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Room at the Top for More Women in Venture Capital

Mike Peña, Stanford University May 12, 2014

Students, entrepreneurs and investors filled the sleek, top-floor conference room of Stanford’s Huang Engineering Center. It wasn’t another startup competition with everyone on the lookout for the next game-changing technology. However, all there did agree that there needs to be major disruption.

The event was a noontime panel featuring women in senior positions in venture capital. They represent a growing segment of the overwhelmingly male field, where just 11 percent of investing venture partners are women, and only an estimated 4 percent of senior venture partners are female.

The firms where the panelists work ranged from a newly launched fund to corporations known worldwide. The April 28 event was hosted by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program — the entrepreneurship center in the university’s School of Engineering — and moderated by STVP Executive Director Tina Seelig.

All of the panelists have achieved exceptional success in Silicon Valley and voiced strong opinions about increasing the percentage of women in senior VC partner roles. But instead of solely proposing systemic changes, much of what the panelists had to say focused on what women could do at the individual level.

L to R: Theresia Gouw, Lisa Lambert, Deborah Hopkins, Ann Miura-Ko and Jennifer Fonstad

The first panelist to speak was Deborah Hopkins, who chairs venture-capital initiatives for the global financial services firm Citi, which provided generous support for the event. She urged women to, above all, remain authentic.

In the business world, Hopkins explained, women have witnessed how traits such as being bossy or cruel to colleagues signaled to superiors that they have leadership potential. For the women who follow suit, however, the price they pay is losing a sense of their feminine strengths, Hopkins said.

“They’re really being put into some other kind of way of thinking about themselves,” said Hopkins, who also serves as Citi’s chief innovation officer. “At the core of this is authenticity, and it really is the secret of success.”

She added that women who rise through the ranks are obliged to support their sisters in industry achieve similar success. Fellow panelist Lisa Lambert picked up on Hopkins’ point and urged women in venture capital to get coaching, seek out mentors and focus on building a vast network of colleagues.

Lambert said having a large network ensures you’ll have others who will vouch for you when the inevitable naysayer gets in the way; and having an abundance of connections means more inroads when opportunities open up around you. It’s what helped Lambert go from being a product-marketing engineer when she first came to Intel, to her current role as vice president and managing director of Intel Capital.

“This world, especially here in Silicon Valley, operates by informal networks,” said Lambert, founder of UPWARD, a nonprofit that aims to accelerate the careers of professional women. “The reason I’m still here is because I didn’t quit.”

Meanwhile, Ann Miura-Ko, co-founding partner of the venture-capital firm Floodgate and a lecturer in Stanford’s Department of Management Science & Engineering, talked about the luck she encountered throughout her career: from a life-changing mentor relationship with a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard that began with a chance encounter when she was an undergraduate student at Yale, to being offered a founding-partner position at a new venture-capital fund while she was working on her Ph.D. at Stanford — and caring for her first child.

Members of the audience and fellow panelists pressed Miura-Ko a bit on her message that all of her success was based on pure luck. The daughter of a NASA scientist and holder of a Stanford doctoral degree in mathematical modeling of computer security, Miura-Ko acknowledged her own innate drive and strengths.

But the moral of her story returned to – once again – a message of individual action: “I maximized the opportunity I had to get lucky,” Miura-Ko said. “That’s the thing that people need to understand, is that even though it’s built on luck, you need to create that opportunity.”

The final panelists to speak were Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad, who recently made national news when both left coveted partner positions at top-tier venture-capital firms to co-found their own, Aspect Ventures. When they first made their announcement in February, the longtime colleagues said they wanted to set an example for other women who want to follow the same path.

They also said their new fund would emphasize the value that diversity brings to companies. “We need to create a welcoming environment because we know there are bright, talented young women like yourselves — and elsewhere — who want to start companies,” said Gouw, formerly a partner at Accel Partners for 15 years.

Fonstad spent 17 years as a partner and managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. She also co-founded Broadway Angels, a San Francisco-based angel investment group made up entirely of women. Its portfolio includes 20 startups founded by female, and male, entrepreneurs.

“We now have a community of women entrepreneurs who have been successful who can write their own checks, and are writing their own checks, and making investments in fellow entrepreneurs in their own networks,” Fonstad said. “That’s a very new trend, and it’s an important trend.”