Are We There Yet?
President and Managing Partner
Tell us about one thing that's happened recently that leads you to believe that there's still a problem?
When I was consulting with start-ups in Silicon Valley in the mid 2010s, most of the founders I worked with were men. Their VCs and boards of directors I presented to were men, too. Fortunately, a few of us women slipped into the mix, but I saw firsthand how challenging it was for female-founded organizations to get the same kind of attention and funding that our male counterparts did. True to lore, even the questions were different; where women were asked more about risk mitigation and managing personal commitments, the men spoke to product readiness and growth potential.
But fast-forward to today, where I’m back in the ad industry working on a client project... and I see the same pitiful statistic come up again: less than two percent of all VC funding goes to women-founded businesses. (That number dwindles to less than one percent if you’re a woman of color like me, btw.) All this, despite being better investments?with one BCG study finding that women-founded businesses delivered 10 percent more revenue over five years and over twice the revenue per funding dollar, over men-founded businesses.
This is critically dangerous, not just because of the blatant inequity (which apparently is 208 years away, anyway), but because it points to a future in which new businesses that come to the fore will lack the perspectives, experience, wisdom and indeed potential, of virtually half the planet. With so many businesses facing real uncertainty today, from the established (e.g., GM, Sears) to the new generation (e.g., WeWork, Uber), it behooves us all to see what newness we might breathe into the systems.
Will our clients of tomorrow be doomed to the same echo chambers of today?
How about something that proves we're making progress?
Beyond the bubble of our own industry, in which we’ve exceeded the three percent female creative director number tenfold, there is promising movement in the corporate and VC worlds. Both ends of the spectrum are critical for agencies?corporate business remains the anchor of agency clientele, while startups funded by VCs hold the key for new agency clientele, new modes of working, and fueling advances in advertising and media that could change the course of our business and beyond (data security, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency ... ).
The Business Round Table’s Purpose of a Corporation has committed to "foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect." This statement has been publicly called out as well-intended but "we’ll believe it when we see it"?and so the challenge has been set to the 181 CEOs to demonstrably operationalize and deliver D&I.
Melinda Gates’ #EqualityCantWait movement is getting the discussion moved out of the shadows, and thanks to her, it also got seriously funded?to the tune of $1B. In her words, it’s, "only a small fraction of what’s necessary," but her investment and incubation company follows through with programs that support partners that advance progress for women and families in the US. One key focus area? "Fast-tracking women in sectors with outsized impact on our society—like technology, media, and public office. The reason the traditional pipelines into these industries work best for men is that, intentionally or not, they were designed that way. We need to create new pathways into these industries that will open more entry points for women from all backgrounds."
Finally, we’re increasingly seeing similarly formidable female-run VCs cropping up (e.g., Aspect Ventures, Aligned Partners, Forerunner Ventures and even Serena Williams’ Serena Ventures) that are resetting how innovation and business promise are funded, by valuing the contributions and ideas of women founders.
All of this is good for the entire ecosystem, and for everyone.
What else needs to be done to get there?
I recently saw an industry conference called the "WeSuite," which is a nice evolution of the oft-maligned (read: patronizing/marginalizing) "SheSuite." The ambition is right, but one cannot oversimplify the challenge of getting to "We." Hiring a diverse talent pool does not also automatically tick the inclusion, dignity and respect boxes. While the rational arguments and evidence-based data are exhaustive, the actual changes required to operationalize meaningful inclusion, dignity and respect are cultural, psychological and systemic.
We need to get to a place where we can have a gender neutral discussion and get down to talking about the real impact men and women are making together on business. Right now, that’s not possible, because we can’t ignore the gender dynamics that are artificially stifling women and business overall.
To quote a line from a recent How to Get Away with Murder episode: "Men typically invest their money while women donate it." Women need to be active in the conversations, we need to have more investment power and we need to have more influence. We’re doing our part?we’re Shine Theorying (thank you Ann Freidman and Aminatou Sow), we’re funding each other, we’re hiring each other, we’re creating new business paradigms that address the needs of half the population and then some. But the impetus to balance the VC funding equation needs to come from everyone, not just women. Obviously in the long term, women-backed VCs only investing in women founders makes as little sense as what we see today: male-backed VCs only investing in male founders.
So rather than create new silos and quote more depressing statistics, let’s have an honest and respectful conversation about why this is all really happening: starting with implicit bias on both sides, as well as loss aversion. We’re at least starting to do "awareness training" on the first, but how are we conquering those biases in practice and in policy? Unless and until we can bravely solve for those two very big and very human cognitive biases, we’ll all still be hash-tagging rallying cries, talking around the real issues and quoting depressing statistics.
And that’s just bad business for everyone.
So, here’s a request I leave you with, regardless of what gender you identify with. The next time a woman comes to you with a business idea, whether in your agency, your company or your VC firm?stop what you’re doing and listen to her. Really listen to her and repeat back to her what you’re hearing. Focus on the substance of what she is saying and the possibility that she’s illustrating. If you don’t understand it, bring in some folks who might, and listen again. Ask her questions about how her idea came to be, what it solves and what she might need to get there. Just doing that, you’ll have already changed the game and heck, you might just be onto something game-changing.