[q&a] Silicon Valley’s Rising Women CEO’s

It’s a Thursday evening in San Francisco and I’m at Twenty-Five Lusk waiting to meet friends for dinner. As I wait for our table to be prepared, I look around the trendy restaurant. There is a VC fund raising event taking place at the bar below. The tiny space is filled primarily with white, males. Within the sea of business suits, I’m able to detect four, maybe five women in total.

It’s an unfortunate fact that gender bias still exists today in Silicon Valley. It’s even more unfortunate that there are still factors holding women back from starting their own companies. For instance, what if I told you that investors prefer pitches presented by male CEOs in comparison with the exact same pitches made by female entrepreneurs? According to a recent join study conducted by Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT, this statement is unfortunately accurate. Furthermore, Business Insider recently published their “Silicon Valley 100” list of the most amazing people in tech for 2015, and guess what – the majority of “amazing people” featured were men.

Rising Women CEOs Silicon ValleyWhile it’s no secret that most CEOs and Founders in Silicon Valley are male, there are a growing number of women entrepreneurs. Four women in particular are proving that female CEOs can be just as successful as their male counterparts. Here are what these women have to say about starting their own company, combating gender bias, raising funds and overcoming their greatest career challenges.

Mylea Charvat

Founder, CEO of Savonix

Mylea Charvat, Founder/CEO Savonix

Q: Explain the purpose behind your company. What inspired you to bring this idea to life?

Savonix was founded as a natural extension of the reason I became a clinical psychologist to begin with — to help people be healthier.

Proven neuro-cognitive assessment and complementary tools have been helping patients for years. Unfortunately, those tests and tools remain largely analog, cumbersome to administer and most of all, terribly expensive. As we began to digitize, test, and prove alternative delivery methods, it became clear to me that these cognitive assessments could be delivered far more democratically via a computer, and the move to take a fully valid assessment onto a mobile device was the next step in this space.

The catalyst for the inspiration to make Savonix assessment tools available and affordable to anyone developed when a family member of mine was seriously injured in an accident. His recovery and many other up-close-and-personal stories convinced me that the technology behind Savonix could change lives on a massive scale if it could be brought to market.

Q: Have you ever encountered gender bias?

Absolutely. I have encountered outright harassment. Bias, however, is something everyone in our dynamic culture experiences at some level. Bias (of any type) is actually a natural way humans try to cognitively organize a complex world. I’ve found, recognized and acknowledged bias of any type to be a point of real insight and education for myself and others, men included. Negative gender bias gets lots of attention, but truthfully, the real harm comes from unconscious bias, heuristic mental shortcuts, where one person or the other is unaware of his or her particular mental decisions or judgments, and how those judgments negatively affect others who experience the world differently from that person. Ignorance of our own bias is the real culprit here.

Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman CEO?

I’m a first time CEO, not a first time woman CEO. As the CEO of Savonix, I’m responsible for articulating our company’s vision and culture. We’ve got key positions to hire, a product to deliver and customers to nurture, all of which fall to me. Clearly, the largest issues have just been learning how to be a CEO. That’s a process and a position that I’m incredibly fortunate to be in, and one I’m still learning about daily.

Q: Would you say raising funds is more difficult as a woman?

Fund raising is a difficult and arduous process for everyone, men and women alike. It’s also a crucible that helps entrepreneurs steel themselves for the road ahead. Yes, the overwhelming majority of VC’s you’ll be presenting to will be men. The process will teach you much about your company, the market, and yourself. I promise, in those rooms full of men you’ll find adversaries and allies. Almost all of them will be an antagonist or ally based on your strengths and the strength of your product and market position. I’m confident there are men who found it more difficult than I did, and many that found it easier too.

It is true, women account for just 6-15% of VC industry positions. And while women start companies on an almost equal level with men, women receive less than 7% of VC funding. That said, in Savonix’s case, our first angel and now our seed investors are almost exclusively men. So, while gender bias does exist, the real challenges of fundraising go way beyond this.

Q: What advice would you offer other young women who wish to become CEOs?

Dare! There is a well-documented tendency for women to underplay their accomplishments for fear of being labeled a “bitch”. Men, as it turns out however, are rewarded as leaders for the exact same behavior. If you’re aspiring to be a CEO, you’re going to have to, as we say at Savonix, “Know your Mind”. It’s up to you to reconcile and understand these competing mindsets. It can be done. It’s 100% possible to be a tough, demanding, technical, woman leader and still be kind, decent, thoughtful and gentle. You’ll need to dare to explore all these parts of yourself, just as the men in our workforces and lives are going to be challenged to explore those less explored parts of themselves as well. We’re in this together.

