Claire Díaz-Ortiz and Maren Bannon are true tech veterans. Both have been working in the technology sector—from high-caliber operator roles at Genentech and Twitter to recently becoming investors themselves—for the better part of the last two decades. We talked to them about their experience “growing up female” in the tech world during these years, about investing in diverse founders and the importance of opening doors, and about male VCs who say they want to widen their pipeline but don’t want to put in the work.
Interviewed November 2020
Experiences and Challenges as Women in Tech
Erika Brodnock (EB):You have both worked in the tech ecosystem for more than 15 years in various roles as operators, founders, investors; you span the whole spectrum, which I have to say is inspirational. How has it been? What are your experiences as women? And how has the industry evolved over time?
Maren Bannon (MB): To contextualize my experience, I was an engineering major in university. I remember that feeling of sitting in class surrounded by men. Unfortunately, since then, I don’t think the numbers have gotten that much better when it comes to computer science (CS) and technical degrees. That feeling of being an outsider in the class because of my gender left an imprint. I remember my first CS class; it was all about coding video games. I thought: this is not for me, I’d never been interested in video games. CS just wasn’t taught in a way that showed you the diversity of things you could build. Instead, it felt like it was taught for a certain profile of a person, and so I came away from university with my engineering degree, but didn’t actually go work as an engineer.
I ended up spending the first half of my career in health tech. I worked at Genentech, which was actually very evenly split between men and women, probably 50/50; the head of the department that I worked in was a woman. I cold emailed her to get the job; she hired me. It was a very positive work environment with a great culture. I think that was a good thing, having my early career be in that environment. I remember there was one man in our department who sexually harassed somebody, and he got fired very swiftly. I think it was a very healthy culture. I feel fortunate that I had that early in my career, but that’s probably not the typical experience in tech.
In general, I don’t think the culture for women in tech more generally has changed that much, unfortunately, in the last 15 years. There’s a lot more talk now—and I think social media amplifies all of the talk about this topic—but I don’t know if the numbers and the environments and the feeling on the ground for female founders or female employees has really changed that much in 15 years.
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Claire Díaz-Ortiz (CD): For me, it’s weird because I grew up in Silicon Valley, in Berkeley, and then went to Stanford, all during those hot years. So it’s strange that I didn’t feel I was a part of the tech scene until I was about 28. But looking back, we went to a party as freshmen at the Napster founder’s house. And you know, the guy who crashed on my kitchen floor with his girlfriend (on top of a blanket, no mattress) when I studied overseas in Italy is the chief product officer at Facebook. You know, it’s like all of that was happening there, but I wasn’t aware of it. Joe Lonsdale, who started Palantir, was in my 80-person freshman dorm; we called him “Muscle Man Joe.”
But in general, I was just not aware of the extent of the white tech privilege I was raised into. And I really wasn’t in tech in any real way until I sort of happened to stumble into it. I had some random career for the first five years out of college, living in random countries doing freelance stuff, and then ended up with a blog that became really successful. At the time, blogs were mostly held on blogger.com and the folks that created Twitter were the folks that had worked at Blogger. Twitter was spun out of a two-week side project. After they had made my blog popular, they invited me to join Twitter. They put us on the homepage and then wrote a blog post about us joining. My best friend and I were traveling around the world at the time. Then we had a non-profit in Kenya, and Maren came out and volunteered. That’s how Maren and I met 12 years ago, when Maren was in business school.
So I became basically an early Twitter influencer, because there was no one on the platform at the time, certainly not from Kenya and no one tweeting about “tech for good” stuff. This is how I ended up joining Twitter as an employee. My experience at Twitter was pretty positive, but very gendered. I showed up, I started as an intern at the very end of my MBA, and there were about 50 people there—and they were mostly men. At the time, there were two bathrooms, one for the women and one for the men. But it was really frustrating because the men always used the women’s bathroom. My first salary negotiation was like a complete joke. The person I was negotiating with had just told me how he had been grossly overpaid at his past job in tech, but the reason I should only earn $65K, after both an MBA and a Master’s degree from Stanford and Oxford, was because I should feel lucky working for Twitter because it was like a “golden ticket.” But then I was told I wouldn’t even get that deal at first, and first I had to start as a contractor for $20 an hour with no stock options. I remember trying to negotiate that with the (contractor) female recruiter out in the hallway, and she was like, “Uh, yeah, there’s no room to go up.” It’s wild to look back on.
I had a good experience with the company. But I began to see how a lot of the issues of discrimination, against women in particular, were oftentimes a matter of disorganization—or lack of organization, you could say—in terms of HR and legal systems put in place to protect employees at companies that grow really fast. For a long time at early explosive startups—in those days, at least—no one was thinking of how to best put in policies in place; it was just bros coding, and then the company exploding, and then everyone was off to the races. And in those days, we were way less aware of the negative consequences of our work—hence the entire premise of that Netflix documentary on social media.
Johannes Lenhard (JL):What is the most awkward, annoying story or experience that you’re willing to share?
MB: I can share an experience when I was a female founder back in the Bay Area. I think the process of fundraising as a female founder is quite an interesting one. It’s definitely what led me to co-found January Ventures [her own VC fund] because I think there’s a lot that’s wrong with the way VC is structured.
In the early days of building my startup, I was pitching a very well-known male investor. He heard my pitch and said, “I like you. I’d love to invest in you, but I’m just not interested in your business [which was like a class pass for kids’ activities]. If your startup were for hedge funds or golf, I would invest.” It’s fine that he wasn’t interested in my business, but calling out that hedge funds and golf were more exciting to him than kids’ activities felt a little obnoxious.
The Lack of Female Investing Partners in VC
CD: So I can talk about some more recent experiences of getting into VC. We know VC is bad for women, and I saw that from the beginning. I started angel investing while doing other stuff after leaving Twitter; it was really when I started thinking about a job in VC about two years ago that I came to understand many of the systematic issues at play. When I decided to enter VC, I took about a year to talk to most of the firms in Latin America, where I live. As an author of a bunch of books, I process things through writing. During that time, I took many months to write a long piece for TechCrunch that looked at a lot of the numbers in terms of female founders and VCs in Latin America. Some of these numbers no one had actually put together before in a digestible form. So the results are dire—in Latin America, only about 7% of VC check writers are women, so only 7% of investing partners are women.
There were two themes I saw again and again. First, senior level women are consistently on the operating side, not on the investing side of the VC firms. That is the classic way for a firm to say they have a woman in leadership. It is amazing to me how little understanding there is of this, even among the women. Recently, a woman was promoted to partner in one of the top funds here, but it was an operating partner. And everyone was congratulating her; obviously, it’s a wonderful accomplishment! Big congrats! But as I was talking about it with another female investing partner [there are less than 20 of us in LatAm], I realized that even she didn’t fully understand the difference between the two roles. And she’s a VC! Imagine what chance a female founder has of understanding that a woman on the operating side is not likely to help get her a check!
Secondly, when talking to funds, I kept hearing again and again: “half our team is women” when the women work in administration, or “the first people that review our deals are women.” Yeah, because they’re analysts. Junior, junior analysts! So the idea that women are there, when they don’t have power, and have these really junior roles, is a real issue that hides that problem.
There is a list of all the women investing in LatAm that someone put together. And there’s a question in the list that says: do you have decision making power? Everyone on that list checks “yes”! I want to empower young women investors, but it’s important also to understand what “check-writing ability” and “decision-making power” in a fund really mean!
I think that the number one thing is that when you get a woman investing partner, she really is two to three times more likely to invest in a female-founded team. That’s the big lever. We just need different types of investors with different backgrounds to spot outsized opportunities.
Funds Need to Widen Their Pipelines
EB:Thank you so much for sharing these insights, both of you. I am really keen to hear what you think could be done differently.
MB: I definitely agree on the more female investors; I think 30–40% of the check-writing team needs to be female to have a better chance to invest in more female founders. I think being the only female partner is a hard position to be in. Funds can promote women at these funds into check-writing roles, or hire them into those roles. Another promising path is more female-led funds. We’re seeing more and more of that, because I think the path to work your way up at some of these big funds is a slog, especially for a woman, unfortunately.
The other thing is that you have to widen your pipeline, you’ve got to get out of your networks, you’ve got to stop relying on the warm intros. Recognizing the gaps in your pipeline is the first step; then design a process to remove the bias from it. It would be helpful to see more funds actually setting goals around this. If you’re a fund with outside LPs, you can’t necessarily set a quota, but you could set a goal. If you don’t set a goal, you’re never going to actually change. A lot of these initiatives don’t feel like they’re serious because there aren’t any metrics. It is just PR.
