A growing number of women replaced their male counterparts in workforce today. Many of them became executives and figurehead of large corporations, like Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg. It does indeed seem to be a victory of feminism. But perhaps we should not celebrate the equality in work place just yet. There are not a lot of successful startup stories about women. Recently The Verge has a story about the falling out of Zipcar founders Antje Danielson and Robin Chase. In the story, it specifically mentioned that the funding immediately started coming in after Chase’s successor Scott Griffith took over. Is the startup world sexist? I am going to tell four personal stories of mine. Perhaps they can answer a small portion of the answer.
Few years ago, before I started my company, I was looking up other startup business that may be in my area. I had some balls, so I reached out to all these business owners and hope to have chance to sit down with them and chat – perhaps even building some sort of partnership. I was surprised how many of them accepted my invitation, among which there was a woman founder. It was a while back so I don’t specifically remember the name of her company or even her name. Let’s call her Jen. Jen and I made an appointment to have brunch in West Village. I got there early, and was a bit nervous. I remember that I wasn’t entirely sure the scale or the business model of her company. I felt a bit embarrassed and was afraid to act foolish when we chat. Our appointment was 10:00 am so when it was 10:20, I began to think I perhaps mixed up the location. I called Jen, and she sounded like she was still on bed when picked up the phone. 30 minutes later, Jen show up with water in her eyes, messy hair, and one of her fake eyelash was falling off. I asked her if we should meet another time, but she insisted to talk. I briefly introduced myself and told her I maybe interested in starting a software business in fashion because I saw opportunities in mobile CRM. She demanded me to explain details and asked my potential clients, and I gave her what I had in mind at the time. She clearly wasn’t satisfied and started to make accusation that I was trying to steal her business secret. At this point we hadn’t spoken about her business at all, and in fact I was not entirely sure if I was going to move forward to have further discussions. I apologized as a gesture and told her I should leave since she wasn’t entirely comfortable with our conversation. She lashed out and yelled at me in public and told me she is going to bury me. Finally, I had to just walked out from the restaurant embarrassed and frankly…amazed. Perhaps she had her reason for lashing out. Perhaps she thought I was a potential investor, so she was upset that I didn’t make it very clear. Perhaps she had some emotional break down the night before the meeting (which seems to be more likely). But 50 minutes late for the meeting, showing up “gipsy style,” and lashing out during the meeting are way over what is considered acceptable behaviors. Now, let’s be fair. People often act personal and emotional in the startup business. It’s only normal. Reality is tough. But it is very unusual that a man would lose control of his emotion so completely in front of a stranger. I personally condemned all this statements about women being naturally vulnerable and emotional. These statements seem to play a generous gesture to all women – that you know, you are forgiven because you are a woman. But they are only like opiate – highly addictive and destructive. No, men and women have equal capacity in both emotion and ration. I like to think I was a rather vulnerable and emotional person, yet if I were to act like one, I wouldn’t receive much sympathy from just about anybody. Eventually I grew into a tougher and more rational person. Our culture appears to encourage the men to be rational and tough while encouraging the women to be emotional and vulnerable. This is ultimately building women dependency to their counterparts – and in many ways, you must be a very independent person to survive in the startup world.
