Where to begin. This is such a complicated topic, and I thought to myself: “Just don’t get involved. Just get on with your life. You are married. You are pregnant. You aren’t even a founder anymore — why post this?”
But the last week has been really triggering for me, and I need to write this for myself and for anyone else for whom it may resonate.
First, let me say that most people know me as an opinionated, outspoken, tough as nails, “I don’t give a fuck” kind of person. Some of what I’ll share in this post is nearly paralyzing to write down, let alone post on the internet, particularly when my “honest” blog posts have a tendency of going viral. Some of what I might say may also be unpopular or difficult to hear.
I want to say to anyone reading this that I really don’t have the emotional capacity right now to be bullied, so please be kind and compassionate when you respond.
Sexism in Startups: ‘When you see stories of women saying they met investors at hotel bars and late at night, this is why.’
In 2011, I co-founded Unroll.me in New York City. After we got the company off the ground and out into the world, I decided to move out to Silicon Valley solo to work on the startup that was my true passion, Archively. At the time, I had almost no connections in SV, and I had no idea what I was doing.
I had started Unroll.me with co-founders who had secured funding, so starting something alone was a wildly different experience. I had befriended a founder of a VC-backed startup who really believed in my vision, and he told me to go pitch VCs. No co-founder, no engineer, no product. Pure blue sky. He was convinced with the right introductions I could raise $2 million, sight unseen. Let me give you a minute to laugh.
So because I had zero — and I mean zero — idea what I was doing, I went with it.
He gave me books to read, helped me with my deck, and helped me practice my pitch, and then he made intros to VCs like Redpoint, Battery, Trinity, Kleiner, and Norwest. I will say this: To their credit, they all met with me on his recommendation. They were all incredibly respectful and genuinely engaged with me about what I envisioned.
I never felt any condescension. And there was certainly nothing said or done that was inappropriate. Now, clearly, I did not raise my $2 million on a blue-sky dream. Looking back, I am kind of embarrassed I even had those meetings, but what I learned over the next few years was that those meetings are incredibly hard to get. I was lucky, in a way.
So after I didn’t raise that money, I had to figure out how to do it on my own. I was super scrappy and bootstrapped for a year. I tried to network and figure out how I was going to raise money — if I even could — while also trying to build something as a nontechnical founder.
Having spent over a decade as a headhunter on Wall Street, I consider myself a professional networker, and I found networking in Silicon Valley very hard. There is no central place to meet people. It’s elusive. It’s all about the back-channel. You rely on founder friends and parties, which can be equally elusive, mostly to get access to investors and helpful people.
So when I happened to meet a well-known angel investor through a friend at a restaurant one night, I was super excited for this casual, warm intro. We exchanged numbers and texted back and forth trying to make plans to meet up for drinks. I spent my 20s in bars recruiting traders, so “bar business” was not new or intimidating to me.
I ended up meeting him at 10 p.m. one night. So when you see stories of women saying they met investors at hotel bars and late at night, this is why. It’s so hard to get meetings and raise money that you are willing to meet wherever and whenever to get some air time.
But here is where I have to be really honest with you and myself about what happened.
‘There was no “Yeah, come pitch me; I’m interested in your company.” I made that up in my head.’
I had an agenda, but it was not a shared agenda. I was the one who decided this was a business meeting. At this point, I still hadn’t raised any money, but I had a prototype, and I felt more confident pitching. Using femininity to get male attention in business was not new to me, and I had zero shame in using it. Shortly after sitting down, it became pretty obvious he was just hanging with me as a woman who happened to also have a company.
There was no “Yeah, come pitch me; I’m interested in your company.” I made that up in my head.
I still tried to talk business, but it was not a focused conversation, and more drinks were poured. Then he said, “I’m taking you home with me tonight.”
I think I laughed and said, “Oh, are you?!”
But after a few more drinks, I made a consensual choice. I said OK but followed it up with a clarification: “But then you can never invest in my company.”
I don’t think he really cared.
Honestly, I didn’t see as a big deal until now. Why not?
‘Culturally, we are taught as women that our main power is our looks and sexuality.’
When I started my career as a headhunter more than a decade earlier, cold-calling traders on Wall Street, I used to take them out for drinks. This was how I did my job. I was not naive or innocent. It was certainly not the first time a guy ever hit on me.
In the early part of my career, guys would say to me, “You have such an incredible voice on the phone that I had to meet you to see if you were hot.”
Wonderful. Eye roll. Then, without missing a beat, I would take out a piece of paper and have them write down the name of everyone they worked with, team P&L, comp, and any other goodies I could get my hands on.
See? Even back then, I got how female commerce worked.
I understood that letting a man lust after me was the price for entry.
I knew being hot got me in the door and that after that I had to make that work for me. Culturally, we are taught as women that our main power is our looks and sexuality. Then it’s a matter of what you do with it. Personally, I used the shit out of it, and I was more successful than my male colleagues because of it.
However, I had a hard line of not crossing a physical line with men I was actively doing deals with, and I kept that boundary well. And then, as I got more established, men didn’t meet with me for my voice or for what I might be wearing. They met with me because they knew my name and because I knew things that they wanted to know.
The meetings became more professional, and I didn’t have to play the woman card anymore.
I’m not going to name this investor because what happened with me was consensual. However, in all that has been emerging this week, it dawned on me that I gave him permission to act this way. My sleeping with him is actually part of the problem.