Success Stories from Diverse Investing
JL:You are now both in roles where you are investing at least part of your efforts giving money to women and diverse founders. What results are you seeing? Can you already share success stories?
MB: I can share some of the stats about our portfolio: we’ve invested in 33 companies, and 90% have a female founder, 50% have a founder of color, 39% have an immigrant founder, 70% are outside the Bay Area. It’s a much more diverse group of people that we’re investing in, a different type of founder than the typical VC. If you look backwards at who founded the current unicorns, it would cause you to invest in a lot of white men. But we believe that the next decade is going to have a very different person founding these big companies. It’s going to be people all over the world, from many different backgrounds.
CD: I think what is perhaps most interesting is just the concept of planting a flag with this kind of work; we are saying we want to invest in women or founders of color. That in itself is really, really important, particularly in emerging markets like LatAm. This ensures that founders will come to you and pitch their business knowing it’s a safe space, where we’re not gonna discuss “what it’s like to be a woman with a baby starting a fintech company,” and instead we’ll just freakin’ talk about your fintech company. The thing you see in emerging markets is that the first step in VC funding is always the easier step, which is investing in all the founders that have these stamps of approval: they grew up in Nairobi or Buenos Aires, yes, but then they went to GSB [Graduate School of Business] at Stanford and got into YC [Y Combinator]. In Latin America, we’re at least seeing moves towards the second step. I’m in a fund where we do a lot of investing in founders who aren’t on the typical road.
There’s an author and investor, Nathalie Molina, and I saw a quote she had about how great mentors don’t just guide you, they actually open new doors for you. And I think of that a lot in terms of investing in female founders and emerging markets. I think what a lot of these women need is to be more accessible, for them to reach people overseas.
Let me give you an example. Maren and I are in this intimate angel group of women VCs in different geographies I put together, who invest in female founders across borders. We call ourselves the Angel Collective, and it’s been a great way to co-invest with trusted investors through our funds or as angels. So there is this one founder from Uruguay, and she is awesome. But Uruguay is a small country that not everyone has heard of. She’s called Ximena; she doesn’t have perfect English, but I think she’s really strong. There’s another investor in our group from Hustle Fund, Elizabeth Yin. Elizabeth had done one deal at that point in Latin America, which had come out of 500 Startups (where she worked before). Again, you want the stamp of approval.
When our fund decided to invest in Ximena’s company, Prometeo, basically a Plaid for LatAm, I thought this deal was an Elizabeth kind of deal. They already had a lot of revenue. It was really interesting to me, the founder’s experience when she talked to Elizabeth’s partner, Shiyan. Ximena was very nervous about the call; this was her first US investor. But they ended up really hitting it off and Hustle Fund invested. And that same founder, I sent her to one of the best funds on Sandhill Road [in Silicon Valley] and told them they needed to talk to her. Their feedback? There was “cultural dissonance.”
Advice to VCs on Diversifying Investments
EB:We talked about goal setting for funds and the issue with quotas. What other practical advice would you give VCs to do better when it comes to investing in diverse founders?
CD: I see the pipeline issue as a real issue, but not in the way people think. For example, there was this VC who tweeted recently about how only a very small percentage of the people applying to him are women and that he would like to increase this number. It’s a good thing to say that on Twitter, but it’s also a stupid thing. You’re the one that should go out and find them! You go get that pipeline—it’s waiting for you!
MB: I find those comments irritating because they feel lazy. You could go out and hire diverse people on your team; there are all these different organizations and schools and events where you can meet people to change your pipeline. But it takes work. It’s complacent to say, “This is our pipeline, we did our best, and we’re just not seeing these founders. There’s a lot you can do if you actually want to take action; find a bunch of female scouts, for instance.
Jammi, Anonymous: Female Founders
Nandini Jammi (Check My Ads, formerly Sleeping Giants)
Maria (name changed for anonymity)
We spoke with two female founders—Nandini Jammi and Maria, whose name we changed for anonymity reasons—about their experiences. While the range of different stories and experiences is endless, we take what Nadini and Maria tell us about co-founder betrayal, bias, and dishonesty as exemplary—and possibly one of the biggest barriers—of bad role models keeping others from even considering joining the ecosystem.
Interviewed January 2021
Inequality and Betrayal in Co-Founding Relationships
Erika Brodnock (EB):Nandini and Maria, you both had a really tumultuous time with co-founding ventures in the past. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Maria: A couple of years ago, I co-founded a FinTech company. I was coming right out of school, and I met a co-founder who had a similar idea to mine. He was already working on the early version of it and asked if I wanted to be involved as a co-founder. It was in a space I was really passionate about as well, so I said yes. I turned down a job offer and took the riskier path of becoming an entrepreneur.
However, I was really new to everything with entrepreneurship; I did not know about cap tables, I didn’t really know about how to build co-founder relationships. I did not know what I should be looking for. It is interesting because sometimes I look back and blame myself and say, I was naive. That’s how I ended up in a less than ideal situation. But on the other hand, I think that in situations where we don’t know a lot, we hope that we can put trust in the people around us and in the systems in place working well enough, to protect us from getting into a more vulnerable position. Anyway, I digress. Essentially, we built this company over a multiple-year period, we scaled it to three or four countries, we had millions of dollars coming through our platform and were on a high.
Things started to change when we started raising our first official round of funding. Investors started saying, “Wait a second, the fact that you only own 2% of this company is a really bad thing.” By this point, I had come to learn what a cap table was and understood what fair compensation should resemble, and had realized this for myself too. In many companies, what I had was the equivalent of an early employee. I asked to shift things around, but my co-founder was not particularly keen on it.
I also started to realize my voice was not really being heard either. I was very much in an environment where my co-founder had his vision for the company and saw me as an extra pair of hands to execute that vision. I did not actually really have a say in where things are going. That became more and more clear the larger we grew. I decided that I wanted to leave, and the final conversation I had with my co-founder was after we had met with a number of investors who started to say they would invest if the cap table changed. A few even said they would invest if we switched roles, and I became the CEO. For me, it was cool, because I had felt very small, but then these external investors, looking at the company, were validating that I had done a lot of the work to get us to where we were, which is what encouraged me to have the courage to move on.
Nandini Jammi (NJ): A lot of that sounds familiar. In November 2016, I was working as a marketing manager at a small tech company. A couple of weeks after the 2016 elections, I visited Breitbart.com, this website that I had been hearing about, that I knew was a vector of disinformation, but had never seen for myself.
The first thing I noticed as a marketer was that it was covered in ads—this is probably how they were making so much money and doing so well. They were publishing incendiary content, fake news basically, and then monetizing it through programmatic advertising. The first thing I did was write a piece on Medium explaining the relationship between Breitbart and their advertising revenues. I talked about how Breitbart, a right-wing media outlet, was being run by Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, and that he was now set to become chief advisor in the White House. I pointed out how important it was that we do not support this financially in any way. I noted that the only way that we could do that as a community was by adding Breitbart.com to our exclusion list in Google. I then urged marketers, particularly those in charge of running Google ad campaigns, to exclude the website from media buy. I included a help desk article from Google. Then I took a screenshot of an Old Navy ad on Breitbart, posted it on Twitter and tagged Old Navy in the post: “Old Navy, did you know your ads are on Breitbart?”
I just started this thing on my own. The very next day, an anonymous Twitter account called Sleeping Giants contacted me saying, “Oh my God, how cool that you’re doing the same thing that we’re doing.” That was how I learned that the Twitter account and I had basically the same idea, although he had started a week earlier than I had. Within a day, we were in touch over the phone. We had a lot in common, it turns out. We were both copywriters from Maryland. We both had a similar outlook, vision, and way of thinking. It felt very natural for us to team up and work on this thing together. He ran the Twitter account; I ran the Facebook page.
Together, we coordinated and worked on Breitbart. This campaign initially was just taking screenshots of ads on Breitbart ourselves and tweeting at the companies. As we grew, because it was such an accessible thing to do, people wanted to join us, and it quickly turned into a crowdsourced effort. Very soon, we had thousands of people contacting companies with screenshots they had taken while visiting Breitbart. Companies were coming back, sometimes within hours or even minutes, to say that the ad placements were unintentional, and they were taking steps to block the site from their media buys. We grew to several hundreds of thousands of followers.
