Ma’am, are you lost? A first-hand account of bias in tech, and some practical suggestions for those who want to fix it.
In this blog, first published in Medium in early December 2018, Ramona Liberoff, Founder Link Mission 2, StartupFounder, StoriesAngel, InvestorsEuropeVC discusses her experience in tech.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work in and around tech for the last 20+ years, since the dawn of the first Internet service providers and companies, through the digital disruption that has come to most industries and companies, into the leapfrog and impact areas of tech in emerging markets, as a corporate VC investing in the future of energy.
I’m currently a co-founder of a brand new start-up business looking to broaden the market for autonomous vehicles for shrinking cities and global peri-urban areas, to connect people with opportunities, on mission 2 of Zinc VC’.
I’m also a 48 year old woman born in the US and living in Europe since 1994, currently in Berlin. I’m often the only person over 30 and (usually) the only or a small minority of women in any given room, conference, meeting, pitch, hackathon or meetup.
And I’d like that to change: not just for my sake, but for the sake of European technology and investing. I want Europe to be the best region in the world for founders and investors, and lead technology businesses that make a better place and return risk capital at a very good premium.
First, let me share my own experiences, and second let suggest how everyone who cares about this issue in theory to do something to change it, every day.
In the last six months, I’ve been an investor (as a day job, and I’ve been an angel with several exits since 2008).
The events below aren’t unusual for me or my peer group.
(a) When I meet a technology founder he* will take the first 5–10 minutes to explain trends and technology to me. I often assert during these conversations that I understand a given market space, demonstrate that knowledge, and even then that doesn’t halt the explanatory narrative. This happens whether I’m positioned as a tech founder or as an investor. (*I’ve never had this experience with female founders, even of deeptech or cybersec companies where there actually would be a specialist gap in my knowledge where I’m always happy to learn more).
- As an angel investor with more than 20 deals under my belt and 4 exits, I consistently hear ‘he’ when angels are referenced. One start-up founder I know who happens to be married to another start-up founder I have invested in through several rounds, said she was going to dinner with her husband’s investor. Her colleague replied: “Are you (female founder) the eye candy for him (investor?)”
- I have been going to various transport events recently where everyone on earth is a consumer. At a recent event on data in transport, one of the organisers approached me and asked, “Ma’am, are you lost? The community volunteer event is in the other room.” I informed him that I was definitely in the right place.
- I was describing to an investor that we were building a radically inclusive transport for autonomous vehicles. His question to me: “So who on your team understands the technology? It’s very complicated.” I heard him speak to an MBA student prior to me about AVs and he didn’t express that opinion to him.
I don’t believe these things would have happened to me if I were a 30 year old man.
The reason why they are important is not about me: I can find the energy and stubbornness to carry on and for the most part, laugh it off: my track record is good proof and I have an excellent network. It does mean that if you don’t look like a stereotypical founder or investor, you start every interaction at a significant disadvantage. In tech and venture where decisions are made fast (and people pride themselves on this), bias runs the risk of shutting down options even at the expense of the facts and evidence.
This needs to change. I’m delighted to see the official shift at this week’s Slush conference in Helsinki. There was a great discussion on the main stage on diversity and inclusion as a key plank of start-up teams or investment decision and potential differentiation for Europe’s new fast growth companies. Lots of credit to Atomico and Diversity VC and all of those who worked on the recent toolkit on www.inclusionintech.com. It’s a big opportunity for Europe, for the world, and for the future.
However, there’s a lot that individuals can do in everyday interactions. If you’re a 20 or 30 something working in tech, and you care about this issue in theory, I’d ask you to d a few things routinely.
Practice saying him or her when you refer to founders. Anyone can be a founder. And far more people should be.
Look hard at your mentor and investor base: and find someone who is different to give you perspective. Doesn’t matter what kind of different.
If you’re at an event and you see someone who is on their own, especially if they look different from you, make it a point to say hi and find out about them.
Never, ever say the following:
My mother doesn’t understand what I do, my girlfriend isn’t tech-y, even my grandmother gets it.
The women in your life aren’t less intelligent than you are and you can include them to make your work and world more familiar. Some of the best founders I know, encourage the women in their lives to become founders too and they make sure that everyone they know can relate to what they do.
If you’re over 40, never apologise.
Instead, think about how more time has helped you recognise patterns and learn from your experience, and share that with others.
If you’re a woman, don’t you dare say “I don’t understand tech.”
I’ll hunt you down and force you to come with me to blockchain meet-ups. You’ll understand it pretty quickly, then. It’s like saying “I don’t understand the world.” Only anchorites have that option.
I may have made it sound difficult to be different. It is. But it’s also valuable, as it gives me a lot of empathy with users, with those who are different, helps me communicate more clearly, helps me challenge my own assumptions, and helps me pick my investments more wisely. Right now, my investment record is 2.5 times better than the average angel or early stage VC, and I’m proud of that.
It also means that I have seed capital to put into my own start-up and to help my founding team develop evidence and market fit before seeking external capital, at better terms than if we had to do so at first.
So value your differences, and include generously.
Connnect with Romona