One of my role models in business is Sallie Krawchek. Sallie, an ex-banker and CEO of investment platform, Ellevest, wrote a letter to her daughter, Kitty, addressing young women’s concerns about what Donald Trump’s presidency means for the future. While Sallie’s advice to her daughter and to young women hits home, it was this particular excerpt that struck me most:
It can be easy to get pretty down these days, I know. As venture capitalist Sonja Perkins shares with women she speaks to, “If you’re going to look for discrimination in business, you’ll find it.” Her (paraphrased) advice? Just don’t. Don’t look for it or you’ll get pulled down by it. I’ll take it one step further and urge you to practice what I call MRI: “most respectful interpretation” of anyone’s actions. Assume the best intent in others around you. You will often be right and even when you’re not, people can rise to your view of them. Not always, but enough that I believe it’s worth it.
This quote represents an unpopular opinion. As someone passionate about women’s rights and the role I hope women will play in digital businesses, I often get frustrated and confused when reading about diversity issues in business. Just this week, First Round Capital published their “State of Startups 2016” report, in which most of the 700 entrepreneurs surveyed think that equality in tech is over 15 years away and their were hardly any respondents (1%) who named a female as the current tech leader that they admire most. This report is one of many that contribute statistics to the ever gloomy state of diversity in digital businesses.
It’s quite easy to focus on the negatives when looking at diversity in tech. Though we haven’t addressed the topic directly in our Social Media and Digital Business course, many of the topics we have discussed relate directly to the issue.
We spoke at length about the election and the role social media played throughout the campaigns. While social media played a huge part in allowing people to learn more about the candidates (and spreading fake news about them too), it also contributed to the hugely obvious divide in having a female candidate run for president. The #ImWithHer hashtag received unbelievable attention, and I don’t believe it was just because of the attraction to Hillary Clinton. I believe the #ImWithHer hashtag actually appealed to the public’s fascination with a woman in a traditionally male role. Hillary Clinton represented something contrary to our preconceived notions of who a “president” is and I believe her femininity is a main reason for much of the coverage she had on social media during the election cycle. Hillary Clinton attempted to disrupt a process that is archaic and male-dominated. She is an innovator of sorts within our society.
Trolls and Harassment
In addition to the election, we also spoke about trolls and online harassment in class. We learned from Professor Rob Fichman that women were more likely than others to experience harassment on social media. Additionally, when sites are overrun by trolls, “they drown out the voices of women, ethnic and religious minorities, gays–anyone who might feel vulnerable.” Social media can be a dangerous place for women and minorities. Though Hillary Clinton is likely the best example, women who have risen to success constantly receive threats and are harassed on social media accounts. Leslie Jones was forced off Twitter this year after receiving hateful comments from trolls. Though Twitter has since launched a “mute” option on their platform, the damage to Leslie Jones has been done and shows the tremendous hate that is directed towards women who have reached some degree of success.
Women in Digital Business
In addition to focusing on how women impact and are effected by social media, I’ve also tried to learn more about the role women play in digital businesses. Within digital businesses, there are three areas in which I have focused: hiring within technology-enabled startups, digital businesses with products targeting women, and investing in digital businesses.
Hiring Women in Tech Companies
Very few tech companies are doing well hiring diverse candidates. In addition to female applicants, technology companies also struggle recruiting candidates from diverse ethnicities and demographics. In July, Facebook reported that 4% of its U.S. employees were Hispanic and 2% were black, the same as the two prior years. Women made up 33% of its global workforce, up from 31% in 2014. Facebook isn’t the only company with diversity issues. 61% of the 70o technology startups that responded to the State of Startups Survey reported that their team was either all male or mostly male. While many men (49%) think the issue stems from a weak pipeline (not enough women going into tech), women attribute the cause to unconscious bias during hiring/promotion processes and lack of female role models.
Digital Businesses Selling to Females
It’s no secret that the purchasing power of women has significantly increased over the past few years and women are making many of the purchases for households across the world. Consequently, thousands of companies have been founded to target these consumers – many of them by female founders. The most probable reason for this occurrence is the obvious: women understand women. Entrepreneurs like Shelia Lirio Marcelo (Care.com) and Jenn Hyman (Rent the Runway) started their businesses because of pain points they or their friends had encountered. Knowing their product would resonate with a female consumer base, they pursued their ideas and run highly successful businesses.
Investing in Digital Businesses
As probably the most relevant to myself, I took a special interest in looking at women who are investing in digital businesses. Though only 7% of all venture partners in the U.S. are female, there are several women making an entrance into the male dominated field. Funds like Cowboy Ventures and Forerunner Ventures have teams of mostly females and have made extremely valuable investments. Just this year, Forerunner has had two huge exit events from their early investments in Dollar Shave Club and Jet.com. On the contrary, the majority of venture funds lack female partners on their team and will likely see lower returns than funds diversifying their team. While diversity for the sake of diversity is “nice to have” for many companies, it’s actually quite necessary in venture capital. In order to be able to evaluate and understand the pain points of companies founded by women and those founded for women, it is extremely valuable for VC firms to have female partners on their team. If the investment team can’t understand the pain point the company is trying to address, they will likely miss out on a valuable investment opportunity.
The role of women in social media and digital business has played a large part in my experience in our Social Media and Digital Business class this semester. From Hillary Clinton’s #ImWithHer campaign to our lecture on trolls and harassment, it’s clear that women have an obvious presence on social media. Women’s impact on digital business is also becoming more apparent, and will only continue to be evident as more technology-enabled companies are started by females, create products for women, and are invested in by female venture partners. Though it’s easy to focus on the bleak state for women on social media and in digital businesses, I’d like follow Sallie Krawcheck and Sonja Perkins’ example and practice MRI while hoping for a better future for my generation of women.