/bosses need to get over the perception challenge and just take women out to bond outside working hours: dinners, drinks, networking events. …Doesn’t matter what other people think around the room. What matters is that the person feels supported.
2) Introduce junior women to female partners at other firms. Ed Zimmerman enables this through his “Women in VC lunches.”
3) Some guys are shameless and will say, “My wife’s out of town. let’s get dinner.” Community needs to self-police it. A woman needs to feel supported by her male peers, that they’ll back her up if something dicey happens. And woman needs to feel like her team would never invest in an entrepreneur or collaborate with a male VC who disrespected her.
Generally, women don’t want to put themselves in potentially uncomfortable situations, so they will close off opportunities that feel sketchy, which may mean missed opportunities.
From Todd Dagres of Spark Capital, a Boston-based firm. It was founded in 2005, and I asked Dagres if there were any initiatives underway related to recruiting women to the firm as partners, or potential partners.
I think the issue is that there are fewer female entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs are the best source of VCs. The good news is that there are more female entrepreneurs emerging now. We just backed two women and we are seeing more interesting companies with women founders. Last year we hired our first female investment professional — Katie Bolin from Google. She could be our first female partner down the road. We don’t have an initiative to hire women, but we are totally open to it. We hire based on talent and cultural fit. We
have no other filters.
Mina Hsiang spent three years as a senior associate at Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners, after graduating from Harvard Business School. She now works for Optum, a subsidiary of the insurer UnitedHealth Group. I observed that many partners at VC firms come from the ranks of successful entrepreneurs. She wrote via e-mail:
I think they should consider more current successful women as partners (i.e., as candidates.) The “ranks of successful entrepreneurs” from which VCs are drawn tend not to be _the most_ successful entrepreneurs. Often, they are people who have sold their company for tens of millions (not hundreds of millions or billions), or just ran a successful venture for cash for a while, which really opens up the field. Not all of them were tech entrepreneurs either. If they considered all the women who fit this bill, it would already be a large pool.
From David Skok at Matrix Partners:
This is a very important topic to us, so I’m pleased to see you giving it some thought. As I think you and I have discussed in the past, many [general partners] are former CEOs or founders. (That’s how both I and Antonio [Rodriguez] came into venture), but these senior leadership positions are still largely dominated by men. It’s something I hope to see change in the very near future.
We’re very encouraged by the strength of the female founders and CEOs in our portfolio companies, as well as by our female [entrepreneurs-in-residence]. Among top tier firms I believe that Matrix has one of the highest ratios of female CEOs, founders and key executives. Current female portfolio company CEOs and founders include some of the most talented leaders in the tech industry, such as Sheila Lirio Marcelo of Care.com (and former Matrix EIR), Jennifer Lum of Adelphic Mobile, Suzie Riley of Aquto, Michelle Peluso, Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson of Gilt Groupe, Jess Lee of Polyvore, Meaghan Rose of RocksBox, and Melanie Perkins of Canva.
We’re really proud of all that these women are accomplishing, and will support them however we can. With such an outstanding new generation of female leaders I don’t think it’s going to be long before the sight of women GPs at top-tier firms will be much more common.
From Dayna Grayson, who had been a principal at North Bridge Venture Partners in Waltham before joining NEA as a partner:
I’ve heard of a 30 percent rule in bringing women to events, networking, etc in tech. Ed Zimmerman in NYC does the same and has done a phenomenal job in balancing conversations in the tech world in NYC. Small VC firms expand slowly….often going from four to five partners. They naturally may not think diversity is an issue at that scale and they hire who they know, who is often a male friend or colleague they’ve known for a while. It’s not going to help to just say VCs need more female partners. Yes, they should think about what makes a good VC (deep tech background, record of success, etc) and I think they can find successful women who fit this profile. But, we need more females in these circles all along their careers. This is where we can all try harder. Start looking around for a normal 30 percent balance (and yes that’s normal in tech–see Google’s numbers, as they are probably the best at diversity). I would also like to see more women go into tech, but at a 30 percent goal, diversity shouldn’t be hard to achieve.
Entrepreneur Jules Pieri wrote a great piece in May for Harvard Business Review’s website, entitled, “To crack the glass ceiling, start with venture capital.”
And Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners blogged here recently about a panel discussion held at the National Venture Capital Association’s conference which focused on the issue and was moderated by Cirino of .406 Ventures.
Your thoughts are welcome below…
Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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