Sequoia Capital’s Jess Lee tells Moneyish about Female Founder Office Hours and what women entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley shouldn’t do
Men can’t sit with them.
As Silicon Valley grapples with widespread allegations that some of its most prominent companies and venture capitalists have a “woman problem,” some female leaders are leading the fight for change. The latest effort is Female Founder Office Hours, a planned series of networking events that bring together women venture capitalists and tech startup founders to trade advice and share war stories.
One leader behind Office Hours is Jess Lee, the first woman named a U.S. investing partner at Sequoia Capital, the storied VC firm that backed Apple, Google and WhatsApp, among other household names. (She began her career at Google, where she was hired by one Marissa Mayer, before becoming chief exec at ecommerce website Polyvore, subsequently acquired by Yahoo under Mayer’s troubled leadership.) Lee was at a dinner for women VCs hosted by Aileen Lee, who backed the Dollar Shave Club and famously coined the term “unicorn,” when the conversation turned to helping more women succeed in their famously male-dominated world.
The series kicks off with a Nov. 30 event for female founders of companies in seed funding stage; get-togethers for more established startups are in the pipeline. The San Francisco meeting consists of a talk on fundraising led by Lee, as well as one-on-one sessions with senior women from major funds like Benchmark and Cowboy. Would-be attendees have to fill in a form for an invite and while the event was announced just this week, Lee says that demand has already exceeded supply. Hopeful participants are asked to briefly describe their companies, as well as detail which VCs they hope to chat with.
The initiative couldn’t come sooner. Before Lee joined last year, a senior partner at Sequoia resigned after being sued for sexually mistreating a woman (he denied the allegations.) Since then, her company has not just hired Lee but also quietly set up a mentorship program for women in tech. “I’m super excited to see more women helping women,” she tells Moneyish. “The goal is a virtuous cycle of more kickass women starting companies.”
There are two major reasons for keeping Office Hours single sex. First, it allows Lee to focus on challenges that skew female. Take for instance, fundraising. “I see female founders showcase their financial projections in a way that’s about downside minimization rather than upside maximization,” she says. So whereas men seeking funding may claim they can make $500 million in an optimistic scenario, Lee says it’s all-too-common for women to talk about how they can do $100 million in business in the most conservative conditions.
“You have to understand that [venture] investors care more about the upside than downside potential. We fully expect to lose” some of our money, she says. “It’s about understanding your audience and that’s something I’ll talk about at the event.”
Secondly, Lee’s also keen to develop a community among female founders, who are a minority of a minority. “It’s lonely enough being a founder when it’s just your team against the world,” she says. “And on top of that, to feel like you don’t see anyone who looks like you? That’s even more isolating.”
“So why not combine the small community of women in tech with the also small female founder community?” she adds. Only 15.8% of startups globally have at least one woman founder and females make up just 6% of venture capital partners.
The hope is that these women will sustain themselves since they can empathize with each other’s situations. Lee recalls how, early during her Polyvore stint, she had significant turnover whenever she hired a vice president. “I felt like a huge failure every time, but it turns out the hit rate for startup executives is very low,” she says. “But I didn’t have context until I was lucky enough to have founders tell me that.”
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