Rx for Silicon Valley success: VC advice

March 30, 2010, 7:08 PM UTC

Guest Post by Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, managing partner, Accel Partners

During a recent television interview, I was asked by a reporter, “Which industry is more sexist, Wall Street or Silicon Valley?”

That question is of great interest and relevance to me. I’ve spent over a decade as a female partner of one of the largest venture capital firms. I was an entrepreneur at a start-up here in Silicon Valley before that. I’m a working mom with a seven-month-old son and a seven-year-old daughter. A first-generation Chinese-American, I “immigrated” to the Valley as a young engineer and business school student.

But before all this, I have been the only non-white, non-native person in my small-town high school and the only woman in the engineering lab, the GM auto plant and the executive boardroom. And, like many women, I’ve had my abilities questioned, my looks appraised, my senses assaulted (a business lunch at a topless bar…but don’t get me started) and my biological clock monitored.

While I cannot speak first-hand to the Wall Street culture, I can tell you that the Valley is, first and foremost, a meritocracy of talent and performance.  The culture rewards results, bold new ideas and risk-taking, no matter the source. Companies that my firm and I have invested in have been founded by native-born as well as first- and second-generation immigrants–men and women of Chinese, Irish, Syrian, Indian, and Israeli descent and pretty much everything in between. Men and women “immigrate” here because they see the Valley as a special place with unique conditions that increase the chances of a venture becoming the next Cisco , Google or Facebook.
Like other VC firms here, we seek to back the best and brightest people who are creating disruptive and exciting companies. Period.

But, I’m not suggesting that the Valley is a gender-blind utopia. Last summer, as part of Maria Shriver’s A Woman’s Nation, my firm hosted a roundtable for 21 women in Silicon Valley. The consensus? Overt sexism is not largely at play here–but there was a noticeable division between women whose careers span 15+ years and women newer to the workforce. We “older gals” were adamant that if you want to make career and family work in sync, it’s critical to commit to a job that you’re crazy about. (I know that sounds trite, but it speaks to why you keep coming back to work. See Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Guest Post, “Don’t leave before you leave.”).

Beyond that, work-life synchronicity requires that you work hard, become a unique asset to your company, and negotiate from there. That’s great advice for any working woman–or man.

That said, the real need in Silicon Valley isn’t just for more women, but for more diversity of all kinds–in our boardrooms, not just our lunchrooms. So, where do we start?  I have three recommendations.

1. We need to enable entrepreneurs who want to start companies and create jobs in the U.S. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) is a step in the right direction. Their “Startup Visa Act” would create a two-year visa for immigrant entrepreneurs whose firms attract at least $250,000 in U.S. angel or venture capital financing. The visa could be extended if the entrepreneur meets specified job creation targets. This kind of job creation would be powerful: Venture-backed companies represented 12.1 million jobs in 2009–some 11% of all private-sector jobs in the U.S. According to a recent study, 25% of these companies were founded by immigrants.

2. Businesses need to scale technology to make their teams more productive and work environments more flexible. In Silicon Valley, we use the technologies we create–video conferencing, chat, email–to fuel our results-driven culture. Our people work anytime, from anywhere. No matter where you live or come from or look like, you’re valued for doing the work when and where you want. You get more work done with lower travel costs and faster time to market. The other benefit: a highly diverse workforce.

3. We need to champion entrepreneurial values–big thinking, big risk-taking and even failure as a doorway to eventual achievement. This is critical for the next generation of entrepreneurs, our kids. Parents, mentors and educators should encourage young girls and boys to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and teach the values of entrepreneurship early on. A great model is The Girls’ Middle School in Mountain View, CA, where an Entrepreneurship course allows all seventh graders to develop business plans and sell their products. The course culminates in a fund-raising pitch to a panel of venture capitalists and CEOs. The audience numbers well over 100 people. I judge a lot of business-plan contests, and these young girls are as buttoned up and entrepreneurial as any business-school teams I’ve seen.

Capitalizing on workplace diversity is not a short-term exercise. But if there’s one thing Silicon Valley is really good at, it’s patiently investing to achieve a long-term goal. This is one of those opportunities.

Theresia Gouw Ranzetta is a managing partner with venture capital firm Accel Partners, where she focuses on Internet and software investments. She was featured in “The New Valley Girls,” a story about the supremely connected rising-star women of Silicon Valley, in Fortune in 2008.

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