Jane Chen

CEO of Embrace Innovations

jane chen
Jane Chen, CEO Embrace Innovations

Q: Explain the purpose behind your company. What inspired you to bring this idea to life?

I am the CEO of Embrace Innovations, which aims to give premature and underweight babies in the developing world a better chance at life, through a low cost infant warmer which has been deployed around the world. We recently launched a new line of products for the US market, Little Lotus Baby, which use a material initially designed for NASA space suits to keep babies at the perfect temperature, helping them to rest better. We have a Tom’s shoes 1:1 model – for each product purchased, a baby will be helped by the Embrace infant warmer in a developing country.

The inspiration was this: Eight years ago, I took a class at Stanford that changed the course of my life. My classmates and I were challenged to create a baby incubator that costs 1% of a traditional incubator, since this equipment is often unaffordable and unattainable in the developing world. We created the Embrace infant warmer, a sleeping bag for babies that uses a phase change material (a wax like substance) to regulate the temperature of premature and low birth weight babies. To date, it has helped over 200,000 preterm babies across 11 countries in the developing world. We hope to drive this number to 1 MM babies with the help of Little Lotus Baby.

Q: Have you ever encountered gender bias?

I remember when my co-founder, who is a male, and I first started our company. He has a PhD in electrical engineering, and we had decided I would be CEO and he would be CTO. We met with a potential funder, who was a woman. After a 30 minute meeting, she decided that he should be the CEO, not me, because he was more charismatic and could tell our story better. She then went on to try to convince my board to make my co-founder the CEO. I was devastated, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized this was a case of gender bias. Sadly, it came from another woman. But fortunately, my co-founder and board really stuck by my side and provided the confidence and support I needed to continue in my role.

I also experienced gender bias in India, where I lived for four years. India happens to be a very male-dominated culture, so it was an eye-opening experience for me. There were times we would go into a doctor’s office to do research, and the doctor wouldn’t even shake my hand.

Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman CEO?

Being a CEO and truly believing in the mission of your organization means you’re in a role that is completely consuming of your time and energy. I’ve been doing my work at Embrace for nearly 8 years now — 4 of those years were spent living in India, and much of the rest of the time has been spent traveling around the world. While I love what I do, it can be exhausting on every level and has left little time for myself. For a long time, I thought if I could get my company to a certain point, then I could focus more on myself. It took me a while to realize that my own happiness and balance is intrinsically linked to the success of the organization. This HBR article really changed my views – the gist is that happier people make better leaders. Given it’s taken me a while to figure this all out, one of my challenges is definitely how to make time and space for my personal life, for having a family, etc. while running this company that I care so passionately about.

Q: Would you say the fund raising process is more difficult as a woman?

Yes, I would definitely say this, especially as a younger woman because you’re facing both gender and age bias. I think there is a tremendous amount of implicit bias, and funders often assume you’re not as competent or technologically savvy as your male colleagues. I’ve been in fundraising meetings with my male co-founder, where even though I am clearly giving the presentation or leading the discussion, all of the questions get directed at him. It’s quite interesting and frustrating to watch this dynamic.

Q: What advice would you offer other young women who wish to become CEOs?

Often, we have this image of what a leader “should” be, and we (women and men) feel like we have to force ourselves to fit into that. I’ve found though that when you lead in a way that is authentic, people get it and that really allows you to build trust. So that’s what I would stress to young women wanting to become CEO’s: focus on personal authenticity, and staying true to your values and vision. Leadership will flow from there. (Find out more about Jane’s journey as a female entrepreneur in her personal blog)

Adriana Gascoigne

Founder, CEO of Girls in Tech

Adriana Gascoigne, Founder/CEO Girls in Tech

Q: Explain the purpose behind your organization. What inspired you to bring this idea to life?

I was the only woman present at the startup when I first joined the tech industry. Soon, I learned that this was the norm, but it still felt very isolating. Those collective conversations with other women in technology regarding the common obstacles we faced resulted in the founding of Girls in Tech, an organization that strives to empower, engage and educate women in the field of technology in order to cultivate ideas around their careers and business concepts.

Q: Have you ever encountered gender bias?