As life moved on, I never heard anything of Jen again. Clearly I was not buried, and I found my partners. Two of which, were women. They both left the company now. Base on legal agreements we had, I wouldn’t use their real names. I am going to call them Sara and Rachel. Sara was a capable businesswoman who was in lower class at business school. She was good looking, outgoing, and rather witty. I personally admire her for both her skills and personality. Rachel on the other hand, wasn’t exactly attractive. She is rather average looking, like myself. Rachel is also a very capable. She is organized, determined, and she is a good negotiator. It just happened that Rachel and I were both single in the company. Overtime, people started to make jokes, at first out of blue, about Rachel and I being a couple. To be fair, Rachel and I probably could make a convincing couple, so neither of us was offended by these jokes. Rachel would call me 11:30 at night to discuss business, and I would invite her to my apartment with little hesitation (since we live rather close at the time). I was never attracted to Rachel, and I assumed she wasn’t attracted to me either. This positive dynamic changed eventually, without me noticing. After one meeting, I asked Rachel to stop by to my apartment later so we can discuss details. Everyone laughed and it was at that moment I noticed the relationship between Rachel and I became a more sensitive topic. So I asked her, “Why don’t we get a dinner and go over the details instead?” Even then she felt uncomfortable and declined. Eventually we ordered food to the office and stayed late. The particular discussion became a disaster. We weren’t efficient enough and Rachel practically wanted to run out of the office since the moment we sat down. That was the point our relationship went “slowly bankrupted.” I’d say I am generally a sensitive person. In romantic relationships, I haven’t had hard time to figure out what my partner wants. But in the business relationship, it was quite daunting to bring the topic forward considering it would probably be disrespectful to do so. Eventually, I felt I had to confront Rachel considering the fact that she was hiding from me would be incredibly difficult for the company to operate efficiently. Even asking her to talk was difficult. She found excuses to avoid conversations for nearly two weeks. I had to write her a very long email to explain how I found difficult to work with her in recent months, and if there is anything we can work out together. She then sat down with me. It was such an awkward moment considering Rachel, the one who is usually excellent in opening a conversation, just sat there and waiting for me to speak. I told her sometimes people made jokes about co-workers and they do not really mean it. I also told her I would speak to people about stopping such jokes, if she preferred. She told me it wasn’t a big deal, and she didn’t mind at all. Well, perhaps there was something else that bothers her that I never discovered, but she decided to leave the company the soon we spoke. I noticed Sara might know more about what really happened, but she kept it a secret from me. Until today, what Rachel did was still a puzzle to me. It’s not unusually for men to discuss about a woman within a small circle, but it is very hard to bring the discussion to a woman, whether it being pleasant or not. There seems to have “an invisible” wall between men and women. Without you notice, you hit that wall. If I were in a company that has six female partners and two male partners, I probably would feel quite difficult to speak freely. In fact, I feel it would rather intimidating. That’s probably how Sara or Rachel felt – and perhaps how their voice or concern were never heard. What should we blame then, the invisible wall or the male domination? I like to think both. It’s a vicious circle that male domination prevents women to bring their thoughts to the table, and therefore stronger male domination. Unfortunately if you can’t communicate effectively between the partners, you are out from the startup game.
Last year, in late 2013, my mom had approached me for a business idea. She had a connection with a prominent German fabric machines manufactory for years, and through this connection she met and built connections with some ambitious fabric makers. They are looking to expand the market to the US, and my mom wanted me to evaluate the market and explore potential investors in New York. Although her first attempt in fabric retail had failed in China, her reputation in fashion still attracted some investors and potential partners. Unfortunately, the deal was not sealed at the time, and my mom continues to explore other possibilities. In fact, she will visit New York in September, but that would be another story to tell. During the process of finding these investors and potential partners, I met a few wealthy individuals who are more into investment in a fashion brand – particularly women’s accessories. Later, I became acquaintance with Gabriel, a veteran of LVMH’s Debbie Group. I soon connected the dots and decided it would be a good idea to find a talented accessory designer to start (or to improve) a label with the help from experienced business partner and strong financial backers. Of course I didn’t expect it to be easy, and I have met and discussed potential partnerships with a number of designers over the period of six months. It was a pity that one of my personal favorite designers Katharine Kmiecik had fallen out deciding it was best for her to assist and design for well-known labels. Certainly, it was rather understandable – and perhaps even an admirable decision. I particularly respect the fact that she had courage to invite me to sit down with her and confront the conflict. On the other hand, not everybody can be like Katharine. I don’t really find it problematic to deal with all kinds of farewells, considering the world of startups can often be a song of goodbye, as long as the lyrics demonstrate some sort of respect and dignity. Both men and women would choose a stable five to night job over an unknown venture, but it does seem to me that a woman is much less likely to take the chance. Personally, I found women consider more thoroughly when it comes to finance and business. This is an absolutely necessary quality for entrepreneurs. One the other hand, perhaps it was the utter stupidity that brought us some most told stories of the successful startups, like Microsoft or Facebook. You see, it seems to be okay for a guy to end up homeless and sleep on a bench if he fought for his dream and lost. In fact we are told to pursue our dream growing up. We even think the tough experience somewhat heroic and poetic. Not so hard to imagine a man with messy beard on his face and say, “I live in a box for three years but I love what I do.” You might even like this man for his ambitious or naive. I don’t remember a single story, nor could I picture a girl doing the same. We never seem to pray a woman who is fighting for her dream and willing to give up her comfort and appearance. We tend to think, “Wow, crazy bitch,” if we genuinely get to meet someone just like that. Well, we certainly want more crazy bitches. Courage and willingness to give up comfort and appearance are almost required in the world of startup.