Sure, it was social, it was consensual, but he was, after all, an investor, and I was a female founder. As others have been pointing out, this is part of the professional environment. I was not harmed in any way, but looking back at his behavior that night, I could see where someone not so clear as I was could have really been manipulated or worse. I also imagine I was not the only one.
It would also be so easy to jump on the “inappropriate investor” train here. Had I said no and left the bar offended and appalled, I could have easily overlooked how I created a business meeting in my head that had never existed for the other person.
I could have come out accusing him of being inappropriate, using text messages to back it up. But I have to own my part in that, too. He never gave me any indication it was a professional meeting. That was my agenda, and one he clearly did not share. So who am I to call him out?
It’s complicated. Because in an ecosystem where socializing and happy hours are a big way to meet or get to know investors, there are no real clear lines about what is personal and what is professional. I think clarifying this up front has to become a big priority for both men and women. Real talk. I’m also not the first or only woman who has ever used being a woman to get time with a man. This is where we as women need to take more responsibility, too.
I was saying to a friend about the stories coming out that these are not even the worst ones, because these women didn’t sleep with these men. And men wouldn’t keep behaving this way if it didn’t work. They behave this way because it does work. And in a way, I admit to being part of creating and enabling that culture by sending the message it was OK and not a big deal.
Abuse threshold — what is a ‘big deal’?
The topic of “abuse threshold” has come up in the past few days as I have talked to countless women about what has been coming out. While every woman has her own experience, what has been incredibly triggering for me personally is to admit I have an extremely high abuse threshold.
I woke up the other morning nearly catatonic, which is what happens to me when I’m triggered. It’s like I can’t speak or make eye contact. It’s like I am frozen inside, and just on the other side is a deep well of trauma. I’ve never said this publicly — and it’s paralyzing — but I experienced decades of ongoing abuse. Decades. I do not have the emotional capacity to get into the details, but let’s just say that when someone breaks you, you are susceptible to more.
You generally think it’s no big deal or that you deserve it. You certainly don’t share it. You bury it. Sharing is dangerous. And I felt a lot of terror around all this sharing. It’s not rational. It’s just paralyzing fear.
My husband was deeply concerned and wanted to know what was going on. I tried to explain how silenced (sic) I felt, even after all these years, and that one of the harassment accounts in the press was making me furious because it felt frivolous to me and insulting to actual victims.
Cheryl Yeoh and I both moved to Silicon Valley at the same time, and she was one of my only female founder friends for some time. Her story is deeply upsetting to me because I know her personally and because I have always been a huge fan of Dave’s. When you know and like both people, it is just all the more painful to take in.
Cheryl and I were talking about her story, and we were able to have a really open and honest discussion about the complexity of this topic. I said that while I totally agree that what happened to her is 100% wrong, it never would have registered to me personally to call that assault. Let me be clear. I am not saying it isn’t — it just wouldn’t have occurred to me to call it that.
This is where the abuse threshold comes in. For example, when you have had a boyfriend hold your throat to the wall and tell you that “they will never find your body,” there is a lot that you are able to just brush off.
The really triggering part was that if what Cheryl experienced is assault, how many times have I (or countless other women) brushed off these experiences because they’re not as bad as other things we’ve experienced?
That really hit home. The context of whether it is in a professional setting or not doesn’t even really matter.
I also want to say it is incredibly hard for women to come forward, and most won’t. It’s not because they don’t want the men to be exposed. It’s because you have to relive the pain and expose yourself on the internet. The internet is not a nice place when you are emotionally raw.
I also think it’s really important that when we expose men, it’s real and warranted and not a one-sided story open to interpretation. Once these stories are out, there is nothing a man can do to defend against falsehoods. I think we have a responsibility as women to be introspective and to be honest with ourselves.
Radical personal responsibility
I’ve done a lot of personal work to heal my own trauma, and when I talk about this topic, I rarely talk about men needing to change. Is it because I don’t think it would be nice if men changed? Of course, it would be nice. Am I going to wait for men to getting around to fixing my problem? No.
To some, this perspective comes off as victim blame-y, but when you have experienced what I have experienced, you know that you are powerless to change anything or anyone but yourself.
Byron Katie, a great teacher, looks at the world as: “My business. Your business. And God’s business.”
All I have control over is my business. No one else’s behavior falls under “my business.” I do control the choices I make and the boundaries I set. That is it. That is all we each have.
So, for me, we can talk about changing men until we are blue in the face, but the only person who is ever truly responsible for my safety is me.
There is a video of a rape survivor talking about how she healed that stands out to me. (I wish I could find this video, but I can’t) She went back through the whole event, moment by moment, and she found the exact moment where she felt something was off and didn’t listen to that voice.
Reclaiming that moment where she made the choice to ignore her intuition helped her get her power back. It’s not about it being her fault. Healing is not about whose fault it is. It’s not pointing the finger of blame at him. It’s finding the places where you have control and taking it back.
I’ve done work with many teachers around this topic, and one of my favorite teachers is Lynne Forrest and her work with the “victim triangle.”
She teaches that while we may have been a victim of something, we can learn how to move out of “victim consciousness” (allowing your identity to crystallize around being a victim) to a more empowered place. For all I have been through, I don’t identify as a victim, and I’m so grateful for that empowerment and freedom.
In wrapping up, I am deeply sorry to any contribution my actions have had on women in this ecosystem by giving permission to the kind of behavior we are trying to change.
If any women want to talk about anything I have shared, or if you want resources to help heal your own trauma, please feel free to reach out to me on my Twitter account.
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