The “woman problem”
Last week, another voice entered the ongoing debate about why there are so few female entrepreneurs in tech. In this case, the voice actually belonged to a female entrepreneur – Penelope Trunk, who attempted to spell out how VCs can address the “woman problem.”
Many explanations have been offered for why there’s such a shortage of female entrepreneurs. Some thoughtful, some surprising, and some plain uncomfortable.
But none have made me angry. Until now.
Penelope’s intro is overly simplistic. Basically, women don’t do startups because women want babies. And even when we’re in our pre-baby making years (late twenties), we’re too busy being happy. The happiest we’ll ever be. And happiness and startups are, apparently, mutually exclusive.
Whatever. That’s not the part that bothers me. The baby thing is legit, but it’s a consideration for every maternally-inclined career-driven woman. So that doesn’t go far enough. The happiness argument is just plain dumb, so I’m ignoring it.
But I can’t ignore Penelope’s recommendations for VCs, which are straight-up offensive. If VCs really want to encourage women to get into the startup game, she says, they need to “change the equation.”
Changing the equation apparently means changing (increasing) the salaries doled out upfront. Why? Because women love to shop. It makes us oh-so happy. So if VCs want to cater to female founders, it means less bootstrapping…and more shoe shopping?
If this were true, there wouldn’t just be a lack of women in founding roles, there would be a lack of women in startups, period. If we’re optimizing for shopping sprees, we’re far better off taking that higher paying, lower risk gig at a large, well-established company. Besides, our Manolo Blahniks would, like, totally clash with the jeans-and-t-shirt startup dress code.
Regardless of whether or not you have a Y chromosome, you don’t join a start-up for the money. You join a startup for a chance to make a disproportionate impact on something you think is important. You join because you love the idea that your role will grow and evolve in entirely unpredictable ways as you try to keep pace with growth of the company.
And to keep pace, you have to move fast. Which is why Penelope’s second recommendation to VCs is so absurd. Sorry, but if you want to bankroll women, you’ll have to say goodbye to speed.
Startups don’t move quickly because of personal style or some gender-based preference. They move quickly because expansion is usually essential to survival. If you’re exploiting a gap in the market, or taking advantage of some new technology, you generally don’t have the luxury of time. The competitive marketplace is gender-blind, and even if VCs were to make speed concessions for women-run companies, customers surely wouldn’t.
Maybe I’m just naïve. I haven’t started my own company. But I do work for a startup with four female execs, two of which joined early on. My sister works for a startup with a female co-founder, who happens to be pregnant with her second child. Yes, that’s an exception to the rule. And yes, there’s a very real shortage of female entrepreneurs. But saying that women don’t start companies because the early payout isn’t conducive to our shopping needs is just jaded. And suggesting that women should be allowed to grow their companies more slowly so that they can take longer breaks in the summer implies that women really aren’t in it to win it.
This is an important discussion to have, so let’s have a real one, please.
Okay, rant over.