Step One: Investing in the Minority

Once, in my first few weeks in the early days at Akamai, I was pulled aside and told I had to stop wearing suits every day because people thought I was looking for a new job. I promptly went out and bought five new pairs of jeans and mothballed my vast array of suits and dresses. I wanted to be sure I was taken seriously as a senior member of a technology organization. Now here I was, 15 years later, asking myself if jeans were OK to wear to a program I was invited to attend at Stanford Law. The event was hosted by a16z and is designed to prepare future corporate board members of venture backed companies. I’m a big believer in the value of strong first impressions and, like it or not, what we wear is part of that first impression.

I sought advice from a friend who’s been a senior leader at a few top technology companies in the valley. Her opinion is that jeans “are part of a wardrobe that connotes technical competence. Dressing like a stereotypical engineer offsets the fact that I’m female; people can place me as an engineer in spite of my gender. And the converse is true as well – jewelry, high heels, emphatic makeup, skirts, scarves – most garments that emphasize femininity also connote non-technical because they connote femininity.” However, she goes on to say “being female, of course, still connotes ‘not a leader’ just like it does ‘not technical’ so you’re still going to have to dress like a guy to get intuitively bucketed as leader instead of an admin.” This last part struck me because the guys I know, in our field, who are some of the best leaders I have had the pleasure to work with, routinely wear jeans; not just to go to work but on stage and in executive meetings.

So what does this have to do with “Investing in the Minority”?

As noted above, the program I was about to attend was to prepare future corporate board members. I knew I was invited along with another CEO friend of mine from Boston in part because we were women, but I thought it was to round out the attendee list. We are often the token “nerd chicks” in our circle of professionals. So, while I was stressed about walking into a room full of white dudes in suits and being taken seriously (on first impressions because of what I wore), it turned out to be a totally moot point. As soon as I arrived, I knew this was about getting a new class of highly diverse board members and no one cared about what we wore. The room was ~75%, ethnically diverse, women and of all the male attendees, I counted only two white dudes. Most of the presenters were, however, white dudes (and most of these white dudes were wearing jeans), but they had clearly been tutored on balanced use of pronouns and were careful not to patronize or overtly call out the diversity in the room.

Audience diversity and wardrobe aside, what was really striking was that a16z put a stake in the ground that they are intent on solving the dearth of women and diversity on corporate boards by training up a bunch of us for the job. This realization reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a founding CEO and CTO duo who want to hire more women engineers. Women were applying for their job postings and they were great fits for this company, but they were finding that most of these women were not “technical enough”. I questioned whether there was unconscious bias at play or whether these women were really not as technically competent for the roles they were hoping to fill. The founders insisted these candidates were great in every way, but they just didn’t have enough coding experience. Just like a16z is investing in diversity for boards by training us up, I pushed these founders to invest in these women engineers. If they are great in every way, but just don’t have enough experience, give them that experience!

Which leads me to think more about this group of newly enlightened future board members. Now that we have been schooled in the duty of care and the duty of loyalty, who is taking the next step to actually get us onto boards? This is no different than the very capable women engineers who just need hiring managers to give them a chance, and perhaps some training/mentoring, so they can get experience. Unless we are actively marketed, recruited and given a chance to sit on boards, this investment in us as minorities is for not. I am not saying that we sit back and wait for others to do the work for us. I will definitely tap my board and others to make sure they know I am now even more prepared to take a board seat than I was with “just” my 25+ years of experience in management in startups and mature companies and from sitting on three different non-profit boards. However, I do think it’s incumbent upon a16z and others who aspire to support and foster diversity on boards and in corporations to seek us out and take a chance on us.

A16z made it clear in their invitation to this event that they are not guaranteeing us board seats. I get that and nor should they as we each need to stand on our own and demonstrate what we can do. However, they should, IMHO, commit to Step Two:

  • Create a directory of newly minted “board ready” professionals who have completed programs such as the one offered by Stanford Law
  • Upon election to a board, provide a mentor directory to those who have completed the program so we can have an experienced, trusted advisor or two to call upon in our first year of board service [Note: They may have to sign an NDA to do this, but if they are trusted professionals without a conflict, this should be a reasonable ask.]
  • Pressure their portfolio companies, current boards they sit on, and others in their networks to take a chance on us, or perhaps if not already oversubscribed with board observers, let us observe so we can start to get real board experience.
  • Finally, track our progress. Where are we in 9-12 months? Are we sitting on a board? Did anything we learned in this program become valuable in our first months as board members? Did we make an impact? As Professor Daines noted in his lecture last week, not enough research has been done on corporate board governance – especially on VC backed companies – so let’s start capturing the data now.

I am truly grateful for the invitation to participate in the program last week and hopeful I can leverage what I’ve learned on a private or public board soon. Much thanks to Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Margit Wennmachers and their team for taking the time to organize and participate in last week’s program!

…and for those wondering “but she never said what she ended up wearing??!”, I wore jeans.

Got ideas about how to foster more diversity on corporate boards? Please reply with a comment!

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