San Francisco panorama

Leading women

San Francisco panorama

I’ve just been in San Francisco to talk to people working in the ed-tech space, to figure out where Spark+Mettle should go next and to drink insanely delicious cold-pressed coffee.

I was staying in a “Hacker House”, a first-stop, loft-style hostel for people working—or looking to work—in Silicon Valley. The sort of people who have briefcases rather than backpacks, more into bench-pressing than bong-smoking. So that was good. Less good? There were sixteen people staying there; I was the only woman. Twelve of us slept in an airless dorm. Bunk beds. I haven’t slept in one for about fifteen years. On the third night a nice guy gave me some earplugs so I didn’t have to hear the nocturnal male chorus of farts and snores.

Only one of the sixteen was an out-and-out chauvinist git. He threw out a couple of comments about whether or not I’d be making breakfast for everyone, which I chose to ignore. (He also asked if people in the Czech Republic speak “Czech Republic” and believed it when an Australian jokingly told him New Zealand was part of Australia. He had a hypoallergenic dog and a penchant for pedicures. Hashtag lost cause.)

And asides from a couple of other requests for “a pretty cleaner” to come and tidy the place, the rest of the guys were super cool and respectful. Then again, they were not, in the main, the alpha male type. More like beta males: the engineers and developers, glued to their screens for eight hour stretches, drumming up a new website in a day or two. I learned a lot from them. In fact, they inspired me to sign up for a Rails Girls course asap.

Beyond the four walls of the Hacker House, the entrepreneurs and investors of Silicon Valley were different. Alpha. The few women I met were alpha too: ballsy and sharp. I’d love to meet a female leader who bucks the trend and makes it work.

Many of the conversations I had involved men sitting with their muscled thighs far apart, showing off how big their balls were. That’s metaphorical. Mostly. There were a few good guys I met, including the immensely cool and un-douche-bally Sam Chaudary, founder of the brilliant ClassDojo.  But the residual sensation I was left with was that Silicon Valley—perhaps like other entrepreneur and tech conurbations—was full of a lot of big talk and sly one-upmanship. These are the guys who have nailed the art of the humblebrag. It’s cool that it’s cool to fail round there, I’d like that except it’s pretty dementing that it’s now part of the schtick. Every pitch seems to pivot around the first missteps, and that downgrades their integrity and humility, or so it seemed to me.

iterativeAnd for all its talk of disruptive innovation, the tech start up world is made up of a lot of identikit folk. The relentless jargon, the slacker uniform, the upside-down work schedule: it all smacks of a new take on a traditional old boy’s club or fraternity.  You might not need the tie or a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet, but you most likely need some biceps and a good line in big talk to get accepted. If you’re not into that—guy or girl— then it does a good job of making you feel excluded, small, un-ambitious, un-exciting.

I went out there with the hope of figuring out where to take Spark+Mettle next, what to focus on, and how to grow. Thanks to a lot of illuminating conversations and a good chunk of time to reflect, I’ve been able to figure out how to kick the organisation into the next gear. It’s pretty exciting. The big new vision: to put Spark+Mettle’s online offer front and centre, to reimagine ourselves as an ed-tech organisation. As we shift our focus, we will continue to provide a pipeline of opportunities for marginalised young people to develop the personal and professional competencies needed to flourish, including paid traineeships. You can find out more in our latest report.

But I also came back with some other things I learned around what it means to be a female leader—and specifically a female entrepreneur in the ball-dragging world of tech start-ups.

  1. I am so lucky to live in a house of my own with a (silent-sleeping, clean-smelling) husband and kid.
  2. I am so grateful to have as a partner a man who is all man and at the same time 100% supportive of what I do, with no gendered view about who of us should be doing what at home or outside of it. He’s smart and insanely hard-working and progressive and liberal, and the more men I meet, the more I realise what a cool catch I caught.
  3. Investors and funders invest in the team. Their eyes also light up at growth curves that make a half pipe look tame. But it’s the team they want to know about. Are you ready to bust their balls to make it work? Are you smart? Are you hungry? Those are their questions. The business model, the market—they’ll change. But the team will stay. So it’s vital as a female leader or founder to be able to pitch yourself with confidence and without apology.
  4. There’s a lot of innovation in the tech space, and there’s a ton of interest in emerging ed-tech companies. But the boot-strapping, fast-failing business plans haven’t proved themselves yet. And the competitive, big-balls-club climate means that the  chest-beaters are the ones who get the funding to make their stuff, leaving other neat solutions made by quieter folk to fall by the wayside. So it’s important to find a way to sound loud, however that best suits you.
  5. If you want to be a power player, or just a player, in tech or enterprise or innovation, you can just pick up the rules and play the game. (Albeit in heels. Or not.) But for anyone, like me, who wants to take a more collaborative, complementary approach to solving social problems with tech-based solutions, we have to remember that we’re going against the grain. To disrupt the disrupter scene, we have to spend time forming compelling arguments that will resonate not just with the likeminded, but also with the kind of guys who like to kiss their guns.
Dolores Park, San Francisco

Blue sky thinking