The inaugural Boston Women’s Venture Capital Summit was a day marked by critical thinking about sex bias in the startup world — and one surprising piece of advice.
“You’ve gotta get the likelihood that there’s bias out of your head,” Diane Hessan, chief executive of the Startup Institute in Boston, told an audience of entrepreneurs that was mostly female. “There is, so just get over it.”
Hessan’s blunt message underlined the dilemma conference attendees faced as they departed from the daylong event. On the one hand, they had just absorbed statistics documenting inequality in business, which only heightened their awareness of the obstacles.
On the other hand, Hessan had warned that being constantly on the lookout for discrimination could cause women to ignore constructive criticism and ultimately set them back if they attributed every rejection to bias.
“It is confusing,” said Erica Rife, Boston regional manager at Golden Seeds, which backs women-led companies.
Women reflecting on the conference said they left with a sense that they must operate on two levels. They can pressure the male-dominated venture capital industry to actively seek female entrepreneurs and hire more women as investors. But in everyday business dealings, they have to presume an even playing field.
“I think it’s important to hear what Diane said, which is essentially A, bias is real. Period,” said C.A. Webb, executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association. “B, you can’t think about it because it’s going to get in your way while you’re trying to raise money and build your company. I think what she said was really validating.”
Opportunities for women in business — and in technology fields, in particular — were thrust to the fore recently by a high-profile sex-discrimination trial in Silicon Valley. Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at the blue-chip venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, claimed she was unfairly denied promotions and eventually fired because of bias.
Pao lost her case, but venture capitalists in Boston said the trial prompted new conversations about gender issues ahead of Tuesday’s conference, which had been planned for months but came close to its registration capacity of 150 people only within the last week.
The Seaport summit featured business pitches by eight female entrepreneurs, including Shannon O’Brien, the former state treasurer and onetime Democratic nominee for governor, who is now president of BeeDoo Cloud Services Inc., a Waltham software startup.
There were coaching sessions on subjects ranging from public relations to corporate finance, and the day featured speeches by successful female founders.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh got the local business community talking with opening remarks in which he acknowledged a wage gap in his own office and pledged to close it.
“I can’t be mayor of the city of Boston and talk about closing gender gaps and then when I look in my own backyard be saying, ‘Wait a second. You have a problem there because your leadership doesn’t reflect what you’re talking about,’ ” Walsh said.
But the heart of the conference seemed to be a panel discussion devoted to one major question: Why is it so hard for women entrepreneurs to attract capital?
Candida Brush, chairwoman of the entrepreneurship program at Babson College, presented research she published last fall showing 97 percent of venture-backed startups have male chief executives.
One explanation cited throughout the day is that venture capitalists, who are inundated by business proposals, often rely on recommendations from people within their professional networks. In a world where 94 percent of the partners at venture firms are men, according to Babson research, those networks tend to be full of men, too.
Scott Friend, a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, said that when he does take a pitch from a female entrepreneur, it’s often the result of her ability to infiltrate his network.
“The scarce commodity in all of our lives is time,” Friend said. “When someone calls that I know and trust and says, ‘I met this person, she’s terrific, and you should meet her,’ I’ll drop anyone to do it.”
Janet Kosloff, chief executive of the health care software startup InCrowd, said she took the message to heart. Her company hopes to raise between $3 million and $5 million in venture funding within a year.
She said she’s not looking forward to the process.
But on her way out, Kosloff said she has a plan: “I’m going to go through all my contacts and figure out who do I know and try to get intros like crazy.”
Kosloff also concluded after watching the pitches by O’Brien and others, and hearing the feedback they received that she needs to be bolder when describing her company’s potential.
Maria Cirino, cofounder of .406 Ventures in Boston, caught some women off guard when she told one entrepreneur that her projection of a $40 million to $50 million exit was too small to interest many investors.
“You have to go against your nature,” Kosloff said. “My nature is to say I can do only what I know I can do. But in this game, if you’re not showing confidence that you can get to a certain place, even if you don’t know the path to get there, then you’re not going to be able to play in this game. I think it’s an unnatural thing for most women, but it’s something you have to get over.”Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.