During the time we were anonymous, he was the de facto leader to me, because the name Sleeping Giants was his idea. I felt that because I had joined “his” effort, that he was entitled to that leadership position and to have the final say. There were other factors at play: he was 15 years older than me, he had more experience than I did. I believed that was reason enough to defer to his judgment. Although we worked relatively independently, I would check in with him if I wanted to try something.
We also had that dynamic when it came to speaking to the press. Early on, he asked that I give him all of the press requests, just so that we could “stay on message.” I agreed to that, believing that it did not really matter because we were anonymous.
Then in July 2018, we were outed. The Daily Caller identified him as the founder of Sleeping Giants. Knowing this was coming, he contacted a New York Times reporter to get ahead of the story and asked me if I’d like to also join him in that. I said yes, because I was ready to come out. I wanted to do more advocacy work around adtech but had really been hamstrung by our anonymity. In the article, we had two pictures side by side, as equals, and it did not quite identify us by any titles. There was a bit of nebulousness to that.
After we came out, we had a lot of attention coming our way. The next few days and weeks, I found that he was taking interviews on his own without giving me a heads-up, and he would take interviews as the founder of Sleeping Giants. At first, I did not think it was a big deal, because I did not necessarily want the attention, nor did I feel as though I needed it. But as these interviews kept appearing, I realized that the way that I was being portrayed, the way that he was talking about me was like an assistant, or as a helper in the relationship. I was really uncomfortable with that.
I called a meeting with him to discuss it, and I said, “I need a title too, and we need to find some ways to make this situation work for me, because I don’t want to look like your helper.” I outlined the things that I wanted, and he said, “Yes, sure, we’ll make sure you get all the credit you deserve.” Shortly after this conversation, we agreed that I would take on the title “founding organizer.” It was a silly title, but it was the best thing I could come up with that was not “co-founder,” which he had explicitly rejected.
Days and weeks passed, and nothing changed. He continued taking interviews on his own. We had a few follow-up calls where I would bring up concerns that I was being shut out of vital communications and left out of major media opportunities. I was also helping sell SG merchandise and had no insight into how that money was being spent. During each call, he would make vague commitments and never follow up with my asks. In the meantime, he was able to build an entire profile for himself through Sleeping Giants, which he was able to translate into real-world influence—speaking at the big conferences, having a seat at the table. People would contact him first and not me. Because why would they? I was not seen as a leader in this effort … or seen at all.
Exactly one year later, he went to Cannes [Lions International Festival of Creativity] and sent me a picture of himself accepting a Gold Lion, the media and communication industry’s biggest award! I had no idea he was going. I had no idea we were even nominated for a Gold Lion. I was obviously not there and I feel I was kept out of it purposefully.
This was a really difficult time for me, both personally and professionally. I was still trying to find my footing career-wise. Sleeping Giants took up so much of my time and paid nothing, it was a volunteer gig. I was working as a freelancer, but it was really hard to build a career in the same industry you’re openly and vocally critical of. So I had been working on trying to build my profile as an activist. I wanted to try and support my work through speaking engagements and consulting.
So for me to be left out of the industry’s biggest award was an enormous betrayal to me. Not just personally, but on a professional level. That event would have created a significant opportunity for me to network with the right people and get my foot in the door. My career matters too. I should have been there. I no longer trusted him at all.
That was the moment I decided I needed to change something or leave. But I wasn’t willing to leave my own campaign, particularly because I would never be able to pursue my career aspirations without it. So instead, I went rogue. I changed my title to co-founder and started taking on all press requests that did not specifically ask for him. I started to take some influence back, write under my own name more often, and claim my own wins rather than feed them to him to post as Sleeping Giants. Then in the summer of 2020, I left Sleeping Giants and started my own new venture.
Experiencing Explicit and Implicit Bias
Johannes Lenhard (JL):How much of your experience do you think was shaped by the fact that you are female? Or that you are not the white male founder and investor archetype?
NJ: To me, it is pretty clear that the fact that I was not white and male completely changed my trajectory when we came out to the public in the New York Times. The pictures were equal in size right next to each other, and it is clear that people saw one of them to be a leader and the other wasn’t, and that was me. In the following months, it became clear that my experience was completely different from my partner’s. I was not being approached for interviews. Nobody was asking for me at all. To me, it is clear that my co-founder fit the archetype of “white savior.” It was almost as though they were looking for that person. They were looking for someone to fill that role … and they found it in him.
JL:We see that in the numbers. That’s what this whole world is made up of, right? White men supporting their own kind.
NJ: White men supporting the campaign against bigotry and sexism being led by a white male. They somehow managed to center even a story like that around a white male.
Maria: Me being a woman definitely impacted how my co-founder perceived me, how investors, at least in the beginning, perceived me. What was interesting was that by the end, the investors, as I mentioned, were starting to see me as the person who could lead the company.
In my own experience, my being a woman definitely shaped the dynamics with my co-founder. Actually, I saw this with all the women who joined our team, there was this really toxic dynamic where the men could always make executive decisions. Even at a more junior level. If a man was speaking, that was the voice the room listened to. The other women in the team were initially just in customer service, which my co-founder saw as the lowest rank, and in meetings would yell at them, verbally, raising his voice, and calling them out in front of the team for doing something “stupid” rather than giving valuable feedback one on one, or creating a constructive environment.
There was this negative culture in our team, and it sometimes felt very male versus female. It made me really curious how many early-stage startups have this dynamic, because I do think there is a general idea that women know less or are more soft-spoken, or more gentle, and don’t have things to bring to the table.
After leaving, I learned that one of the women on our team was actually sexually harassed by someone on our team. That was a shock and made me think, “I knew that environment was bad, but I had no idea how bad until after I left.” It really made me wonder how many early-stage startups have cases of sexual harassment or a toxic internal culture. At an early stage, you don’t have diversity and inclusion practices, you don’t have HR yet. In many ways, these could be the most dangerous environments for women to be in. Especially as there are no consequences if things do go wrong.
Creating and Maintaining a Safe Environment
EB:What specific things are important to think through when setting up your business? What do you think people could learn from some of the experiences you have just detailed?
Maria: One is thinking about discrimination and harassment policies from day one. At the new company I am now a part of, we are thinking about how we can create a really safe environment from the beginning. We have been doing a lot of reading, and it just seems like startups totally missed the boat on all the things HR policies, especially for women, whether that’s anything from maternity leave, to work-life balance, to actually the really important, challenging discrimination policies.
We have put those in place at the new company and are working hard to ensure we are an inclusive and safe place to work. If all of this had not been so poor at my last company, I would not have learned how important it is to do that. I am really proud of the safe culture that we are creating as a result of this challenging learning.
The second thing I would do is create really clear processes in general. For example, if we have a codified system of how to give feedback and what that looks like, then we could put that into practice more easily. That’s something I’ve really been trying to do in my new role, documenting all the processes, especially when it comes to culture, so that all new hires have guidelines for how to do things. That is something that was really missing at my last company. If we had best practices in writing, it could have really changed a lot of behavior. But then again, you also need a team that is willing to do that too.
Take Credit, Give Credit
NJ: The first thing I’ve learned is that when it comes to any new idea or concept (the way a lot of startups start), take credit and give credit, freely and generously. One thing that I wish that I did earlier was, and there wasn’t really a possibility to do it when we were anonymous, but I should have at least made a note of my own ideas and my own wins. That would have made negotiating later about what my job title or my role should be much easier. Taking that credit, as well as giving it, is one of the things that I do now.
The venture we are building now is very much a consultancy. Right now, it is me and my business partner, Claire, and we are very much invested in each other’s success. The way that we demonstrate that is by always elevating each other on social media. We take that extra time to elevate and promote, and it makes us both look more powerful and more unified.
Advice to Future Founders
JL:If you could give a piece of advice to your own 18-year-old self, what would it be?
NJ: I have two things I’d like to say. One is, I got lucky. My current business partner, we were friends first. We have an existing relationship and we have had a lot of upfront conversations about where we want to be and what our expectations are for ourselves, in our personal lives and our professional lives. We have asked each other whether we are on the same page as far as the longevity of the company and what it would take for us to sell out.
That has helped build and create trust because it is one thing to be friends, of course, but it is another thing to go into business together. Luckily, through these conversations and in working together, we have found that we have different and complementary core competencies. We have split our duties that way. The other thing is that we have different personal interests. That means that if there is something that she is better at, or an opportunity she is better suited for, that helps us decide who gets to take it.
