Silicon Valley has been considered a hallmark of the American Horatio Alger legend – come with an idea, build it, and become rich and famous. And it is true that many men have arrived here with little more than a degree and an idea and built a fortune. But the dirty little secret in Silicon Valley has been that those who didn’t fit the “look and feel” of investors were far less likely to get a meeting, much less a deal. African-American men in particular have long complained about the parochial nature of hiring in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, and the lack of women in major Silicon Valley roles, both in industry and investment, has been a subject of much study.
The claim as to why women and certain minorities were underrepresented usually hinged on the lack of a technical degree and line management experience, but as I discussed in an article on Anita Borg’s influence on women in technology in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, it isn’t that simple. During the 1980’s there was a great influx of women into computer science in the top schools, with the expectation that they would take part in the booming entrepreneurial experience of that time. But most women found they were immediately channeled into field sales or marketing jobs instead of engineering jobs. The few women who were placed in engineering generally found themselves in lower-paying quality assurance positions working with men who often had no comparable degree or training. These jobs were also not considered manager tracked positions. By the time I wrote my article, I noticed there were very few women who had lasted through this gauntlet through real line management to executive level. If you make it into a top university, endure the competition, and study and receive a degree in a universally-accepted “tough” major, you would expect to be considered for positions that your credentials merit. And if you aren’t, would you feel you got a good return on your investment? I doubt it.
This is why the latest gossip about Anne Wojcicki’s new startup is so interesting. Anne, if you’ve been living on newly demoted subplanet Pluto recently, is the wife of Google’s Sergey Brin. Her sister Susan (Harvard, UCSC, UCLA) is a VP at Google, and her family is plugged into the Stanford scene – dad is the Stanford physics department’s current chairman (he’s involved with MINOS, and for those who are interested the colloquium next week is on neutrino oscillation results from MiniBooNE). Mom teaches at Palo Alto High School (no, I didn’t take journalism at Paly my junior year – I took German, but I did get a 5 on the English AP the following year). Anne herself went to Yale and majored in biology and met her future husband when Google rented their garage – there’s that Stanford connection again. The only thing missing here is the Stanford sports alumni networking dinner (my dad is a Stanford baseball alum, so we all went to the Fall football kickoff BBQ. And yes, I’m a Cal alum. Go Bears!).
So what’s the big deal? Apparently Anne has launched a startup on genetic search, and Google has made a substantial investment. This has caused loud harrumphs among the old guard, because she’s his wife and that’s so unfair!
Funny thing, I never hear these whines when it works in a person’s favor, like one guy I know who’s only claim to fame for a plum VC job was he was a drinking buddy in college of the firm’s founder, or the architect who brought his brother-in-law into the firm and got him hired because he knew what the firm wanted (inside information), or the investor who launched his son’s company. I hear these stories all of the time ! I’ve also hired many engineers on the basis of personal recommendation myself (yes, they were qualified – we had to build something). There’s nothing better than having someone vouch for you and put their reputation on the line to get the job done. The truth is, personal recommendations go a lot further than cold calls, and the odd luck of getting a room assignment with a future IVB or CEO means a lot of lesser lights going along for the ride. And this is one reason why it’s harder for men who are qualified but didn’t go to the top schools, and African-American men in particular, to get that inside edge.
But when it comes to women, it’s doubly hard. You see, women don’t usually get room assignments with future CEOs in college (and if they did, they’d probably get called lots of nasty names that equate their placement with promiscuity and prostitution). Smart women know that a drinking buddy relationship with a man isn’t necessarily a good or safe one (witness the recent De Anza gang rape case). And women who marry into a business, no matter their qualifications, still face ridicule and envy precisely because of the sexual access (remember the “pillow-talk” buzz about Bill and Hillary or FDR and Eleanor? Why couldn’t they be more like Ike and Mamie for goodness sakes, pundits would moan).
I view this investment as a watershed moment for Silicon Valley. Not because this is specifically a perfect investment – all investment is risk, and personally I’m not too enamored of knowing too much about who is genetically related to me. But if “Anne” had been “Albert” there would have been no breathy press reports in the major papers and hand-wringing over this investment. And Google is openly sticking to their investment and making no apologies about it or the woman who has received the investment. Yes, she has access, just like many others. And yes, she’s married and their relationship is disclosed.
I remember when Melinda French got involved with Bill Gates, there was much ado on the back channel about her influence on him. I remember a trade show back in 1995 (we were doing a talk for Dr. Dobbs Journal on 386BSD and Jolix at the time) watching a coffee-swilling dinosaur at a Microsoft display and having a couple of very puzzled Compaq engineers who knew me tentatively ask if I thought this was a great idea or a bad one – after all, it was Microsoft. I believe they decided I was a technologist and a woman so maybe I could figure this out (and no, I was just as puzzled as they were). Well, this strange apparition who’s claim to fame is that he may have been the inspiration for Scott Adam’s “Bob the Dinosaur” in Dilbert was also reputed to be a Melinda French special (actually, it came from her group at MSC that also did other products like Encarta, but she was the manager). It was a failure, of course, and it came out right after her marriage (she had worked at MSC for 7 years prior), so of course she became the target of a lot of disproportionate derision and envy. Yes, I’m sure she’s very happy to be Mrs. William Gates, but I’m also sure she’s probably still annoyed by the fact she was tarred for a group’s marketing failure with substantial buy-in when MSC has them all the time – big and small – and execs often get promoted even if they fail because they are supposed to execute initiatives and not just sit on their hands and hide in their offices. After all, risk means failure most of the time, doesn’t it? And Silicon Valley is all about doing startups and gaining experience until you succeed, right? Unless you’re a woman.
So, speaking as a woman in technology and a Cal Berkeley physics alumna and a woman who is very happily married to a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I’m pleased to see Anne get funded and I’m pleased Google (along with others) funded her. Because it is no fun getting a business plan refused purely because you’re married to someone who’s invested in you and not on the basis of the business or customers or your track record or line management background or degree or all those things they tell you in biz school are important. Believe me, I know how it feels. And you know what it feels like? It feels unfair.