It was during the mid-June, I became acquaintance with Anni. Anni is a very talented Jewelry designer, and she has a small label called Anni Jürgenson. Anni, originally from Estonia, speaks excellent English. She is rather intelligent, humorous, calm, and well mannered. While her label isn’t really generating considerably amount of revenue, her works were features in media. Like many successful designers such as Coco Chanel, Tom Ford or Nicolas Ghesquière, Anni has a unique, pleasant, and fashionable face and attitude. I can easily conclude that she is a very likable person and would make an excellent candidate for both attracting the investors and becoming the face of a brand. I soon extend an olive branch to her, and invited her to dinner. During the dinner I discuss the possibility of adding revenue with the help of additional retail and marketing efforts. Anni seemed to be pleased yet nervous about the possible venue. Then very soon, we started to meet quite frequently and developed a friendship (at least I like to think so). As I became familiar with Anni, I grew confidence in our partnership. My conclusion was that Anni had many merits of a successful entrepreneur, and I was confident to recommend her publically. It was during the late July, I realized it was time to push the envelope and arrange meetings with Gabriel and potential investors. In fact, things went rather smooth, and I soon received positive confirmations. At the same time, my communication with Anni became daunting. I was not certain the reason and neither was I paying my attention to it mostly because I was rather confident in Anni being a trusting part of “the game.” Of course, I noticed the change of dynamic. Based on my previous experience, I know it is the best to confront it early. The answer that I received was, “I have a boyfriend so it’s best to not see you so often.” It sounded like a joke to me at first because “your boyfriend might be worried” was a joke between us. I thought she was pre-occupied by other matters so I told her I had important matters to discuss but not to worry until the weekend. And it wasn’t until the weekend Anni decided to cancel our arrangement after I asked her specific time to meet. I then thought she was backing out. Of course I wasn’t sure the reason and frankly I didn’t really need one, considering people back out all the time. But in this particular case it was upsetting since if Anni ever shown any sign to exit the partnership, her reason was that she had a boyfriend. I wrote a message to explain how I was disappointed and downhearted because she didn’t act responsibly both when cancelling the meeting and when “terminating” the potential partnership. And the reply I received was all about how her boyfriend doesn’t approve our relationship. Normally one would be furious for such excuse in business partnership. It’s plain ridiculous. I was rather upset when receiving such reply. Now I think about it, I realized Anni probably was telling the truth. It’s rather common for men to be controlling in a relationship. It is so culturally accepted that one might not even realize doing it, even myself. I was once a controlling lover, and I didn’t realize what I was one until years later. A man could easily interrogate a woman when he only thought he was “having a conversation.” If you turn on TV, you see the drama series like Rome, in which women are treated like properties. And then when you go to theaters, you watch these self-acclaimed “female movies” about women in which they fight their main battle around some men. It seems that we are educated to know that the center of a woman’s life is a romantic relationship, while the center of a man’s life can be just about anything. In that case, of course women would suspect a man’s intention when he is buying them dinner - if a love affair is in the center of their life, then all things a man do must be done for love, nah? If someone bought me a dinner, I knew for sure this person must have business interest – there is no otherwise. It’s so clear, and I have to waste no time to identify that. Isn’t that unfair – not only having a “deservedly” controlling lover that can manipulate your relationships, you also have to identify other men’s genuine intensions? You see, when a man tells his girlfriend that he would have a meeting with a potential business partner, he doesn’t normally get many follow-up questions - but it suddenly seems to be so suspicious when a woman says the same. Isn’t it such a pity that both men and women are subject to think women’s highest accomplishment in life is to have a lovely romantic life?
So to answer the question in the topic, I guest a short answer would be that women are culturally corrupted to be vulnerable and less-risk-taking. And even if some of them were bold and tough, men would still outnumber them in startup business leaving them awkward and feeling out of place. Additionally they are educated to prioritize love life, and treat their romantic interest as their superior. Now a better answer to ask, how are we going to improve this situation?