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The Creation Story of Women in Venture Capital

6min read
Business

There's been a lot of press over the past year about the culture of harassment that's taking Silicon Valley by storm. Stories of sexism and outrage. Of women receiving less overall funding for their businesses than men and fewer opportunities to have a seat at the table on the VC side at all. At last count, fewer than 7% of investing partners at VC firms are women.


It's been a poignant topic for me personally, in the year-and-a-half since I started working at a VC firm, Union Square Ventures.

This is hardly the first time in my life when I have experienced being the only woman in the room, but it is the first time that I've witnessed an industry's culture vehemently reject the implications of this behavior. I'm proud that our position in the tech industry uniquely positions us to effect change. So I think it's important to talk about what's going on and better understand the historical context that led us here.

While I am a part of the investment team at a VC firm, I'm not an investing partner. I spend most of my day-to-day focusing on nurturing and growing the strength of the 65+ active investments in our portfolio network. It's my job to build the strongest network possible and facilitate fast and direct introductions to people in and out of our portfolio to expose our companies to new people or ideas, ultimately helping them save time, save money, and build better businesses.

It's a newer job niche within the VC community, one that USV was among the first to introduce back in 2010. Since then, we've conservatively hosted more than 250 portfolio network events and engaged 3,000+ people in everything from in-person network events to online Slack discussions and direct one-to-one peer connections.

Unlike investing partners, I can't measure my success in terms of dollars and cents of capital returned from an investment.

Instead, I ask questions like: How much time did I save someone who was looking for advice on SEO strategies by referring the right agency at the right time? How can I quantify the impact of getting a new VP of Product candidate a job at a company right at their inflection point? How valuable is it, exactly, to bring together a dozen people from a dozen companies and watch them connect the dots as they recognize for the first time that they all share similar problems?

Needless to say, the impact of the work I do can feel a bit “squishy."

Over the past year, I've met dozens of people at other firms who have similar job titles as I do — Network GMs or Heads of Platform or Talent Partners or Community Managers. Most of them, like me, wound up in this industry through an unexpected entry point. Most of them, like me, encounter challenges in communicating the value of the work they do, testing out how much autonomy and authority the industry and their firm will allow them.

Most of them, like me, are women.

It doesn't escape me that in an industry dominated by men, it is mostly women who tend to be the ones taking on these more nuanced, softer touch, community-focused roles.

How did we get here?

The VC Creation Story

The creation story of the modern-day venture capital industry goes a little like this:

Back in 1957 when the post-war economy was once again beginning to pick up, a small group spun out of Fairchild Camera and Instrument that set out to make semiconductors out of silicon transistors. Two years later, this new business, Fairchild Semiconductor, became the first venture-backed startup in history.

The backers at the time, Rockefeller Brothers Inc. (which later became Venrock Partners), paved the way for the future of a now-prolific industry in which millions of dollars are invested almost daily. Venrock went on to invest in more than 400 companies (Intel and Apple among them) and just closed on their eighth fund this January at $450M.

At the helm of that 1959 Fairchild Semiconductor deal was Laurance Rockefeller, the fourth child of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had encouraged all six of his children to take advantage of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958 by investing in venture deals. This high-powered team of eight partners included all four of Laurance's brothers, a scientist, a lawyer, and their sister, Abby (whom they all just called “Babs").

Yes, you read that right. The very first venture-backed startup was funded by a firm named Rockefeller Brothers, on which their own sister was a partner. And thus, the very first venture capital Boys' Club was born.

Who Tells Your Story?

Earlier this year, I met a barista in a San Francisco coffee shop who, in her spare time, produces a podcast with the goal of bringing women's voices back to the retelling of history.

“Whose stories do we hear about the most in history class?" she asked, giving me that knowing, girl-to-girl look. “Men." She continued: “And who do you think wrote down all of this history into the very books that molded and shaped our views of society?" Newsflash, she said: Also men.

