Like most women in tech, I could recite a litany of jaw-droppingly inappropriate statements made to me by men in professional situations. Amidst these comments—spanning genres of condescension, underestimation and predation—one stands head and beefy shoulders above the rest. Not because it is the most outrageous; those examples aren’t fit for print. But because it points to something that is almost never discussed in the gloomy discourse about women in tech: the opportunity for women.
First, a disclaimer. I write what follows with caution. In no way do I mean to diminish the scale of the challenges faced by women in technology. But the path to fixing these is a long one. Full gender equality is probably not something I will see in my lifetime. In the meantime, as an entrepreneur, it seems only sensible to leverage the resources and opportunities one has, however scarce or imperfect. To fail to do so would only play to one of tech’s most frequent prejudices: that women are inferior entrepreneurs.
In my experience, the opportunity for women in tech emerges in three main forms.
The context for the memorable comment was this:
My (female) co-founder and I were talking to a male venture capitalist in Silicon Valley about our then very new govtech startup, Apolitical, which we founded with equally bold ambitions for social and financial returns. After we’d explained the business model and the potential impact, the VC in question scratched his stubble thoughtfully:
“So I suppose you are going to do this as a below-market-rate returns business?” he said, in a rhetorical way.
No, we explained, surprised. We wanted to make this a market-rate return company, for the reasons we had just set out, which he had apparently not internalised while eating his kale salad. To do things at the scale we planned, we reminded him, we had to attract investors who expected market rate returns.
Anyway, I asked, why on earth would we not build a billion-dollar business if we could?
More stubble scratching. Then he said, “Yes, I suppose if you two want financial freedom, you could do that.”
He might as well have said: “Yes, I suppose if you two girls want financial emancipation from your husband overlords, you could do that.” He later told us, without irony, that his new fund was going to run “gender sensitivity” training.
Irritating? Undoubtedly. But in the two years since, we have seen a variant of this bias —the assumption that two women who care about impact cannot also care about returns — help us solve an even greater challenge than raising capital: selling to government.
Selling to any organization as an unknown startup is hard. Selling into government, with its high risk aversion, can be particularly difficult. And never more so than when you’re asking government to entrust you with data.
Against the backdrop of big tech platforms’ indiscretions at the expense of users, our potential government partners and customers were understandably cautious about our motivations, how our business model could evolve, and the liberties we might take now or in the future. So we were somewhat surprised when we secured our first government deals soon after starting the company.
We have come to attribute these swift early sales partly to being women. As our conversations advanced we noticed that our key advocates in government often mentioned and seemed reassured by the fact we were impact-driven female founders: two women who cared about impact enough that they would surely not sacrifice it at the altar of making a quick buck? Trust was accelerated.
The extreme play-for-pay cases of male investors hitting on women entrepreneurs are of course grotesque and deeply upsetting. So are the sexist comments and innuendo that are all too common in many workplaces. But I’ve found that mild inappropriateness has one small advantage.
Not long ago, we were introduced to a prestigious fund reputed to share many of the values we care about in the company. A much-anticipated meeting with one of the investment partners went perfectly until, at the end of the meeting, he asked me out for a “moonlit” dinner. It wasn’t upsetting or disempowering. It was an efficient due diligence hack for our company: it’s hard to believe that any firm that tolerates indecent and short-sighted behavior toward women does not also tolerate indecent and short-sighted behavior in general, to anyone or anything in a position of vulnerability: good founders who took a bad bet, good startups having a bad quarter. Who wants as a board member—a critical decision-maker—someone from a culture in which men aren’t expected to exert the modest discipline of keeping their own members off meeting agendas?
Of course, this process of elimination leaves good capital hard to find. But it does exist, and it’s growing.
In our experience, for every unsavory male VC, there is at least one wonderful, powerful woman (or man) supporting women in tech. Some are visible, hailing from obvious quarters. Our lead investor is a former Goldman Sachs trader, the youngest women and first female trader to make partner. She’s a well-known and outspoken investor in women entrepreneurs. By contrast, our other critical early investor is a British venture capitalist educated at Eton and Cambridge. Though he looks and sounds like the epitome of the establishment, and he resists using terms like “women’s empowerment” or “gender equity,” he privately gets excited about funding the first company with an all woman board on the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index. Collectively, investors like these represent a powerful and growing movement. Motivated to varying degrees by principles and good sense—investing in underrated women is a business opportunity—these angels are an incredible asset for female founders: they are incentivized to support both a return on their money and a return on their principles and, in our experience, they accordingly go far beyond the call of duty in terms of helping the company.
We’re starting to observe other benefits. For example, as our company grows, we’re hiring a lot more men. To our disappointment, because we believe gender balance is good for the company, we recently became more male than female. However, the men we hire have so far proved polar opposites to the stereotypical gender-insensitive homo technologicus. This is partly because of our hiring processes, which assess candidates’ affinity for an inclusive culture and their enthusiasm for an inclusive mission, to make governments work better for citizens everywhere. But it is also, we suspect, because men who don’t like working for two women—a view likely correlated with other behaviors we don’t welcome—never apply.
Of course, I’d love this problem to be solved at its roots and, to this end, Apolitical is doing a lot of work on gender equality policy. But policy, powerful though it is, rarely offers quick wins, and impatient female entrepreneurs must in the meantime work with the strings in our bows.
Robyn Scott is co-Founder and CEO of Apolitical.