Important update: Despite my article all about being thoughtful/aware of gender issues in tech, I sometimes screw up too. Shanley made a different, but also very important version first (now included in line as well). Ok and while I’ve got your attention about that, you should go subscribe to Model View Culture.
Last Saturday I had the opportunity to attend the YCombinator Female Founders Conference. I was a little nervous going in. Some of my fears were true, and some weren’t.
On the whole, I’d say “it was okay,” and not because I’m damning with faint praise.
Half was great. Half the content was exciting. I learned some great lessons that would have been applicable to any founder, not just a female one. If you get a chance to go see Adora Cheung or Diane Greene talk, do! Adora was hilarious and they both had great lessons. The fundraising panel was informative. The attendees were also great. It was great that many of the attendees were technical. The highlight of my experience was walking around the venue talking to Julia Grace, Head of Engineering at Tindie. I could go on about that, but it’d be your typical conference recap. I should at some point, because I really enjoyed it!
Unfortunately, the content about being female made me pretty uncomfortable. Going in, I was worried the conference was a PR move because of the recent bad press. It did touch on that a bit, but that wasn’t a big deal. The bigger issue was that there was a definite lack of awareness. Most of my specific examples come from earlier on in the presentations, but I felt they echoed throughout.
Please bear in mind that this is not meant to be a critique of the people involved. It’s a critique of the ideas presented. I’m grateful that Jessica and the YC team took the time to organizer the conference and prompt these conversations.
1. It seems off that this was the “most oversubscribed YC event ever.”
There was a big push at the beginning of the conversation that this was the “most oversubscribed YC event ever.” Okay, fine. That just made me curious. Why aren’t these women applying to other YC events?
Was it that they needed a special invitation? If so, will YC follow up by making sure there’s a clear “invitation” to female founders for all events? Is it because they’re uncomfortable at the other events? If so, why? What will YC do to fix that?
I’m not sure what the reason is for each attendee. I haven’t been to Startup School. For me the decision to attend was timing, and all the controversy beforehand. I’m also morbidly fascinated by events about women in technology. Plus I hadn’t been to San Francisco in six months.
But for the other people I met, those didn’t seem to be the reasons. They seemed more curious about solving specific problems. I talked to a lot of people about their startup, and about help they needed with UX, etc.
Assuming that most attendees were like the ones I met, it seems off that they wouldn’t all also apply to other YC events. I’d love to see YC look further into that and find out why.
2. “Percentage of companies with at least one female founder.”
YCombinator’s female funding metric was “percentage of companies with at least one female founder.” I think this was a bit disingenuous.
Kevin Marks made a clearer version showing percentage of companies with at least one female founder vs. percentage with at least one male founder. He got his data from YC’s published information.
That makes the numbers seem not so good.
Similarly, from Shanley Kane:
More concerning, was the lack of awareness about why this is the case. Jessica said in her talk “and we started with people who read Paul’s essays.” The implication that I got from the statement was “we started with people like Paul.” There seemed to be no concern around that – or awareness that it could be the cause of the graph above.
If you define your target market to be white male “hackers”, and reach out to white male “hackers”, it shouldn’t be surprising when you get white male “hackers.”
It’s one thing to do that to get started. It’s another thing to keep doing that after you’re viewed as a thought leader in an industry. For me, it’s an ethical issue. You might make more money initially by focusing on only one demographic, but what’s the long term implication? I’d bet that same targeting also plays into the why women don’t typically attend other YC events.
3. Co-found with your spouse.
Jessica had a big section at the beginning about confounding with a spouse, but it also came up throughout the discussions.
This freaked me out the most. It seemed to be another case of “people like me.” Jessica and Paul managed to cofound together. Then they funded YC companies with spouse cofounders. The data shown was 34.5% of female cofounders had cofounded with a spouse. I don’t have the data – but I’d say that number is far higher than female-founded companies in general. There didn’t seem to be awareness that that could be a YC bias, and wasn’t necessarily the best way to succeed.
Additionally, I don’t think “cofound with your spouse” sends a good message. Why am I doing that? Should I cofound with my spouse because no one else would respect me? Because my spouse can force people to take me seriously? Because my spouse is the only technical person I’ll know?
I’d rather get advice around cofound with someone you can work with. Cofound with someone who calls you on your bullshit. Cofound with someone who has complimentary skills. Being a spouse isn’t a qualification for being a good cofounder.
There are a ton of people in the world. I doubt that for most people confounding with a spouse is the right solution. Men rarely get the advice “hey go cofound with your spouse.” I’m not sure why that should be any different. I can’t think of a single good thing that this message sends.
I don’t want to cofound with Tom. He’d be a wonderful cofounder, but not for me.
4. “Being the quiet founder.”
Jessica also talked at length about being the quiet founder. I have nothing against that. There has been work discussing that women have to be better at self promoting. It’s not always best to work hard and assume someone will notice. So, I think it’s debatable.
What freaked me out wasn’t that Jessica wanted to be a quiet founder. It was that that I didn’t notice anyone mention Jessica on stage after. I loved reading Founders at Work. She’s really smart and has great input.
But in each of the anecdotes from other founders, I heard things like “and then Paul said X” or “and then PG X.” These weren’t from press people – they were from founders in the program. Why did Paul make so much more of an impression? Why didn’t Jessica’s advice stick out in their minds?
That’s not a flaw with the conference. It still makes me nervous. It scares me if Paul is the only one giving advice to the founders. It also scares me if the women just aren’t remember getting advice from another talented woman.
So, I’d go to the event again. I wish the industry was far enough along that I was writing about clever lessons I learned and was coming back to apply. Unfortunately, it’s not. The YC Female Founders conference made me realize how far we still have to go.