There were a lot of problems that I had with the Female Founders Conference– maybe not so much with the conference but the commentary surrounding it. YC just can’t win– bashed from Shanley and co (who I do love for providing that counterpoint) that they’re not doing enough, and from people who believe that tech is a meritocracy and there’s nothing to fix (there’s no love for you). Not to mention all of this commentary on the conference being a PR stunt as a reaction: YC did put on this conference despite there’s no glory in putting on a conference for women, because those two extremes are very loud voices that crowd out the silent majority pondering the nuances of actually founding/making something as a minority (and this sort of commentary is fairly predictable, considering the patterns of gender/tech news).
You’ve probably seen all the charts. There are so many problems with trying to analyze data that doesn’t come from YC’s database. Startups fall apart, founders get sucked into other YC companies, and some don’t make it to Demo Day and the usual Crunchbase and Angelist databases. We don’t know the real numbers of all-women teams. True that YC still falls short of funding 50/50, but it’s hard to analyze what’s going wrong when we don’t see the full funnel. Let’s push for more transparency. YC could provide actual numbers of female/male applicants, how many get interviews, and how many get accepted in to YC could help the community understand where women can get the most help in such a process. Where are the female YC alums most useful in encouraging women and helping individual entrepreneurs to succeed? We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m glad we’re making progress.
My friend, Ellen, wrote a thoughtful article on her problems with the Female Founders Conference. She pointed out that all the founders talked about PG despite being a female founders conference, but what people don’t quite realize is that she has a substantially different focus than PG does. You wouldn’t expect two founders to do the exact same thing, regardless of gender. When your startup is falling apart from founder disagreements, from what I’ve gathered from YC alums, Jessica is who you go to. Likely, these companies on stage probably had less interaction with Jessica than PG.
One of the substantial questions she had was, why weren’t there more women at Startup School or other types of events? That if Female Founders Conference is oversubscribed, why aren’t a ton of women at Startup School? I don’t remember the source, but someone brought up that when they increased the percentage of female speakers, the percentage of female attendees also increased to match the percentage of female speakers. Something that YC and other organizations could do is to increase their percentage of female speakers at conferences and other events.
I actually enjoyed when women did talk about their darkest days, about being “quietly determined.” It made me think, these women are badasses, but also, maybe I’m not too different and can be a badass myself. A lot of the women I talk to who are interested in starting up something don’t, because they feel like they need to be completely armored up– to be fully prepared and qualified to go into battle. Jessica’s self-deprecation was probably offputting to a lot of stronger women, but for someone who has constantly doubted herself, I really did appreciate that I could identify with some of these women, because it made me think, “I really can do this.”
I did feel a bit weird when they talked about cofounding with their significant others, but just because I couldn’t fathom cofounding with mine. It would have been nice to hear about non-hetero couples also doing the same, for some balance. But I’m glad that they did acknowledge that this was a trend and there’s nothing wrong with it. And I’m glad it nodded to women that want kids as well as a startup baby too, even though I’m pretty sure I missed the maternal gene somewhere. I would have appreciated any YC partners talking about relationships with significant others and taking on childcare and home responsibility as a male while starting up (either as a male or female founder), but that’s probably a broader discussion not targeted to female founders.
And that’s the paradox with YC– that it gives permission to founders who really shouldn’t need permission anyway. However, when YC started, young people who were just programmers in the shadow of the tech bust, had trouble getting support (believe it or not). The next hurdle’s going to be more diversity– and when people who didn’t feel like they had permission to start something, now do, watch out world. I’m excited for that to materialize. I don’t think one conference is going to do it, but this is something that YC is well-equipped to figure out.
For people who think everything’s sunshine and rainbows for women, and such a conference is terrible (like most of this comment thread on HN), I suggest actually watching the talks. It’s not all about lady troubles. It’s about having a space that women have taken initiative as their own and have lead. It’s getting that communal, “oh,” of understanding without having to defend yourself, when a YC alum talks about a guy fixating on her physical looks, or VCs asking whether she’s planning on having kids, or that she was named a gender-neutral name so there was equality at least at the resume-screening stage. It’s about having the ability to have this transparency about problems that wouldn’t have been talked about otherwise. I hope one day that there won’t be a necessity for a separate forum for women because half of the leaders are women and feel empowered to talk about what they think is important for future founders (and not be the token female speaking on behalf of all women).
We should celebrate progress, and keep an eye towards the future. YC could have done nothing, and I think a lot of women and men would have missed out. There are more things they can do, like calling out shitty behavior on the other side of the table, to continue to provide more diverse role models, and to provide more transparency on where founders that aren’t the majority are having difficulty. I appreciate bloggers and people in the twittersphere making this an issue that more people should care about and pushing people to think about the nuances of founding a company as someone that doesn’t typically found companies. Let’s make it better. However, the biggest difference that YC can make and I suspect is focusing on, happens to be the thing that will matter the most. It is the change when a sea of women (and any other marginalized group here) found their own companies, in their quiet or loud, relentless determination to make something better. Because they won’t feel like they have to ask permission anymore.