That conversation stuck with me. Since then, I've thought a lot about those quick few moments — taken a bit aback by a question that I admittedly hadn't considered much before. Has our history really been dictated solely by men?

My mind jumped to memories of reading history textbooks in elementary school. In my head, I can see the black text on the page, the portraits of notable historical figures, the vocab terms defined, and there, in the chapter on the American Revolutionary War, a sidebar box, shaded in gray, taking up barely ⅓ of the page with the topic header: “Women's role in the Revolution." The contributions of women in the Revolutionary War and the roles they played on the “home front" secured about 350 words of real estate, compared to the pages dedicated to retelling battle stories and the generals who championed each one.

So rather than pursue politics or finance (like most of her brothers), she took the safer route: philanthropy.

Looking back, who's to say it's really more important for us to know all of the names of towns were each Revolutionary War battle took place than it is to understand the societal constructs that moved an entire population to eventually overthrow their government? It's also possible that, at this period in time, women weren't simply in positions to cause the same level of impact on historical change as (more powerful) men.

It angers me now to think that, back then in 5th grade, I blindly accepted any new piece of knowledge as absolute truth. (Not that a 10-year-old learning her nation's history for the first time would know any better.) But not only was that tiny 350-word sidebar about women vastly downplaying what I'm sure was a much more complex and important period of time, but it's literally only one example of a constant, yet subtle nudge to all women since the day we entered the classroom: Women's stories are sidebars. Men's stories are the main narrative.

This isn't to say that the historians telling these stories were untrustworthy as narrators, but let's be real: Unconscious bias wasn't invented when Google famously coined the term in 2014. It's been around all along.

There doesn't seem to be any solid research on just how much this male voice has dominated our collective worldview and perspective in retelling history. But in a recent study, Slate analyzed 614 works of popular history and found that 75% of these accounts are told by men.

Oh, and by the way, this data is from books published in 2015. (You can see their full list here.) I can't imagine the percentage of women-authored books being larger than that in any of the preceding years — can you?

For another perspective, I turned to Google and typed in “women in history."

The top Google hit is this Scholastic article, a “teacher's activity guide" of a list of women achievers. On it, there are 39 names.

Seriously, Scholastic? Not to mention that the website looks like it hasn't been updated since 2002. Is this the best we can do?

Courtesy of Slate

People Like Abby

I've been thinking a lot about people like Abby “Babs" Rockefeller. What it must have been like, back in 1946, to be little more than a decade from investing in the enormously disruptive semiconductor industry, and what may have caused her to shirk away from diving deeper into the business that she was already so close to being an active part of.

Abby 'Babs' Rockefeller pictured in 1974. Courtesy of Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

I wonder about that today, as we stand on the precipice of a potentially game-changing world of blockchain and crypto-currencies, an area of technology that has the potential to be just as disruptive. Will women be a part of this narrative? Will I?

In Abby's case, aside from a few side mentions about her involvement with the firm as a partner, any other involvement she may have had gets much fuzzier. Was she in the first meetings with Fairchild Semiconductor? Was she equally enthusiastic about the prospect of what this technology could bring to the world? Was she even invited to participate in those discussions? We may never know.

Her obituary, while covered by The New York Times in 1976, doesn't mention her involvement with the firm, instead citing her as “the quiet Rockefeller."

I can only begin to scratch the surface of the challenges someone like Abby Rockefeller faced. To be the first-born, but the only girl, inside of one of the richest families in the world. To carry the same name as your mother (Rockefeller's wife was also named “Abby") for so many years. Maybe that's why, the older she grew, the more she retreated away from the spotlight, overshone by her five brothers. There certainly was no Sheryl Sandberg playing the part of coaching her how to “lean in" to the business world.

There aren't a lot of stories about Abby, but I've found bits and pieces here and there. And a few key moments stood out to me:

She was described as “rebellious" and as a “bundle of nerves" growing up and made the newspapers several times for receiving speeding tickets; The Palm Beach Post even called her out as someone who “speeds through everything she does and finds it hard to accept such a strictly disciplined life."

