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Interview with Telle Whitney, President & CEO Anita Borg Institute. Telle has served as President and CEO of ABI since 2002. Whitney has 20 years experience in the semiconductor and telecommunications industries. She has held senior technical management positions with Malleable Technologies (now PMC-Sierra) and Actel Corporation, and is a co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. Anita Borg is on Twitter @anitaborg_org
Transcript follows & video above. This is PtII of the interview.
- Have you noted bias or lack of openness from many venture capitalists as regards women entrepreneurs? I gather you would have heard many stories from your members?
I happen to know that most of us have unconscious bias. That we have pictures about what is successful. One of the most insightful findings from our study “Mid Career Technical Women’ is that both men & women saw some of the women bosses as less technical. And that’s just one example of ways that we all see the people around us through our own lenses & you better believe that it’s unconscious. So with venture what they are interested in is success, so if you can paint a picture for them that you will be successful with credible data, there are certainly many venture people, men & women who will invest in you. But because they see so few women, it does mean that there are these unconscious biases where they will often be less open to investing in women. Only because it is less common for them so it doesn’t feel as comfortable. And also I would say a lot of funding comes through networks & if they have networks that are primarily men, the women are less likely to be in those networks.
That’s really interesting information about the unconscious bias & lack of openness. Knowing that through your research, what do you think are the antidotes for that then?
Looking at myself, I’m certainly am aware of when I react to someone & if I put people in a category. So for me, the first step is just recognizing that I’m doing that & ensuring that it’s not part of my ultimate decision making process. For women who are pitching to a venture person, you do really need to understand that is there & that you really need to fit into a mold that they understand. So part of the solution you see, is trying to be like the boys in a way, until you actually engage the venture capitalist on your own terms? If they’re used to seeing people talk about ROI you need to understand that is what they want to hear. So a lot of it is learning the language that they expect to hear from you. It’s interesting because it is all too often what might be a male game.
I was going to say it sounds like a game?
It does & in many ways it is a game! I think that many women don’t realize that they also have their own networks. So understand that there might be opportunities for you as a woman that are not open to other men. I know there are some funds that are specifically looking to invest in women entrepreneurs & so this is an opportunity.
I know Astia does a lot of great work with women.
- Have you found that some successful women deny that there are any challenges or obstacles for women entrepreneurs? If they have achieved success they don’t want to note that there is anything broken in the system or that there ever was a glass ceiling. I ask this question because I have heard that both some women CEO’s & women venture capitalists that some take this position.
This is a really interesting point because for each of us, if you are ambitious & you really want to be successful, if you are successful you want to believe that you’ve succeeded on your own merits. So recognizing that there might be biases in the system, most of us don’t want that to be true. And certainly for me, I have felt that, I want to succeed on my own merits. As I’ve learned more about the research & understood a little more about the playing field, it’s been an eye opening experience for me. I’m reminded of the time when I was talking to a group of very successful senior technical women at a company. They had never gathered before & were very uncomfortable coming together as a group of women, because once again because more than anything else they wanted to succeed on their own merits. And so every one of them started off the conversation by saying ‘Well I succeeded & I think that every woman who comes after me should do it the same way.’ But then as the evening went on & you started to take away layers. All of them had stories, every single one of them talked about the time that a manager said something inappropriate to them, or a time when they were not recognized when a male coworker said the exact same thing & was called on. It’s this interesting dichotomy that we face once again that if you’re an entrepreneur that this is part of the playing field & that knowledge of this can help you to be successful.
This is such an interesting point for me personally, because I think I must be very contrary. Because I can hear what you’re saying but in fact if I know something is harder to do I would be more interested in trying to do it against all odds so to speak. But then also I would feel that I had achieved it on my own merits because it was more difficult to do than if I was a man! I know that I am a bit contrary because people tell me that. And so it’s harder for me to understand that some women that when they do accomplish these goals, that of course they are doing it on their own merit because there is no other way they could have done it?
Right. I think for each of us understanding that there is of course our own merits but that we all live within the system. And there are system factors that contribute to the net result & that for most women that succeed they’ve had to be quite a bit better than their male counterpart. And once again there are a lot of study to back this up.
And would they acknowledge that they’ve had to be quite a bit better or would they see that that is just part of they dynamic. These are the women we’re talking about who initially wont acknowledge that there is such a glass ceiling or that there are problems?
For most women I don’t think they know this.
Ok, so they just up the ante & they do everything 10 times better & they succeed & then they say everyone else should do the same thing?
I’ll tell you one example, there’s a venture woman who had been quite a successful entrepreneur. I think she had some ambivalence about being called out as a woman investor but then she sent this business plan to one of the business schools. One went in with the name Howard & one went in with the name Heidi, the same exact plan to 2 different sessions of this class. Across the board the one that had Howard as the name was rated higher than the one that had Heidi. So I think that that’s a simple example of something we don’t understand. And if you were Heidi who was taking that business plan forward, you could probably still be successful & not realize what you’re working against.
- What is your advice for women entrepreneurs sourcing venture capital from your experience?
I would encourage any entrepreneur is to understand their passion. What is this product, what is this idea that you are trying to create? If you can really understand it, the next thing is to articulate it. The next thing is believe in yourself, more than anything else, understanding that you have the capacity to create this vision will make it sell. From a practical standpoint, you should seek a lot of advice about what are the elements of a business plan. I think that there’s a lot of pragmatic stuff. But the passion & belief in yourself will take you through.
Thankyou so much
Thank you, thank you.