Three days after an entrepreneur named TD Lowe arrived in Silicon Valley from Phenix City, Alabama, she approached a well-known venture capitalist at a networking event. Lowe had watched the bigwig politely interact with several men who approached him, but when it was her turn she had a very different experience. Before she could even say her name, he looked her up and down and said, “You’ll never make the connections here you need to be successful; you need to get a job.” She walked away shaking with anger. Her takeaway: Silicon Valley is not a friendly place for women. That experience led Lowe to a Menlo Park accelerator called Women’s Startup Lab, which helps female entrepreneurs navigate the often-hostile startup world. Despite that early disheartening encounter, Lowe now owns a company, EnovationNation, that connects people with ideas to those who can make them a reality, and the help and encouragement she got from Women’s Startup Lab is part of the reason.
Much has been written about the harassment, condescension, and other sexist behavior that remains dismayingly common in Silicon Valley. Some women are trying to change that culture from within. But others are finding a different solution: ditching men altogether to create their own female-only startup support systems. A female entrepreneur can now launch a company, raise money, fill a board of advisors, and strike it rich without ever dealing with men. This female-oriented infrastructure includes incubators like Women 2.0, SheEO, and Google’s 1871 FEMtech; venture and angel funds such as Golden Seeds, Belle Capital USA, and Texas Women Ventures; and mentoring programs started by big names such as Tory Burch and Arianna Huffington. “You can’t really change the existing reality,” says Vicki Saunders, a serial entrepreneur and founder of the female accelerator SheEO. “You need to create a new reality to make the old one obsolete. You have to demonstrate another way that works.”
Many of the women who started these groups can name the moment when they realized how unfriendly Silicon Valley could be toward them. For Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder and CEO of Pipeline Fellowship (which has turned more than 80 women into angel investors), it was during an investor meeting when man after man took turns saying things like, “My girlfriend and her friends think we should consider such and such.” As one of only two women in the room, she wondered why more weren’t there to speak for themselves. Others just grew weary of the bro culture that pervades so many startups. “There was a constant conflict about when to play along and when to push back [at her previous job], and that gets tiring,” says Vanessa Dawson, founder of a networking group called Girls Raising that helps founders pitch their ideas and secure funding. “I am so sick of trying to conform to the way things are being done.”
In the past, women have tried to overcome these challenges with boycotts (After the Facebook IPO, some women protested its lack of female board members), lawsuits, and discussions of how women can better fit into the male world. The idea has always been to change Silicon Valley culture, or at least teach women how to better cope with it. But more and more women now believe that fighting the system is futile, and the only effective way to get women on equal footing is to create a new game just for them. “I would rather create a space or an environment or a community where women can be innovative, raise funds, and operate on their own terms,” says Dawson.
Oberti Noguera says the only way to get more women involved (and funded) is to let the females take the lead. “People support people who look like them and are familiar,” she says. But there are some differences. For one thing, these groups offer something that men can’t: empathy. Participants in SheEO, for example, start the program by sitting in a circle and passing the Kleenex box. Some women need to “get their own shit out of the way,” says Saunders, before appearing bold and ambitious in public. Guys, on the other hand, tend to “just fake it.” They also teach participants how to eschew the traditional system and play to their strengths. Women are clearly at a disadvantage with VC funding. Just one in eight companies that raised venture financing in the first half of 2014 has a female founder or cofounder, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. So Saunders tells SheEO founders to forget about VCs. Go crowdsourcing, where the neighborhood is friendlier. (A study published by academics at New York University and University of Pennsylvania in July found that 65% of tech projects started by women get funded on Kickstarter, while only 30% of men’s do.) “There are millions of people out there,” she says. “It’s such an old model of scarcity to think there are only 17 VCs who can fund me. We need to find what works for us and do it.”
The groups also possess pools of money earmarked for women-led ventures. SheEO is launching a campaign in the fall to get a million women and men to contribute $1,000 each to create a $1 billion pool of capital. And Girls Raising is working to create a $10 million seed fund. Money is the most important item women can provide each other, says Kelly Hoey, one of the founders of the accelerator Women In Motion. Women should be saying, “Thanks for the re-tweet. Now where’s the check?”
These women don’t bash men or even necessarily want to be separated from them. “I want to include men,” said Dawson. “I envision our community being 50/50. Men are integral to the whole conversation, and they need to be worked in as well. But when there isn’t diversity in a system, you have to help out the community that isn’t being equally represented.”
For some women, the ultimate goal of this movement is to make it obsolete. The hope is that things will progress to the point where they don’t need to exclude men from their ventures. In some cases, that’s already starting to happen. Astia, a group that funds female entrepreneurs, now has seven male angels on its investing team, including Larry Bettino, managing partner at StarVest Partners, and Adam Quinton, CEO of Lucas Point Ventures. And Saunders is considering adding men to her accelerator because so many male founders have inquired about getting involved. Why are they interested? Often, she says, “it’s fathers showing up because they have daughters.”
Ideally, things will change as awareness increases and people learn how hurtful their actions can be. It will take time, but Saunders, for one, is optimistic. “We have to start modeling behaviors,” she says. “A lot of people think [the current hostility toward women] is the way it has to be, but I think there are so many people out there who would like to see a different world than the one they created. We made all this up, and we can change it.”