Finally, we are really careful about who we work with and who we associate with. We have had people approach us for partnerships or to be our clients. If we feel that they don’t have the level of integrity we are looking for, we turn them down. This allows us to make time and space for people who are supportive of us, our mission, but also of women in general. We take the time to look at their social media profiles and to talk to others, and we use our whisper networks to see who is worth elevating and working with before we get involved with them.
Maria: One piece of advice is really practical, and it is to be a solo founder. At least be a solo founder until you find someone you are really sure about. The expectation of co-founders has been set by YC [Y Combinator], and a lot of early-stage incubators or programs. They say you need a co-founder to be able to build something successful. But often since the tech world is really dominated by men, and many men who tend to naturally flock toward working with other men, it is hard to find a co-founder in the first place. Then maintaining healthy relationships with them can be difficult.
I’ve heard a lot of other women with stories like mine, and Nandini is yet another, and I think: as women, we are strong and powerful. A lot of us have it in us to build something alone. That’s a really practical piece of advice I would give my younger self.
The second would be to surround yourself with the right people. I know that is easier said than done. But this is something, especially in building my company, that I have been super careful about. We really want to know the character of a candidate before working with them. We want to make sure they have the right skill sets, but knowing that they are a person of integrity, of trust, who is kind and willing to collaborate, is crucial. I haven’t been afraid both on hiring team members and on the investor side of things to say no to people who I don’t feel have that kind of culture-fit that we are looking for in these early stages.
The third piece of advice would be: I’m capable, I have good ideas. That is something that I really struggled with at my last company. I listened when my co-founder would say, “I’m the one to speak in the investor meetings.” I would have prepared everything and written all the notes and made the entire presentation, but I trusted that I did not know enough to be able to answer the questions. To my younger self, I would definitely say: “Your voice matters, and you have earned that seat at the table, so own it.”
Angelides: Mothers in Tech
June Angelides (Samos Investments)
June Angelides, MBE, started Mums in Tech back in 2015, while on her second maternity leave working for Silicon Valley Bank. June has since become a venture capital investor herself, at Samos Investments, and received an MBE for services to women in technology. Together we explored her experiences as a parent in tech and the considerations the industry needs to make to become more family-friendly.
Interviewed October 2020
Opening the Doors of the Tech World to Mums
Johannes Lenhard (JL):What was the goal of Mums in Tech?
Creating Space for Mums to Develop Tech Skills
JL:How did you come to start Mums in Tech. Was it based on your personal experience? What was the idea and what did you set out to do?
JA: I was on my second maternity leave, and I guess I had lots of time to think because I had a C-section for my second child. That resulted in two months of not really being able to go anywhere, with lots of time to reflect. I started to think about what I wanted my return to work to look like. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want it to be a repeat of what happened the first time. After having Adam, my first child, I had been on the venture debt team [at Silicon Valley Bank] and wanted to return to work three days a week, and was told that I couldn’t and that this specific role couldn’t be done part-time. That was a big blow to my confidence, because I loved that role; it was perfect and I enjoyed it. When I went back and did start part-time, I joined a brand-new team. That was really hard to accept, first of all, because I never expected that. I literally felt like a complete beginner. But then there were all these expectations that I knew certain things, not only because of a new role but also because as far as they were concerned, I should have come back as I left in terms of my up-to-date knowledge. But in my head, so much had changed and I had just devoted a full year to Adam, to being the best mum possible. I think baby brain had really set in and I felt a little bit uncomfortable and low in confidence.
I was very determined that this experience wouldn’t repeat itself with my second child. I wanted to make sure my brain was engaged the entire time, and I wanted to do something for me. At the time of reflecting on this, I had the realization that I was working with all these great tech companies, yet I wasn’t able to have these deep technical conversations with them, because I didn’t have the technical skills. So, still on maternity leave, I decided that I wanted to learn and see what it was like to build an app. I just wanted to go through the motions and see what it was like, so I went on Freelancer.com to hire a developer and I remember writing a message saying, “I’m looking for a developer, I’ve only got £150.” They laughed me off the site. I was completely naive, and way too optimistic about how these things work. So I decided to go one step further and wanted to learn about coding, because coding kept coming up in all of my conversations with tech founders and startups. I went on Codecademy, did a couple of classes, and very quickly realized that I wanted to learn with other people. I wanted a proper community. I wanted to have an instructor in front of me, where I could ask questions when I got stuck.
At the time, I couldn’t find anything out there that was doing this, particularly not with a focus on my situation of being a mum. [There was Tech Mums, but they weren’t focused on programs where you could bring kids on site.] When you googled classes for mums on maternity leave, all you got were mummy and babies singing and dancing classes, or weaning classes, and I thought, wow, there’s nothing for us to learn. My initial thinking was to reach out to Amali de Alwis, who was CEO of Code First: Girls. I knew they were a girls’ coding school, so I asked if there was any chance we could do something for mums. She really inspired me to think about starting something, and also kindly organize us a space. She really helped me think through the curriculum, and shared the curriculum from Code First: Girls. I started Mums in Tech as the first child-friendly education program for mums. It was all about bringing the babies.
In my network, I had these amazing people who’ve done similar things before—starting a company, crafting a syllabus—and they helped me to do it. The most important thing, however, when crafting the program was: these are mums who are busy, who maybe have the school run in the morning, in the afternoon, worrying about how to feed this baby in the class—how do I design an educational syllabus on technology in such a way that it is inclusive, so that they feel comfortable, they feel safe?
Another thing that was important was childcare on site. I wanted mums to have their hands free during classes. It’s really hard trying to hold a baby and type. I wanted Mums in Tech to be three hours in the morning that mums could have to themselves, but with the babies. If they needed to feed, they could have the baby and then give the baby back to the nanny, but the baby is right there in the room, in a very relaxed space. I wanted people to feel that coming to Mums in Tech means we’re going to have fun, meet nice people, and learn.
For the first cohort, I had about 100 people apply and I whittled it down to 30. Very quickly, I realized that that was a lot of people to have in one room. I wanted to make sure that I helped these 30 people. We made sure that we had the right space in place—we ended up starting with meeting rooms at the Thoughtworks and M&S [Marks and Spencer] corporate HQ in central London—and most importantly, that the right people came to teach. I was expecting these engineers to give up three hours of their day and thankfully so many did, very willingly. We had the head of engineering at M&S, leading the program and in fact designing it with me. We would look at the M&S website during the program and they would show us live as bugs and interactions were happening; it was amazing to get a real feel for how they would deal with problems. Everything was very practical in this sense.
I think for the people teaching, it was fascinating for them, too, just to see so many incredibly talented women who also were looking for new opportunities. A lot of them were looking for new careers, so those conversations were happening. We were exploring whether it was possible to enable work experience for the women, which ended up being tricky at the time. That would have made the program even stronger—learning how to do a tech job and then immediately putting it into practice.
Success Stories of Mums in Tech
Erika Brodnock (EB):What were your biggest successes with Mums in Tech?
JA: If I had to tell you the story of one of my mums, the one that stands out the most is Sarah. Sarah was part of the pilot program, and as part of the pilot, we would go on field trips. So we went to the BBC, Makers Academy, and Tech Will Save Us. When she went to Makers Academy, she loved it there, and straight after the talk, she said to me: “June, I love it, I want to do it. I know now after that session that I want to code,” and she signed up there and then. For me, that was just so incredible; because she had been made redundant, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. She did the course while breastfeeding, and her husband did the first shared parental leave at Credit Suisse; he took six months off so that she could do the Makers Academy program. I just thought: wow, she is nailing it. She ended up building her own app and is still going strong while managing to raise investment (for a completely remote team of mothers, which I absolutely love).
Mums in Tech gave her a chance to have that taster, which was always the aim: to give mothers a taste of what it’s like to work in tech.
JL:What kind of activities did mums get involved in at Mums in Tech?
COVID, Childcare, and Other Challenges for Parents
EB:How would you say that COVID-19 is changing the landscape for mums? And what do we need to do about it?
JA: For as long as the schools are open, it’s okay, but I would say, when the schools were shut, it was hard. And I think many mums felt it the hardest, because they felt that homeschooling fell on them. Their work was suffering as a result and they felt like they had to overcompensate. So once the kids finally went to bed, they found that they were logging back on, and just working really ridiculous hours trying to show that yes, I have worked, even though the reality was they were so burnt out.
