Spend a little time with women in Silicon Valley, and you start to wonder: Who are these advanced creatures, with their super-glued networks and willingness to roll the dice? What makes them willing to open not only their Rolodexes, but also their wallets on each other’s behalf?
Many believe the region’s singular entrepreneurial ecosystem encourages everyone — and women, disproportionately — to revel in possibilities.
“It’s a culture of risk-taking,” says Sue Siegel, the C.E.O. of Healthyimagination, G.E.’s $6 billion global healthcare initiative, and a former partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park. “Entrepreneurship is so embedded here. It’s what everyone talks about. If you don’t participate, you’re on the outside. When I did a counseling event at my son’s school, every single junior in his high school class knew what a venture capitalist was.”
Siegel says that when she first joined Mohr Davidow after having been an entrepreneur, she tried to determine why 40% of venture investing occurred in the Bay Area, rather than in Boston or other major cities. Boston also has world-class universities and research facilities, and in Boston, just as in Silicon Valley, founders benefit from infrastructure and support — lawyers, accountants, HR executives, and consultants willing to work on a project-basis to buttress the budding entrepreneur. If neither research resources nor professional scaffolding was the distinguishing factor, then what was so special about her hometown?
Siegel decided it was a deep and ingrained ethos, a set of unique cultural norms developed after three decades watching companies congeal and fall apart. Astounding victories and cringe-inducing failures are everywhere, so it’s second-nature for locals to gamble on start-ups. “Boston has the Brahmin bow-tie society and status thing. Failure in Boston is unacceptable. You cannot fail and feel good about it,” Siegel says. “But you fail in Silicon Valley and the next VC hires you because they see you’ve learned from it. They see you’re not going to repeat your mistakes now that you understand the landmines. Look at Google. They got turned down by so many venture firms and they’re proud of it. Here we wear failure as a badge of experience and honor. I survived!”
Heidi Roizen, a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, the venture capital firm, and former entrepreneur, agrees, saying Valley denizens — both male and female — have no choice but to hustle. “I was employee number one at a start-up and if I didn’t make meaningful connections, follow up, and sell things, I wasn’t going to eat. When you’re in an entrepreneurial situation, you have to motivate people and you have to reciprocate and be helpful to others,” she says. “Life here is in constant beta, and that’s a really good thing. We constantly have to reinvent ourselves because of the way the world is evolving.”
Silicon Valley is the crucible. There’s no notion of status or society or lineage, and many of the wealthiest “locals” are fresh off the boat. While some insist it’s not a completely level playing field, this region remains the biggest meritocracy the U.S. has to offer. In chaos lies the opportunity.
By founding or joining start-ups, women see an opportunity to be judged on the merit of their ideas, rather than their gender. “The tech industry as a whole has been one of the most long-standing meritocracies. The start-up is the door to the palace. It’s always been the path for innovators to fast-track themselves to success,” says Amanda Reed, a partner at Palomar Ventures, the venture capital firm. Reed sees women streaming into the Valley in record numbers. “For women, there’s no climbing the corporate ladder or doing time in a male world. West Coast women don’t have that ‘I win-you lose’ competitiveness — the blue suits, the hard shells.”
Reed, who is in her mid-40′s, was raised in Silicon Valley and her father was an entrepreneur in the early days of the PC revolution. She spent all but three years of her career close to home, but she says her former Dartmouth classmates who remained on the East Coast tell a different tale. “I live under an equality bubble that sits over the San Francisco Bay area. I never felt the glass ceiling growing up and working in Silicon Valley,” she says. “When I went back to my college reunion, I had a lack of things to contribute when my friends wanted to commiserate about the plight of the sisterhood. Because I’d never felt it.”
Despite the bombshell sex discrimination lawsuit filed in May 2012 by Ellen Pao, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of the most illustrious VC firms, Reed says Silicon Valley gals are less organized because they don’t have a common enemy. They don’t feel the same oppression. Instead, these women credit male colleagues with providing milieus where they can thrive.
“Our work-life dynamic is just different. We work with male partners who take the afternoons off to coach their sons’ football teams. They’ll say, ‘I can talk to you after 6 p.m. tonight, but not before,’” Reed says. “Here in the Valley, you don’t feel like you have to hide the fact that you’re a girl. My partners would stop marathon Monday partner meetings and check emails while I went to use my breast pump. As long as I’m making money for the fund, they make it an easy place for me to work.”
Silicon Valley promotes better partnerships between the sexes, both at home and in the workplace. As a result, when women are disgruntled in their careers, they’re more likely to vote with their feet. “Why stay in a job where you’re unhappy? If you’re good, you leave and it’s their loss,” Reed continues. “We work seamlessly with men. We appreciate men. I’ve had the chance to mentor both my partners’ daughters. If it weren’t for the men we work with being pro-women, we wouldn’t be in a position to invest in their daughters’ companies. Their mothers said, ‘I kicked the door open, Sweetie. Now you run through it.’”
© 2013 Pamela Ryckman, author of Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business
Pamela Ryckman is the author of the forthcoming book, Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business. She has written for The New York Times, Financial Times, Fortune.com/ CNNMoney, International Herald Tribune, The New York Observer, and The New York Sun, among other publications. Prior to becoming a journalist, she performed strategy work for Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. She lives in New York City.
For more information please visit http://www.pamelaryckman.com, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter