How VC Mark Suster handles the sting of criticism when he speaks up about sexism in Silicon Valley

How VC Mark Suster handles the sting of criticism when he speaks up about sexism in Silicon Valley
Image: Mark Suster
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Late in 2017, as the Me Too Movement continued to mount, the Los Angeles-based venture capital fund Upfront Ventures held a day-long retreat, educating employees on sexual harassment.

“It’s easy to assume in a small organization that everybody read our employee handbook and generally knows right from wrong but of course companies big and small should never take this for granted,” Mark Suster, a managing partner at Upfront, wrote in a March 8 post on his popular blog, Both Sides of the Table. “Towards the end of the day my partner Greg Bettinelli said, in effect, ‘If we leave here today having just talked and not changed anything then shame on us.'”

Suster took these words to heart. An entrepreneur-turned-VC, Suster, age 50, successfully founded and sold two companies before joining Upfront (he sold his second company to Salesforce). In 2017, he won an Eddy Award, celebrating his public and private leadership advancing economic development in Los Angeles county. 

Alongside his partners, Suster pushed for what’s now known as Upfront’s “inclusion clause,” It’s a term sheet regulation requiring every Upfront portfolio company to have an “inclusion rule” in its HR policies, stipulating that for each open executive position, the company interviews “at least one woman or person from a population presently underrepresented at the company.” The inclusion clause complements Upfront’s “zero-tolerance” sexual misconduct policy.

Though he knew some founders would push back against the idea of a fund regulating job-interviewing practices, Suster wasn’t too concerned. A quarter of Upfront’s investment dollars in the past three funds has gone to new companies with at least one female founder, he says. As Suster notes on his blog, “We’ve seen that teams with at least one female founder receive disproportionately higher follow-on dollars, showing evidence that diversity can lead to better outcomes.” His perspective on the value of female founders is both invaluable and rare in VC, where roughly nine out of 10 decision-makers are male.

In conversation with Quartz, Suster explains why diverse teams make better decisions, why he struggles to believe that anyone isn’t a feminist, and why he keeps advocating for gender equality despite the criticism he sometimes receives for it.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

Well before the Me Too Movement, we had been screening films for audiences of tech professionals and hosting discussions on the value of inclusion. As a man, I thought the priority was on diversity and inclusion, and only after #MeToo did I fully realize that companies had to go much further in being aware of and providing protection against sexual harassment and misconduct. The transparency of the Me Too Movement helped me realize how pervasive these problems are and how much further we have to go to fix them.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Yes, absolutely. I think this word has incorrectly been co-opted by those who want to attach negative connotations. Feminism is simply the advocacy of women’s rights based on equality of the sexes. This doesn’t imply that men and women are the same—of course we’re not—but we should by all means be treated equally in the workplace and in protection of the law more broadly. Given what feminism truly means, I find it hard to believe that everybody isn’t a feminist.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

We are a venture capital fund and we know that when you provide money for others to start and run a business, you have influence in how the early culture is shaped and what is considered acceptable behavior. We have wording in our term sheets which stipulates that when founding teams recruit executive staff members, they must include at least one woman and one member of an under-represented group in the process. We don’t feel we can dictate exact outcomes, but if you change the top end of the funnel we feel it’s much more likely that you’ll also impact the bottom end.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

I don’t perceive a specific threat to my gender. The biggest threat men have is the same threat that women have—existential destruction of the planet by world leaders more interested in personal power than governing and more interested in short-term personal greed than leaving a sustainable planet for our kids and grandkids.

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?

Yes, I speak both one-on-one to male peers and I speak publicly about it. Often the conversations about sexism are reactive—when I hear an inappropriate comment made. On occasion, I speak proactively about the need to be male allies or advocates of women’s rights. I also keep a blog, Both Sides of the Table, in which I frequently comment about the actions of leaders that are exposed so that women know that there are men out there who do care that women are supported and treated as equal in the workplace.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I think one of the biggest anxieties that men have is about the social pressure of being “a provider,” which of course comports to our societal gender biases that men are supposed to be the primary breadwinner in a household. This is an anxiety I had when I was first married and when my kids were born.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

Well, I don’t know what I wish they knew, but I can tell you what surprised my former co-worker and now wife the most. She was surprised at what a “softy” I am at home. She told me that she felt I had this hard exterior perception at work when in reality I like sentimental movies, am a lifelong fan of theater and musicals, and that I’m far more of a stay-at-home family guy than a big public socializer.

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 have written many public articles and statements both in defense of women and criticizing men who have committed misdeeds. Every time I pen an article, I am deeply criticized by a small minority of women who either think my tone is off, or I am too clueless of male predatory behavior, or that I am inadvertently “infantilizing” women, in their view. Honestly, it stings to read these criticisms. What I want to tell men is that however badly it feels to be criticized for speaking up, you should empathize with what it must feel like to be a woman who speaks up against a powerful man. Knowing how badly those women, from Anita Hill to Rose McGowan, have been treated for coming forward, and that any small injustice you face pales in comparison, should motivate you to get over your personal sensitivities and speak up.

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 think one regret I had was not being a better co-parent in the first few years of my older son’s life. I felt like I fell into a stereotype of what a father is supposed to be, and having done that, I committed when my second son was born to be different for both kids. I believe it would have been fairer to my wife to own more at-home responsibilities and not accept the at-home gender stereotypes that I was raised with.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

The best advice that I received wasn’t words but actions and it wasn’t from a man, it was from a woman. My mom was always the dominant character in my household. She ran a nonprofit organization, she started several businesses, she was the go-getter that made us travel and try new activities, and she modeled aspirational behavior that made me respect women from a young age. My parents divorced in their 40s and my mom was forced to develop a new career. She learned to sell pharmaceuticals and went on to build a successful career managing a multi-state territory. Modeling good behavior is the most important thing both men and women can do to change equality for women in the future.

My advice for young men: speak up. When you’re in a small group of men in a professional setting and you hear an obviously inappropriate comment, you need to speak up then—even when it’s just the guys. Showing other men that sexist comments are inappropriate and changing the norms of what is tolerable is an important step to stigmatizing sexism.