So for me, it was a constant balancing act. I had to be very upfront with my team and say, I’m not going to be able to work the usual hours; it’s just impossible. But we had that conversation very early, because I didn’t want to start disappointing them. I said, I will get as much done as I can, but really, in this time without our nanny, I’m going to have to spread out my work day and also my weekly schedule. Like me, I think a lot of people felt a massive sort of tug of war between guilt and their own expectations, and what they know they’re capable of delivering but can’t physically do, because there’s just not enough hours.
EB:COVID-19 obviously is only one kind of emergency, making being a mum in tech very complicated. What do you think needs to be done to better deal with such issues systematically?
JA: I think a lot of it is down to childcare. So it’s fine as long as we have schools open, and if not, I think employers should be asking the mums in their teams what they need to help reduce their workload, whether it be a nanny for a couple of hours a day with costs borne by the employers if the schools are closed. They should be offering childcare to parents so that they can work effectively, or they should tell them to feel free to reduce their day and do what they can, without cutting their pay.
EB:What about from a mental health perspective?
JB: I think everyone should be offered therapy. I don’t think I could have survived COVID-19 without my coach. She doesn’t realize how much of a therapist she’s been to me. Mental health needs to be prioritized because a lot of people are feeling isolated, on top of having this strange workload. On top of that, many people are working harder to distract themselves. I know I was doing it for a while, because I didn’t want to deal with this crazy environment that we find ourselves in, I was putting a lot more on my plate than I normally would. Because it was too much, I had really bad anxiety at the start of it. So I thought, “I’m going to distract myself as much as possible.”
In these situations, employers have a duty to make sure they are paying attention. My boss several times would say to me, “June, you’re not allowed to work on Friday, you’re not allowed to work on Monday. Don’t reply to any emails.” He was paying attention. Employers need to set an example and, for instance, not send emails at the weekend, which I really think is important. My employers don’t send emails to me on non-working days, and that helps me to switch off because I feel they are respecting my time and not putting unnecessary pressure on me.
The Key to Entrepreneurial Success for Parents
JL:So, independent of COVID-19, what are the key pieces of advice you would offer to an entrepreneur that either is a parent already, specifically a mum, or wants to become one. What is the key to success?
JA: The key is, you have to put yourself first. You need to give yourself time to regroup, because there is a lot going on. Self-care is so important. Make time for yourself, because the kids are around quite a lot. Particularly now, kids are not able to burn off as much energy as before, because all their after school activities have gone on hold to reduce transmission of COVID-19. So, when they go to sleep, give yourself that time to just be, be still, whether it’s yoga you do, or reading, or talking to friends, do something for you. I’ve started carving out 30 minutes to do something that makes me happy every day. I have blocked it in my diary, from 8:30 to 9 a.m. Sometimes it’s tidying up my room, because that will make me happy. Sometimes it is something as silly as just listening to music or dancing in my room, or it might be yoga, or it might be listening to a book, or even washing the dishes that I put off. But it’s something that will make me reduce my stress in some way.
Making VC More Welcoming to Mums
EB:Now, you have switched to become a venture capital investor recently. What is it like to be an investor as a mum?
JA: As an investor, you constantly have this fear of missing out. At the moment, we don’t have the usual events that we might go to, to speak to entrepreneurs in person. So, we’re really relying on maintaining connections to other investors or sources of deal flow. I’ve had to be creative about how I maintain that and about what channel works, [such as] having phone calls instead of Zoom calls, because there’s a lot of Zoom fatigue, and maybe having a walk while taking the call. I am trying to be super flexible so I’m not burnt out by having ten calls a day. I think it’s a time where we all have to be a little bit more flexible and open to meeting people through various channels, including Instagram, which is different. People are coming from various channels and I think just be very open to that idea that these opportunities can come from anywhere.
JL:To finish off, let’s briefly talk about the responsibility or at least the influence that investors have. How do you think VCs can support making the tech industry a bit more family and mum friendly?
JA: The best thing you can do as an investor is help founders feel comfortable; be your authentic self. Hopefully, an investor is a nice person that creates an environment where the founder feels safe. This feeling can also come from you being vulnerable as well. For example, I’ve had meetings where people are pitching, and I get my kids coming into the room, and I don’t send them off. They’re there and I get them to say hello. It’s about just being very normal about it. I also always start the conversation with “how are you?” Because it’s more than a transaction, in my opinion. You’re building a relationship, and you want to get to know them. I’ll often carry on the conversation on WhatsApp, I’ll follow them on Instagram, get to know them as people, but bring that vulnerability into the conversation early, and find that human connection.
Hukemann: Young Founders
Jolina Hukemann (Student)
Jolina Hukemann is one of the youngest founders we encountered—she entered her first startup competition when she was 13. We talked to her about her experiences learning about entrepreneurship at such a young age, the impact of her gender on her experience, and how complicated it was to find a co-founder in her early teens.
Interviewed August 2020
Starting a Company as a 13-Year-Old
Johannes Lenhard (JL):You started working on your own company in 2018—when you had just turned 13. How did that happen? Where did the idea and the initiative come from?
Jolina Hukemann (JH): I watched the German version of Shark Tank (Höhle der Löwen) on television. I really enjoyed the format. It taught me that if you understand a problem and analyze it enough, anyone is able to solve a problem—that was the biggest learning I got from these shows where founders pitched investors. My idea came from my own experience: I was playing a lot of girls’ soccer at the time and we always had an issue with not having enough referees. Usually, what happened is that a parent or the trainer of the visiting team took over that role; obviously, that was not exactly fair. That really bothered me. I thought back to these shark tank shows and started thinking about a possible solution.
Initially, I started writing things down—like what is the problem, what are possible ways forward. First, I in fact did a referee course to understand the issue better and dive deeper into that part of soccer. I knew I wanted to solve the issue entrepreneurially and one of my first mentors told me about Startup Teens. I signed up to one of their “thinking workshops” (Denkwerkstätte) to pitch my idea for the first time. I was still all over the place at the time, so not everyone understood exactly what I wanted to do, but I learned a lot.
Back home, I started building a prototype with Adobe XD. With that, I went back to the annual competition of Startup Teens—as one of about 1,500 others. I needed some money to really build an app because I don’t have strong computer skills. While the voting put me in an ungrateful fourth place, the jury gave me their wildcard and I was invited to the Axel Springer House in Berlin to pitch again. Overall, I was lucky I won the second prize in the Entertainment and Games category, but unfortunately didn’t receive any capital. However, the network that I started building at these events was enormously helpful, and I met my first co-founder through it. The feedback from other people was also really helpful. Everything was slowed down a little bit with COVID—and the lack of soccer games—but I am still working on it and it still gets me thinking.
JL:How was it as a girl, for instance at the Startup Teen Challenge?
JH: In fact, the Startup Teen challenge participants were really balanced in terms of gender. I thought in the beginning that it really was a boys’ thing but it turned out to be quite different. When I first watched the pitch videos, I thought, wow, these are always going to just be boys. And I was afraid that I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone, but it was really great. There were lots of girls there—but I was one of the youngest; that did get me quite a bit of attention, but only positive so far. It was all fine; I had a really easy time talking to people and they came to me as well. It was really cool; I was really happy about that.
JL:When it comes to money, how have you managed that so far?
JH: I mean, I started to work on the Startup Teen challenge to win the 10K—but the second champion unfortunately did not get any money at all. But fortunately, there wasn’t too much need, really, for big investment. So far it was really my family and my mentors and myself that worked on this together.
I have since found someone that started working on the app pro bono so far; I would really love to pay that person in the future and that’s why I would love to continue going to contests and possibly get an investor on board, too, so that we can really get going. But before that we need to test the concept, really, and because of COVID, it is quite complicated at the moment [in 2020]. But my network is great already and I am not too worried about getting money in once I need to.
Engaging Young People in Politics
JL:And you already started working on a new endeavor, a kind of Zoom-streamed expert-debating club to bring people your age closer to politics.
JH: It might sound as if I am already starting too many things, but COVID has really slowed things down on the soccer app side of things. Now, on this new idea, I am working together with some friends. We noticed that way too few people our age think about political issues properly. In the last local elections, only 38% of people voted. That number really scared us—this is a big part of our democracy! We really want to make it a crucial part of people’s lives again, politics. They need to understand how important it is. In fact, the question starts even earlier: what even is politics? Even being involved on a school level counts, I believe. So what we are trying to offer is a kind of Zoom-powered debating club. We will invite different experts from different kinds of political organizations and levels. The good thing about this project is that I can extend my networks even further, into politics. I just finished an internship in that sector. We will do this via Zoom first, because of the pandemic, but over time we hope to take this to in-person meetings soon. Another pillar will be a website where we can show videos, blog posts, and photos to promote the topic of local-level politics to youth in my area. We want the readers to really get engaged!
Advice for Girls Interested in Entrepreneurship
JL:What would you say to other girls if they wanted to become an entrepreneur? What should they do?
JH: I would tell them: have courage—just do it! You have to just think about one thing: what is the worst that could happen to you if you dare to do this thing now? What is the worst that could happen if I have an idea and write something down and start talking to people? What is the worst that could happen? Somebody says no and another one says, “I don’t care.” But really, is that bad? No, not at all. You might sleep badly one night—but that’s it. Later, you perhaps have a family with children, you might have a house that you need to pay a mortgage for or other things like that. In that case, you just fall deeper and the risk is higher.
You really should not think that just because you are a girl you can’t do this. Then you should always keep in mind: if that was true, no man should be able to become chancellor in Germany again. It’s just stupid. You really shouldn’t hold back. Every gender has its strength, sure, but when it comes to entrepreneurship it really doesn’t matter. And a mix of everything—gender, nationality—fuels creativity; it makes everything better, really. I don’t differentiate when it comes to that.
Supporting Young Entrepreneurs with Community and Mentorship
JL:What do you think is needed in terms of support in order to get more young people into this world?
JH: The biggest issue I am facing is how to find a co-founder. I was hoping to find one with all the pitching; I was hoping that I would find somebody that would want to do it with me. With a co-founder, things are much easier, it’s quicker, you balance each other off. Things just work better. But so far, I haven’t been able to find somebody long term. I don’t know what a systemic solution to this is, but perhaps we need more spaces where young people that want to work on startups can meet and exchange ideas.
I in fact was working with somebody that I really liked in the beginning, but it didn’t work out after some months; she didn’t really put effort into the project. So, I called my mentor and talked everything through with her, and she helped me to figure out how to end the relationship. That was the toughest thing I went through so far; ending that relationship was really hard. You have to really learn how to manage this. I learned a lot from that, but this kind of mentorship is really important and isn’t available to many people, really. More of that—in whatever institutionalized form—would be helpful if it was more widely accessible.
Lawton: Founders with Disabilities
Emma Lawton (More Human)
Emma Lawton is the co-founder of More Human, a startup to help community leaders scale their communities. Emma has pink hair and one of the most outgoing personalities we encountered during the research for this book. She also has Parkinson’s, a brain condition that affects her movement. We spoke to her about her experiences founding and running a tech company while managing her disability, the ups and downs, and the superpower she’s made of it.
Interviewed January 2021
Emma’s Journey into Entrepreneurship
Erika Brodnock (EB):What made you decide to take the leap into entrepreneurship, and what were you doing prior to this?
Emma Lawton (EL): Before this whole entrepreneurship thing, I had just taken on a new job at Parkinson’s UK (the Parkinson’s Disease Society of the United Kingdom), leading the design team. I had ended up doing a variety of different jobs there, some technology roles and some outreach over the last few years before taking this full-time role with them. At the same time, I was doing a blog project where I did something new every day for a year. And one of the things I decided to do was apply to Zinc, a business accelerator in London. I gave it very little pre-thought if I’m being honest!
I guess, I’ve always had a slightly entrepreneurial spirit; I’ve always kind of set things up on my own. I’ve always dabbled with small ventures—I have had little Etsy shops and made stuff. As a family, we’re quite entrepreneurial in that sense, too. If we need money, or we’ve got an excess of something, we’ll make something with it. My parents, when I was younger, used to make soft toys and chess sets and things like that. So, I guess I was brought up in that type of environment. But I’d never thought I’d really start an actual company. I never thought that would be something I’d do, especially not seven years into having Parkinson’s! But I applied to Zinc and when I started looking into it more I wanted to do it. I was actually really surprised when I got accepted.
Overall, I think I like working for myself. I’ve done a lot of freelance work in my time. I like making decisions about things. I like strategy. And I just saw all of these things coming together in entrepreneurship. In my company now, we’ve got quite a flat structure, we kind of do a bit of everything. And I really like that every day is quite different. I think that’s one of the great things about being an entrepreneur: you never know what’s gonna hit you in the morning!
How Disability Can Isolate
Johannes Lenhard (JL):Can you tell us a little bit about how this entrepreneurship journey and your journey with Parkinson’s have gone together?
EL: So Parkinson’s is quite weird, because there is a lot of information out there, there’s lots of resources, but it’s very difficult as someone who’s young with Parkinson’s to actually find people similar to you. You have to really search them out. I did quite a bit of hunting, but it was actually my nurse who put me in touch with some other young people, which was really helpful. So had it not been for her, I think I probably would have really struggled. It’s that whole thing about having your tribe and knowing these people are in a similar situation to you, that stops you from feeling lonely. If you don’t know who’s got your back, and you don’t know people the same as you, you can feel lonely even in a room full of people; it is quite a weird experience. I think that’s one of the reasons why we decided to start More Human; we’ve all struggled with loneliness and know first-hand how important communities are in fixing that.
EB:Are you happy to share whether having a disability specifically impacts the way in which you work with others, thinking back before COVID-19 in particular, but also now?
EL: It is often a challenge, because Parkinson’s is one of those conditions that doesn’t really stay the same. If I had something that was consistent, I’d just get to know where the goalposts are and I could tell people what to expect from me. I think people expect me, after seven years of living with it, to be able to say “I’m gonna be bad on this day” or “I’m going to struggle with this at that time”—it doesn’t work like that for me. When I had just started working with my (now) co-founders, I was supposed to go in to do a pitch and my feet started cramping in the morning, and I knew I was going to miss it. I thought: “What do I do? They’re gonna think I’m unreliable, it’s not a great start to our working relationship.” I wanted to be there with them. I wanted to talk about our business and be proud. And in the end, Duncan, my co-founder, had to do it on his own. I just felt really bad. I knew that this was something I couldn’t have controlled. But actually, the not knowing really frustrated me, the fact that I couldn’t tell him for sure whether I’d make it on time or not. I’m easily worried that I’m letting people down, so sometimes I push myself through things. But actually, that’s not good for my body, it’s not good for me.
There’s an expectation that in business you have to turn up on time, you have to constantly be professional, you have to give your best in usually a small window of opportunity or you miss out. Recently, I did a pitch to some friends and family to practice and fill them in on what I’ve been working on. And I knew I didn’t do a good job because my Parkinson’s was terrible. I could barely think straight, and I was in so much pain. I kicked myself the rest of the day, but I shouldn’t do that because actually, there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone said it was fine. But I knew I could do better than “fine.”
There is this fine line between not expecting too much from myself, not drowning in pressure, but pushing myself just enough to feel proud. For many people who’ve got a disability, actually just getting out of bed and going to work in the morning is considered to be inspirational in a way; I want to push past that and do more than what’s expected of me. I don’t want to ever stop expecting more from myself.
Disability as a Driver of Innovation and Connection
JL:Obviously, as you just made very clear, this disability comes with a lot of challenges. Are there ways it helps you?
EL: It definitely does in a number of ways. Firstly, I have insider knowledge on accessibility and what makes a product work. I’m living with complicated stuff every day, and that gives me a greater insight. I think because of that, I can go with my gut instinct a lot more than perhaps some other people can when it comes to making decisions. Because if you design for accessibility challenges, it’s going to work for everyone. I sort of have that inbuilt.
And the other thing is very different. When you’re a startup founder, a lot of it is about being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right person—just being lucky. I think I am kind of memorable, you know, the shaky girl with pink hair is likely to be the one that stands out in a meeting. I went to a virtual breakfast thing with some VCs and other founders a while ago, and I turned up with my bright yellow dress and my pink hair and talked about Parkinson’s, and I thought, “Well, being memorable, that’s not a bad thing.”
It’s also a great leveler. I’ve met some incredible people that are really high up in some really big companies, who’ve actually sat on the floor to talk to me; they physically and emotionally come to my level. Having something that outwardly shows my weaknesses and challenges makes other people reveal theirs to me too, and it helps me to make connections on a deeper level. That in turn makes any business we do together more meaningful.
