Venture capital is a notoriously male-dominated field, so perhaps it’s no surprise that female founders are severely underfunded compared with their male counterparts. Data from Pitchbook on the 20,964 venture-backed companies founded in the US since 2013 shows that women raised an average of $38 million in venture capital per founder, compared to $157 million among men.
Felser co-founded Freestyle, an early-stage venture fund with $216 million under management, in 2009. Two of Felser’s tech companies, Spinner, one of the first internet music services, and Grouper/Crackle, a video streaming service, were acquired by AOL Time Warner and Sony for $320 million and $65 million, respectively.
Today, Felser refuses to ignore the gender inequalities he once overlooked. He frequently uses his platform on social media to call out gender differences—like the fact that male entrepreneurs rarely personalize their email pitches, though female entrepreneurs almost always do—and to encourage fellow VCs to think about their own sexism, “Men need to ask more women about what they can do vs thinking they have all the answers,” he recently wrote on Medium.
In conversation with Quartz, Felser explains why he’s more likely to meet with female founders than male founders and why his kids now call him a “cry baby.”
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
At Freestyle, we were hip to diversity as a strategic advantage years before #MeToo. Back in 2013, we felt that inviting a woman on our team would make Freestyle better by adding different or new perspectives and deal flow, both of which are our lifeblood in venture. However, when we posted the position, we received 90% male applicants for our associate position. Bummed out but resolute, I invited 10 women I knew to dinner to figure out what we were doing wrong. They fixed the wording in our job description and posted to their own “different” networks. We received a ton of female applicants and ultimately hired Joyce Kim. We brought on the superstar Jenny Lefcourt (now a full and equal partner) when Joyce left to found Stellar.
The personal stories that led to and propel the Me Too movement are a constant and vital reminder of how unfairly women are treated in the workplace and how incumbent it is on men to do everything in our power to equalize.
Isn’t it insane that this question has to be asked in the 21st century? Yes, I am a feminist and I support full equality of the sexes in every conceivable way.
I’m always looking for ways to be even more of an ally. If I am in a meeting of mostly men, and a woman is quiet, I might ask for her perspective. I seek to add diversity to work-related events, dinners, meetings. I pay attention to the tech industry’s capacity for unconscious bias, starting with Freestyle’s own deal flow. Only 20% of the funding-related emails I receive are from women, so in an effort to equalize the playing field and to add needed diversity to Freestyle’s portfolio, I am more likely to meet with a female founder than male. Our ultimate startup investment decision is gender neutral, but at least now we have more women-led startups in the mix.
Men who don’t evolve and get the power of diversity will be left behind. Men who get it will find an easier path to their own personal success as they embrace the power of multiple perspectives and stronger new personal networks.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
We talk about the dangers of unconscious bias and doing nothing. We talk about dialing up our EQs to be more empathic. We talk about asking for feedback from women, when uncertain about the impact of our own behavior or those around us. We talk about taking actions that help level the playing field to make sure we are all set up for success.
Where do I start? We are taught at a very young age that the man has to lead, be strong, invulnerable, and dominant. We wear a mask that hides our vulnerability and authenticity. It has taken me years to be okay with crying in private and public. My kids now call me a crybaby, which I guess is a compliment.
I wear a fetching female nurse costume at Burning Man.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
I’ve experienced my share of feeling unfairly treated on social media, yet that pales in comparison to the challenges women face in the workplace. Men must remember to be deferential and to keep speaking out to create an open dialogue, despite the noise. It is only through openness and turning down our defensiveness that we can learn from each other.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
I used to organize an annual all-male dinner at CES. I didn’t purposefully exclude women but I also didn’t seek them out. About five years ago, I started making an effort to include my female tech peers and our invite ratio has slowly crept up to 50%. Now, I make an effort to invite women to all my group work events, though it’s increasingly happening [organically] as my personal network has expanded to include more women.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
Err on the side of more and clearer communication. Don’t assume, as unconscious bias often lives in assumptions. My best advice is “Don’t be creepy.” And hire an amazing partner, like Jenny Lefcourt, who is a pioneer in the movement, and my gender guru.