Armed with postgraduate degrees from MIT and Harvard, Heidi Wyle set out to help build tech companies.
On one interview she was told: “We haven’t had a professional woman in this office, and we don’t want to start now.”
“He was dead serious,” recalled Wyle.
The incident happened more than two decades ago, but blatant sexism and discrimination still exist in the male-dominated tech world. The difference is that some women are naming names, and investors who back startups and venture firms are listening. Bad-boy CEOs and venture capitalists have been pushed out; investors have pulled money from offending VC funds.
Most women haven’t spoken out publicly, fearing that doing so would make it harder to raise money or launch their own firms. Through the years, I’ve heard eyebrow-raising anecdotes from female entrepreneurs who were grilled by male investors about whether they will start families, or who were repeatedly asked out on dates. Other times, investors presume the female CEO in a pitch meeting is someone’s wife.
Bro culture isn’t just a Silicon Valley thing; elements of it exist in Boston, too.
So what do you say if you’re a woman in an uncomfortable situation in a job interview or a pitch meeting? We often say nothing because we don’t know what to say.
Here are what women in the tech industry wished they had said — and in some cases did — when they encountered an offensive remark or behavior.
This is what Wyle wishes she had said to the male executive with the jarring remark: “I want to keep this relationship professional. I have a PhD from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. I will make you a lot of money.”
She wasn’t bluffing. Wyle went on to become a serial entrepreneur, a career that has included selling her biotech company to Agilent Technologies. She is now the CEO of Venti Technologies, a local startup developing self-driving vehicles.
When Diane Hessan was raising money for her Boston marketing company now known as C Space, one investor was reluctant. She finally asked what was his biggest concern.
To which he replied: “My biggest concern is that you have a young family, and you’re not going to work as hard because of that.”
Of course, male entrepreneurs with children would never be asked that question. Hessan, whose daughters were 14 and 11 at the time, responded with confidence.
“If that is your biggest concern,” she said, “you’re going to give me the funding.”
She provided the investor with a dozen references. Hessan got her check.
But the experience that gnaws at Hessan the most is the investor whom she met with 11 times over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hessan was sure he would fund C Space, until one of her male board members pointed out the investor was stringing her along.
“He is never going to give you the money,” the board member said. “He just wants to be with you.”
Hessan felt had. She looked bad in front of her board. This is what Hessan wishes she had said: “I need to spend every spare minute building C Space and I just have no more time to meet with you — and if you still have questions, maybe this just isn’t for you.”
But confronting a chauvinist can jeopardize a business relationship, and that’s what happened to Elsa Sze, the founder of Cambridge tech company Agora.
Ask her about the incident now, and Sze has no regrets about calling out a potential angel investor after he commented on how “hot” she looked.
“This is not relevant to our discussion here,” she told him. “I am asking your advice about our business plan.”
The meeting turned awkward and ended quickly. She never heard from him again. Sze said something because she was fed up after experiencing inappropriate behavior from other potential investors as well.
It’s hard to get funding — less than 3 percent of venture capital money goes to firms led by female CEOs — but Sze decided she could no longer look the other way.
“If someone is willing to be helpful, you want to be grateful. That mind-set is wrong,” Sze said. “If you have a great company and a great team, people will come and support you.”
Sze found them and brought in $500,000 in her first fund-raising round.
Even in this more open, tell-all environment, some female founders remain wary of publicly or privately dressing down potential investors and advisers. These women prefer to prove people wrong by building companies that are too successful to ignore.
That’s what Ailis Tweed-Kent, the founder and CEO of Cocoon Biotech, is doing, even though she can’t get out of her mind a conversation with a potential funder who tried to talk her out of being an entrepreneur.
“Over the course of the meeting, he commented that I would make a great mother and asked if this was truly the career I wanted to pursue,” recalled Tweed-Kent. “The irony is that, at the moment, I am not married and do not have children, yet male colleagues who do are not asked the same question.”
Tweed-Kent, with her medical degree from Harvard, thanked the investor for his time and advice.
“I think it is best to learn from and then move beyond such encounters,” said Tweed-Kent.
“Most powerful movements of change in history arose from actions rather than words. . . . I find it is best to focus on my actions, building a great company, and to let that be a witness for change.”
The most effective way to deal with boorish behavior can vary from case to case.
But to the female entrepreneurs who choose to say something, know that your words are leading to action.