Unfortunately, yes, and not just once. I’ve experienced gender bias several times throughout my career in various roles, levels and degrees. From small jokes or smirks during presentations, to awkward communication exchanges and outright sexual harassment. It didn’t just happen while I was a member of junior level staff, but also while I served on management and executive levels as well.

 Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman CEO?

The job is never done! I know this statement can be true in any industry, or for any gender, but I continue to face an uphill battle. Beyond that, there are several things that are continually on my mind, including making sure that I have hired/am hiring the right team members, doing the right things to be taken seriously by my counterparts, and really focusing on leading by example. It’s a lot to balance, but these are things that I want to make sure I’m doing correctly all the time.

Q: Would you say the fund raising process is more difficult as a woman?

Unfortunately, yes. In fact, a recent study from Babson College showed that only 15% of VC-backed companies have women on their executive teams, up 5% from 15 years prior. Even more shocking is that only 2.7% of VC-funded companies have a women CEO. We need to change this!

 Q: What advice would you offer other young women who wish to become CEOs?

Do it! I know it takes time, hard work, a great support system and lots of patience, but it’s totally worth it to see your own idea and passion take on a life of its own.

Natasha S

Founder, CEO of Flyy App

Natasha S Founder/CEO Flyy App

Q: Explain the purpose behind your organization. What inspired you to bring this idea to life?

The purpose of our organization is to empower people to speak their truths. We wanted to create a space where people could feel completely themselves, while speaking about the realities of their lives (instead of portraying the picture perfect image of themselves).

Flyy app is all about giving an equal voice to everyone, whether it is about your personal struggles, dating disasters, how bad your breath smells, or taboo subjects that you can’t stop thinking about. It is about liberating yourself, while connecting with others based on real content. After all, a real connection takes place when we are the most vulnerable.

Flyy app is voice based. By solely hearing someone’s voice, the ability to judge someone’s physical appearance is hindered. Whether you know it or not, we all unconsciously judge one another within the first few seconds of a first glance. Being a voice based platform allows for more empathetic communities to form. Lastly, you can’t hear emotions through text, so voice is more intimate and more natural to us.

Q: Have you ever encountered gender bias?

I have, but it has been mostly outside of Silicon Valley.  There have been a few times when I have shown random people our app and they become excited and say, “Wow, who came up with that?  When did you start working for the company?” Clearly, they presume that I am not a CEO, or founder. Sometimes, it’s interesting to see people’s reactions when you tell them that you are in fact a Founder/CEO (they are often surprised).

However, we should take into account that being a female entrepreneur is still not the norm. Due to this fact, perhaps unconsciously people are still resistant to a female being a CEO only because men have had the spotlight for so long. We have to understand our history and see the effect that it’s had on people’s perception, rather than instantly labeling people. That being said, we should make a conscious effort and begin to showcase more female CEOs in films, literature, magazines and ads. All these elements have a profound effect on our psyches and the way that we perceive our world.

I’d also like to mention that my team is all male. Luckily, my team is very supportive and has always respected my decisions. Jared Wolens, Flyy’s designer, actually came up with the idea for our “100 voices strong campaign,” which had to do with students voicing themselves across the nation about sexual abuse. Our platform is empowering because we are giving a literal voice to the voiceless. In many parts of the world today, women are not able to voice themselves. My team is certainty pro-women, and I could not be more grateful to be working alongside two males.

Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman CEO?

The nature of being a CEO is all about overcoming challenges – it’s just part of the game. Men and women both struggle to make it. If you want to win, however, you have to be strong enough to overcome each challenge, even if that means that women might encounter more challenges than a male CEO because of the current societal norm. A game changer is someone who makes no excuses, even if it is a little bit harder. The fact is we need more female CEOs to overcome these difficulties so that younger generations will have role models to look up to and say to themselves, “If she could do it, then I could do it too.” This is one of the biggest challenges we currently face.

Q: Would you say the fund raising process is more difficult as a woman?

We have just begun our fundraising process so I cannot comment on this just yet.

Q: What advice would you offer other young women who wish to become CEOs?

I would say be fearless. 80% of success is psychology. If you believe in yourself, and work hard enough, there is nothing in the world that can stop you. I believe that anyone can achieve anything they want to as long as they are hungry enough. Never stop asking questions and never be embarrassed to ask questions. And of course, voice yourself on Flyy so that you can have a clear mind and soar!

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