She allegedly caused a minor societal scandal at her wedding by removing the word “obey" from the marriage vows.

She later established a fund at MIT to support a female professor in an area where women were underrepresented. These anecdotes stand out to me as describing the actions of a modern woman.

Let's put this in perspective: If in 2016, it was “scandalous" for me to wear a floral dress to my wedding (sorry, Mom) and walk myself down the aisle alone (sorry, Dad), what must it have been like to make remove the word “obey" from your wedding vows in 1925?! Seriously. Talk about progressive.

To say the least, Abby was not a meek woman with few intellectual pursuits. She would have been, perhaps in another time, a pioneer.

Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

The VC Legacy

How do you take a rebellious woman who moves too fast and morph her into someone who prefers to keep to herself and stray from the spotlight? I'd put my money on her getting shut down or shut out one too many times.

I'm neither a historian nor a scholar. So I can't even pretend to understand the intricacies and nuances of understanding any of this historical context. But I am part of the continuation of that same creation story.

The story that starts with Fairchild Semiconductor continues on to give us the names that dominate the discussions we take part in daily: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk.

And the ones that continue to enable this rise to power? They're the venture capitalists who continue to fund these wild, far-fetched, and crazy ideas. Amid all of this lore and legacy, of all of these ideas hatched out of garages, park benches, and dorm rooms, even all of those “meeting of the minds" on Sand Hill Road and the millions of dollars that flood into this ecosystem — it's still predominantly men at the helm.

If, for instance, John D. Rockefeller had overcome (centuries of cultural bias) and looked to his firstborn as the one who should naturally take over and launch a new business that would continue for decades to come, it would have been Abby. If he turned to her and said, “I'd like you to think about how we can jump-start this post-war economy with investments in new enterprises that may reshape how we think about industrial and technical advancement," would she have stepped back…or stepped up?

If she had stepped up, I'm fairly certain that she wouldn't have named the firm Rockefeller Brothers, and maybe her taking the lead would have attracted the attention of the Vanderbilts, which may have inspired one of their female descendants to do the same. Maybe that “first follower" effect would have catalyzed our society into one where the wealthiest and most high-powered women are the ones who take on the tech industry, snowballing us into a world where today, the tech scene is less like a frat party and more like a high-brow, old-school women's club, where women CEOs are more prevalent than men and where men wind up taking entry-level positions as office managers as any way possible to break into the industry and hopefully earn their way up the chain of command.

Okay, maybe this is a bit of a stretch. But the point is: Her father didn't say that. Or maybe Abby didn't think to do that. And so, the trend continued.

Yes, the venture capital industry is steeped in a tradition of male dominance that goes all the way back to its inception.

Yes, women are (for whatever reason) not yet ascending en masse to the partner level of firms.

Yes, this can, and did (and still will) lead to negative consequences that result from this type of concentration of wealth and power.

But this problem is hardly isolated to the venture capital industry.

It's in energy. And healthcare. And law. And government. And yes, even theatre.

If you think for one second that women in any of these industries aren't feeling even a tinge of what it's like to be working in venture capital or in technology today, you must be kidding yourself. This historic tradition of male dominance is everywhere. Along with that comes decades worth of bias from a whole different set of characters.

But unlike all of these others industries, venture capital is also the industry that gave the world Twitter. And Medium. And so many other social sharing tools that have come to define not only our daily lives but the way we make business decisions.

So, unlike all of these other industries, we have one strikingly amazing benefit: We can make a lot more noise about our problems. And I think this is a very good thing.

The tech industry has always been about disruption. Today that remains true. We're figuring out these gender-focused issues first. It can feel slow and outrageous and painful, but we're making progress. And we're not the only ones out there going through it. But for us, every single moment is playing out in real time in plain sight.

Maybe it's overly optimistic, but I believe that these actions and this exposure will pave the way for other industries to do the same.

This article first appeared in Hackernoon.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
5min read
Health

Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.


As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.


Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."

https://www.drvalerie.com/