By Tracey Lien
Los Angeles Times.
A year ago, as Sukhinder Singh Cassidy followed media coverage of the problems faced by women in the tech industry, she felt uneasy. The stories often focused on the dearth of women in leadership roles, the glass ceilings, the roadblocks to success.
“The thing that was really absent from the narrative was the voice of women founders,” she said. “If you take a close look, you’ll see a lot of well-educated people commenting on women in tech entrepreneurship, but you will not find commentary from women founders themselves.”
As an entrepreneur and founder of a tech company herself, Singh Cassidy knew about biases against women and minorities in almost all industries. She understood that diversity remained a challenge for both big tech companies and smaller start-ups.
And she knew the playing field was far from level. But she felt the ongoing media coverage was missing something big: the success stories.
Singh Cassidy said she felt the need to speak up. On Wednesday, the founder of online video shopping company Joyus penned a letter on tech news site Re/Code that was co-signed by more than 100 female founders and CEOs of companies including TaskRabbit, Peek, ModCloth and Poshmark.
The letter laid out what the signers regard as a missing narrative about women in tech that focuses on possibilities for women by spotlighting successful women and demonstrating there’s really a place for them at the top in Silicon Valley.
According to Singh Cassidy, the ideas in the letter build on the notion of “you need to see it to be it.” In the aspirational world of tech start-ups, it’s important to promote the successes, she said. The majority of start-ups fail, yet entrepreneurs remain undeterred because the “positive signals” are often promoted, leading to optimism and the kind of risk-taking that often leads to success.
“Innovation systems thrive on stretch goals and possibility,” she said. “My point is not that negative signals don’t count. My point is if you want to swing the pendulum to make progress, you actually need to show people progress is possible.”
The letter includes survey data Singh Cassidy gathered from fellow company founders and CEOs that challenges existing notions of what it takes to succeed as an tech entrepreneur.
Among the findings are: — Despite the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, it’s possible for women without STEM backgrounds to successfully launch tech companies. Eighty-four percent of the company founders who responded to Singh Cassidy’s survey did not hail from STEM disciplines. — Almost half of the respondents had children while running their companies, with 32% founding their companies when they already had children. — Sixty-seven percent of respondents could cite an incident of perceived bias in the workplace, and 65% said they encountered bias in the fundraising process (but that this did not hold them back).
The letter also includes ways companies, investors and entrepreneurs can give women the best chance at succeeding by trying ideas such as: — Investing in family-planning and leave policies early and with commitment. — Making sure investors and board members vigilantly treat female founders and CEOs with the same level of candor, directness, expectation and measurement that they would any other CEO or founder. — Asking venture capitalists to monitor their own biases by tracking their female-versus-male statistics in the deal pipeline, from initial pitches to funding.
“There are lots of women rising and succeeding in technology,” said Ruzwana Bashir, CEO of Peek, who co-signed the letter.
“Instead of saying the challenges they face are insurmountable, why not focus on the women who have succeeded and understand what they did so we can have more people succeed?”
Singh Cassidy said she considers herself lucky. Coming from the male-dominated investment banking industry, she said, she received support from mentors throughout her career, so when she encountered negative signals in tech, she had built up the confidence to push through it.
New entrepreneurs starting out in tech may not have that luxury, and she said she hopes that if there’s one thing her letter achieves, it’s to send a positive signal that empowers women.
“Progress in big issues is often measured in steps,” she said. “Often, it’s many little steps and signals.”