What the Industry Needs to Do to Support Founders with Disabilities—and Everyone Else
EB:What would you say is the most important change that we need to make in the tech industry to make it more accessible for people with disabilities, from your own perspective?
EL: At the moment, the startup industry has a really bad reputation for people pushing themselves too hard and not resting properly. When you have a disability, you sometimes need to take time for yourself, you need to actually just do things at your own speed. Sometimes I’ll have to completely put down tools because I can’t do the things that I’m required to do on a task at that time. That’s incredibly frustrating. But the world doesn’t end when I don’t do it, I’ll do it eventually. Slowing the pace down a little bit and being a bit more flexible, you see people as people rather than machines. Whether they have physical challenges or a family to care for or other priorities, there needs to be balance. At More Human, we’re trying to make sure that we’re being good employers, making sure that the human needs of our employees are looked after as well as their work needs. We’re trying to break some of the bad habits that we got into when there were just three of us.
EB:I get that—looking after people’s human needs is absolutely fundamental; to ensure that people feel included. But then how do we get more people to apply or create the jobs that need to be there in a way that means that people from all backgrounds, including people with all levels of ability, are able to apply?
EL: Firstly, you need those of us that are actually doing it to be more visible and do more to share the fact that it is possible. I try and do as much as I can to make that point, to make sure that people know that you can have a disability, you can be a woman and you can be semi youngish, and you can co-found a tech startup. If I can do it, anyone can do it. Those of us that are living that life whilst managing other challenges need to make ourselves more available to people looking to do the same, so they can see themselves reflected in the industry. And it’s particularly important to me when it comes to hiring. I’m asking myself, “Actually is there some way that I can open the door to someone like me to join our business?”
Stewart, Thione: LGBTQ Founders and VCs
Gary Stewart (Techstars, FounderTribes)
Lorenzo Thione (Gaingels, StartOut)
Gary Stewart, the founder of FounderTribes, and Lorenzo Thione, co-founder of StartOut and now managing director of Gaingels, spoke to us about their experience being gay in the world of tech and investing. The bottom line: it really matters where you are (the UK is less networked than Spain or the US) and whether you find your safe group that allows you to be yourself at all times. Holding together really helps—and will eventually allow you to spread the privileges you and your group have achieved.
Interviewed January 2021
LGBTQ Communities in Different Countries and in Tech
Erika Brodnock (EB):You’ve both worked in the tech ecosystem in various roles as founders and investors—how has the experience of being part of the LGBTQ+ community in tech evolved during that time?
Lorenzo Thione (LT): There would be so much for me to say primarily, not just because I’ve lived my own identity as LGBT and as an entrepreneur, but also because I’ve really worked to affect and to improve the dynamics of how LGBTQ and entrepreneurship as identities meet. When I started my first company, I had just come out maybe two or three years prior to that. It wasn’t so much on my mind at the time, but I perceived it being an obstacle for a lot of other people who I knew and who were not out to their boards or to their investors or within their companies. It has certainly impacted me to think about why that was. Especially in places like San Francisco, which were extremely open and accepting, there was a dynamic that was characterized by the feeling of not knowing what you had to gain from coming out. I saw the myopic approach in that, I thought there was so much to be gained by not constantly looking over your shoulder and worrying. Not only that, but there’s also something to be gained for everybody else, because you’re all of a sudden becoming a visible, real role model; you show through representation what’s possible, what jobs and professions are possible. The value of representation is so, so important. We know this from entertainment, we know it in so many different circumstances. That was largely why I cofounded this non-profit, StartOut, shortly after the exit from my first company. StartOut is very much focused around creating not just a safe space, but also an edge, something to gain. For people to understand that the moment that they did come out and embrace their own LGBT identity and entrepreneurial identity together, they had a community to rely on, they had resources to rely on, they had a shared experience and a shared background.
Gary Stewart (GS): I’ve been gay in three different countries. I think being gay in New York in the 1990s was just really scary. It was at the height of the HIV/AIDS moment. America was a very homophobic country. Being at Yale Law School, in the 1990s, I studied a lot about sexuality, but I was nervous about it; I was afraid to even be associated with homosexuality in any case. At the time, it was still technically illegal for gay men to have homosexual sex. I mean, sodomy was illegal in a lot of states and the Supreme Court had ruled that such discrimination did not violate the US Constitution. So that was America. It was a large part of the reason why I left. I didn’t feel it was a place where I would ever be allowed to be myself; if you are gay and can choose where to live, you might not have chosen America in the 1990s. And especially being a Black Jamaican man, there were additional pressures and discrimination to deal with.
When I first moved to Barcelona, Spain, and my friends came to visit, they called it “Gaycelona.” Gay men were holding hands and kissing in the streets, which was really weird and transgressive to me. I quickly found a gay mentor, who still is one of my best friends. Everybody was just so open and accepting. And that explains probably why I lived in Spain for 14 years, because maybe from an economic point of view, it wasn’t the best place. But it was where I felt like I belonged, without judgment. Spain was really, really free and accepting. Even when I went to work for a business school run by old-world Spanish aristocrats, it was very welcoming. The dean was openly gay. And when I left Barcelona to go to work at a big telco called Telefonica where everyone looked like they came out of a Polo ad, I was worried. Everyone kept saying how they would be super Catholic—and yes, people were super Catholic, but they were still really accepting of me. On the whole, it didn’t really seem to be an obstacle, being gay in Spain.
When I came to the UK, I thought, whereas in Spain homosexuality was really embraced and discussed, in the UK it didn’t really feel like it was something that was as visible. In the tech scene, I saw people starting to try and create “gay in tech” organizations, and I’d try to support them. But it just doesn’t seem like a gay movement exists in tech like it might in Spain or in the US. When it comes to lots of elements of personal identity, it seems like the UK prefers to pretend that a lot of things don’t exist and keep it moving. Whereas I feel identity politics seems to be part and parcel of being American. And definitely not something that Spanish people shy away from either.
The Importance of Representation at Every Level of VC
Johannes Lenhard (JL):Lorenzo, how and why did you become involved in Gaingels?
LT: So I should be precise that I did not found Gaingels; I was on the board of StartOut with my friend, David, who started Gaingels with Paul in 2015–2016. I was busy with writing and producing a musical that would go to Broadway, as well as a new social media company I had founded. Back then they came to me and basically said, “Look, we want to create a group for LGBT investors to invest in LGBT entrepreneurs.” At the time, that was definitely missing from the equation. I made it clear that I couldn’t do it with them but that I would be a big cheerleader and supporter. And then a time came when things had shifted a little, in 2018. My personal situation had shifted, the show had closed, my social media company was largely on autopilot; I could basically focus on other things. We started talking about the fact that there was more that could be impactful in the ecosystem and that could have a positive effect for social change, rather than only focusing on a narrow view of diversity when it came to LGBT leadership. We talked about how important it is to go beyond the founders, to address also the C suite, the boardroom, all the other layers in the venture ecosystem where decisions and value intersect. We started to focus on making sure Gaingels could add value beyond investing—we developed a recruitment tool and established an internal practice for our companies to help them identify great board members that come from diverse backgrounds, including LGBT.
Building a diverse investing ecosystem means also to address the issue of who is benefiting financially from the value that is being created in the ecosystem. If you looked at how this was decades (or even just a few years) ago, both decision power as well as the wealth value would remain within insular groups largely made of people that all looked the same and came from the same socioeconomic backgrounds and the same educational and financial circles. Bringing more diverse investors, investing in more diverse teams, pushing the conversation into valuing diversity and inclusions across all axes, all this can only happen once you’re at the table. So we focused on delivering value, and creating access opportunities, and over time Gaingels really evolved into what it is now, a venture investment syndicate made of thousands of individual investors who index very high across many diversity axes, that are able, collectively, to back and invest in companies that embrace diverse leadership at all stages of growth. This is because of our collective commitment, the value we deliver, and the fact that we bring and represent the LGBTQ community and its allies on the venture cap table, to help push forward the conversation on why inclusion and representation is important, even in venture. In the last three years, we went from an angel group that had invested $3M or $4M across a couple of years to having invested almost $150M in the three years since.
Making Your Own Room to Grow Professionally
EB:Gary, what made you start FounderTribes? Was there a particular moment or incident that made you decide to leave your career behind at Telefonica?
