This VC explains why she now tells women to “lean out”

Allison Baum tried leaning in. Then she realized it wasn’t working.
Allison Baum tried leaning in. Then she realized it wasn’t working.
Image: Courtesy Allison Baum
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

Allison Baum remembers when she first read about Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy. It was 2011, and Baum was working in sales at Goldman Sachs. Baum recalls hanging on every one of Sandberg’s words, “hoping it was a solution for my challenges as a rare female on the trading floor.” She highlighted the article and shared it with her all-male colleagues. They were supportive, and some even let Baum sit at the table during meetings. “I believed if I leaned in harder, I could change the system in front of me,” she said.

But those changes were small, and didn’t do much to help Baum advance her career. “What I realize now is that even if I had followed Sheryl’s playbook perfectly, corporate culture as we know it was simply not built with women in mind,” Baum says. “In fact, it’s not just corporations. All of the systems that define our society—our government, our jobs, capitalism as a whole—were all built by white men and, therefore, are naturally suited for the success of other white men.”

Less than a year later, Baum left Goldman, first working as an early employee at coding academy General Assembly, then co-founding VC firm Fresco Capital. Now the principal at Trinity Ventures, another VC firm, Baum thinks she can offer women a solution for male-dominated corporate culture: Quit and do your own thing.

“I have learned that success or impact is a combination of hard work, timing, and influence. It’s really important to look at a system and a game and say, ‘Can I win this?’ If you can’t win it, if you can’t influence how someone thinks or how a system works, then it’s much better to leave and play a game you can win,” Baum says.

There are lots of reasons why it’s easier for women to set out on their own now than in the past. In a booming economy where businesses are jockeying for talent, companies that are friendlier to workers in their philosophy and in their policies might be able to attract more top-tier candidates. Thanks to the ubiquitousness and accessibility of the internet, it’s cheaper and easier than ever to start a business.

And social changes, like those brought about by the Me Too movement, have disrupted the power structure of entire organizations and industries. “Before now, we had these traditional gatekeepers, like a Harvey Weinstein or VCs in the valley that got away with bad behavior for so long, who were controlling information and relationships and capital. Now all that is breaking down, so the opportunity cost of doing something new is so much lower,” Baum says.

To Baum, that change doesn’t just benefit women—it’s good for everyone. “I’m excited that this is an awesome moment for women, but it’s more about empowering individuals instead of [pitting] men against women,” she says. “I think it should be about diversity as a strength and not about women inviting men into their circle, because then you’re recreating the same problems.”

She’s wary of rhetoric and platitudes that prevent people from having real conversations about gender equality. It’s not because she’s not sympathetic—she has a Me Too story of her own—but “being angry, while it’s a good part of the process, is not productive in the long term because it shuts you off from hearing other people and [paying attention to] what is causing the problem.”

Baum knows leaving your job isn’t always right for everyone at every stage of life. But in her mind, it’s less risky to build something new if it’s something you really believe in. “Now is the time to lean out. Now is the time to vote with our feet. There are more viable alternatives for work than ever before, and we will only serve to repeat history if we continue to pay into a system that will never pay us back,” she says. “I think future generations will look back and realize that from this moment on, maybe we don’t have to fight quite so hard anymore. Maybe it’s time to start letting go.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here