In 2012, after nearly 13 years at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Aileen Lee left the storied venture capital firm to start her own, Cowboy Ventures. There, she focuses on seed rounds and mentorship — but as one of Silicon Valley’s few female VCs, she also has a special perspective on tech’s gender diversity gap.
“You’re sitting in a boardroom with a bunch of guys,” Lee said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “It’s a hot company that’s thinking about raising their series A or their series B. Usually what we do is we make a Google Doc with a list of target investors. And people will say, ‘I was just with Jimmy Brown last weekend, he’s such a good guy! We should put him on the list.’ And someone else will be like, ‘Oh, I love that dude. He’s such a great guy.’
“And then I’ll bring up a woman. And they’ll be like ‘Oh, does she invest in security?’ It’s a totally different set of questions.”
Lee elaborated that men can get a hand up just for being fun to hang out with and not rocking the boat; women investors, on the other hand, must have specific domain expertise and a strong professional network to merit consideration.
According to a CrunchBase study, at the top 100 venture firms globally, only 7 percent of VCs are women.
On the new podcast, Lee made a point of praising Kleiner Perkins for “taking a chance” on her in 1999, and storied investor John Doerr in particular for highlighting her contributions in meetings. She likened Doerr’s backup to a recent Washington Post story about how women in the Obama administration “amplified” each others’ voices.
“Those kind of things that men can do for people who are different — not just women — in environments, and that women can do for each other, and people can do for each other, I think will make a huge difference,” she said. “I don’t think we do enough.”
And doing more for diversity isn’t just a moral question, she explained. Young companies are paying attention to diversity because it has been linked with better business decisions.
“The founders are two guys, engineers who have worked in the Valley for a while,” Lee said of one company from Y Combinator that Cowboy Ventures recently invested in. “[They] were like, ‘We went to a bunch of the websites of the VC firms and were like Hello! You have 15 guys! Do you not get that it’s 2016?’ They said that to me.”
“It’s awesome that you have a female CFO and a female GC, but if you look at the investing partners and it’s 15 dudes, I do think those people are going to get left behind if they don’t get with where the world is going,” she added.
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