GS: What I found is Spain was really great for me, because I was an American first and Black second; like that, America is great, because as long as you are good at what you do, there’s a way, and they really prioritize and love winners of all colors, even though it might be a little bit more difficult to win if you’re Black, or gay, or both. Then I found in the UK that it’s a societal system that’s the most stultified; it’s like you’re fighting against almost 1,000 years of dynastic history. It’s not as fluid as say, Spain, which is ultra-liberal after shedding Franco in the 1970s, or the US, which is still a relatively young country. In the UK, everything is a bit more rigid. So long story short, I found that in Europe, and in the UK in particular, there wasn’t really room for me to grow professionally, unless I was willing to create something myself. Certain doors would be closed to me, because in many ways I am a perpetual outsider who is allowed in to visit but never really welcomed to stick around indefinitely, at least not at the level that would match my ambitions. The reason that I created FounderTribes was to see if I could do something about this.
In 2021, it can’t be that we still live in a system that rejects 99% of would-be founders in no small part because of race, gender, and other considerations that should be irrelevant in this context. And it’s not just about race; particularly in the UK, it’s also about class and geography. There are just so many different reasons why people are locked out of the system. Entrepreneurship is not exempt from the rules of society at large, which still privileges upper-middle-class white men who went to certain schools and are based in London. We can’t sit around for another 10 years talking about how 1% of founders in the US that get funding are Black or 2% are women, or that in the UK, those numbers are 0.24% for Black founders and not much better for women. I don’t even know what percentage are gay. I wanted to use technology to focus on this problem, to give more people access to the feedback, networks, and capital that they need to start up and scale up their businesses, all from a mobile phone.
The Work Is Never Done: LGBTQ Accessibility and Intersectionality
JL:Where do you think the accessibility for LGBTQ folks is not yet given? Where is the ecosystem particularly closed? And where do we still need to work harder?
LT: So, there are two really important dimensions to take into consideration there. But one is obvious: geography. It’s not the same everywhere, even within a certain country. Obviously, San Francisco and New York are very different realities than rural America and the South, or even the Midwest. There are still a lot of discriminatory laws in place in states that are just simply not as open. But the other dimension to look at is intersectionality. While things may have gotten better in many areas for gay white men, the issues are compounded for LGBT women, for BIPOC LGBT folx, and especially for trans individuals. I would say that the reality is that for trans men and women in the workforce, as employees in a tech company or a VC, we are in an absolute way much farther behind then where we gay men were 15 or 20 years ago. Issues range from open discrimination to constant microaggression and unconscious bias. The reality is—and the shortest way to say this is—the work is never done. We have to take some of the progress and the privilege that derives from say, even for someone who’s a member of the LGBT community, being male and white, and use it to advance the state of things for many others. How do I leverage that power to help create more equity, both through representation so that it becomes normal and through more direct access and opportunities, for anybody else that is not yet at the same sort of place in that forward movement as we are?
EB:On two occasions now, Lorenzo, you’ve said that this isn’t just about the LGBTQ community, it is about making sure that the door is open for everybody that needs to come through it, which is commendable, and in my opinion, the true definition of allyship. Gary, do you want to answer that question as well?
GS: Before I get to intersectionality. I still feel that for me, being gay still needs to be focused upon. These two parts of my identity, being Black and being gay, present themselves differently. Being Black is something that I can’t really avoid—everyone knows it. So I have to deal with that element of my identity always. Whereas being gay, you can hide it. The struggle is different, precisely because it can be hidden. So for instance in the UK, I don’t see that many other openly gay entrepreneurs and I believe many of them might not be out of the closet. And that makes me ask the question, in this day and age, why are people still afraid to come out? And so as much as I think the intersectional bit is important, I think it’s also important to still remember that just because gay people can now marry and there are gay characters on TV, it doesn’t mean that anti-gay prejudice has magically disappeared. There’s still lots of things that gay people can’t do. Up until recently, gay people couldn’t even donate blood, or at least it was treated with suspicion, because of the AIDS crisis. Gay people can’t really have kids the same way, and in the UK, I still don’t think you see so many public displays of affection between gay people. I also have a transsexual friend, and I have to say, her struggle is real. Just because people watch Pose doesn’t mean that they don’t have issues with transgender or transsexual women, for example.
Dealing With—and Debunking—Presumptions and Prejudices
EB:To focus slightly more on your intersectional identity, has either being Black or being gay ever hampered any of your progress?
GS: Definitely! Like I said, being Black is different, because I can’t hide it. People won’t always say what they think about it to my face. Being Black in the UK is a really interesting experience, in the sense that even though I’m not from here, there are certain presumptions that I can’t seem to overcome. I just wasn’t born into the right family. My last name could be an “acceptable” last name if I weren’t Black. That is heavily tied to race, but not limited to it. I think that’s also about class. Maybe that’s why Meghan Markle felt a little bit uncomfortable as an American here. Whereas I think being gay has been less of a factor. I can choose when I want to share it, and I must admit that I don’t always choose to share it.
EB:Lorenzo, what are your thoughts on this—has your sexuality ever been a superpower for you in any way?
LT: First of all, it’s somewhat easy to affirm that my identity as a gay entrepreneur has had an impact on both my choices and my outcome, since it’s what makes me who I am, but it’s hard to say whether or not it has made things necessarily better or worse. It definitely has carved a path, and I’ve chosen to walk one set of choices and one set of things that I’ve leveraged that way, that would not have been the same if I hadn’t been gay. Any ingroup/outgroup dynamic—whether it is about sexual orientation or ethnicity or being a Stanford grad—can be helpful and leveraged for advantage, however. It is not something that is specific to either race or sexual orientation, I can guarantee you that for Stanford graduates, it’s easier for them to raise money from Stanford graduates. You leverage the shared identity and experience with an ingroup to create more affinity to leverage the fact that they have a vested interest in your success just by virtue of association.
The impact, though, can be certainly negative for people who have to deal with individuals, because of their work or because of where they live, who have prejudices against them. I don’t believe that has happened to me specifically. But I’ve also really tried to create visibility for my own successes and for the things that I was doing, so that it would both help others to see what’s possible, as well as debunk the prejudices that may be holding back certain groups of people. I often tell the story of having dealt with a college roommate who came from a very conservative family. I wasn’t out when I first lived with him. He was a little younger, and I was doing really well academically and had certain successes that clearly created a certain positive relationship. When I came out to him, which was not easy, it broke down all of the things that his family or his background had created for him: “Wait, wait, wait a second. This is a person who I know, who I respect, who I admire, who I want to emulate in so many other ways; how is this the same person as what I’ve been told that a gay person is going to do or represent in society?” And whereas that might be a very specific example, I really believe that creating mold breaking examples and stories where you show people what’s possible has both a positive impact within the group, because it creates representation and visibility for them to see what they can do, but also outside the group, debunking and breaking down prejudices. It’s the same rhetoric that can bolster the acceptance of immigrants in a lot of groups where immigration is seen as something that conservative movements have depicted as leech-like or taking and not giving, it breaks down that narrative by showing what success and what positive impact to society immigrants can have.
Advice on Being Open about Sexuality in Tech and VC
JL:Let’s touch on how to best navigate the tech and VC ecosystem when it comes to being open with your sexuality. What would you tell people now? What is the best takeaway that you’ve learned that you can share?
GS: My best tip is definitely to find your tribe. I always like to have a group where I feel really safe. At my last job, for instance, there was a group of us who were early-stage investors and we were all gay, some out of the closet, some a bit more closeted. We spent a lot of time together, hanging out, and having all those conversations that normally you can’t have when you’re in mixed communities, because you’re worried about being “too gay” or whatever. It is good to have that community where you have that safe space, and then just navigate it the best that you can; you don’t have to be out with everybody if you don’t want to be.
LT: So I think it’s very similar to what Gary said, but let me focus directly on the relationships; so if we’re thinking, for example, about entrepreneurs navigating the world of VC, which largely means looking for investors, employees, or partners. That is quite similar to dating; if you were to date someone and go on a few dates but you felt like you had to hide all of these things about yourself, most likely, that’s not going to be a relationship that’s going to work out. I see it similarly for the entrepreneurs now; there are enough groups that are dedicated to removing a lot of the specific barriers you might face and connect you with other like-minded people. It helps if you weed out the people that you might not want to be in business with, specifically not for a long relationship between an entrepreneur and an investor. I say, find your tribe. If the venture partner that you might want to take a big investment from really has a problem with you being gay, guess what: you do not want them to find out at a later point after they’ve signed that check.