If you’ve been out and about in Silicon Valley in the last month or so, chances are you’ve heard of “Alpha Girls,” a new book written by longtime journalist Julian Guthrie about four investors who’ve made a big impact on the world of startup investing. The book recognizes them — Theresia Gouw, MJ Elmore, Sonja Hoel Perkins, and Magdalena Yesil — because they are interesting individuals, each with very different upbringings and skill sets and areas of expertise.
But they also succeeded in the venture industry during a time when they were almost always the only woman in the room, or at the conference, or in the middle of a team-building event. Elmore signed on with IVP in 1982, becoming a general partner by age 28. Yesil cofounded the dot com high-flier CyberCash before joining USVP as a partner in 1988. Perkins’s star also rose quickly. By age 29, she was a general partner at Menlo Ventures, staying nearly 22 years before launching her own venture fund. Down the street, Gouw was building a track record at Accel, where she spent 15 years before cofounding her own firm in 2014, Aspect Ventures.
We talked with Guthrie earlier today about how these so-called alpha women differ from the many other subjects Guthrie has spent time with across her 20-year reporting career with the San Francisco Chronicle, during which time she also authored books about Larry Ellison and Peter Diamandis. We wondered how much time she spent with each. (“I think they were ready to block my calls and texts,” she laughed.) We wondered how long she worked on the book (roughly two years, including interviews with the women and their colleagues and partners, among others).
But what we even more wanted to know was whether after working on the book, Guthrie views the venture industry as any more or less welcoming to women than at the outset of her research. “It is not as bad as it’s portrayed, in my opinion,” Guthrie told us. “There are success stories.” Still, Guthrie noted that each of these investors had to grapple with much that a man might not.
Some of these were mundane but constant considerations, including, “Should you take notes or not? When do you speak up? How do you network? Do you go to these boondoggles when it’s all guys?”
Said Guthrie, “Some of these things were shocking to me, coming from my own very gender-neutral experience as a reporter.”
Yet there were other ways they had to alter themselves. She says Elmore quickly learned that if she wore a dress to a board meeting, for example, it would elicit compliments that weren’t necessarily expected, so she soon cut her hair and began wearing suits. Meanwhile, Perkins and Gouw participated in male-dominated events on the theory that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. For Perkins, this meant skiing alongside former Navy Seals when she was still a relative novice on the slopes. For Gouw, it was getting elbowed in the stomach during a competitive game of flag football. It was “not so much about emulating men but steering the spotlight away from their femininity, so it didn’t become a distraction,” Guthrie told us.
Interestingly, one of the more fundamental ways the women seemed to differ from their male colleagues was in their dealings with Guthrie herself, she said. She noted that many of the men she has interviewed — including Ellison, Diamandis, Richard Branson and Elon Musk — have been “happy to talk about their vulnerabilities, because it kind of rounds them out. It softens them in a nice way.” She observed that women who’ve enjoyed success meanwhile have a “much harder time sharing their mistakes, their regrets, their vulnerabilities.” Because women are often provided less room for missteps — or they perceive that they have less room, “I had to tell [the investors] again and again that it was important that we tell the good, bad, and ugly — not because I was seeking scandal but because I wanted these stories to be honest.”
Before we parted ways, we asked Guthrie about women and money, after she volunteered that it’s a “tricky issue for women. If you go after too much, you’re greedy; if you marry someone with money, you’re a gold digger.”
She pointed to a Forbes piece from last summer that called Gouw “America’s richest female venture capitalist.” Gouw apparently felt uneasy about the story and participated in it mostly to draw attention to her work with the advocacy organization she helped cofound, called AllRaise. But as Gouw told Guthrie, it’s had a somewhat surprising impact. “She was a serious player before, but it kind of gave her street cred” with those who pay attention to Forbes’s Midas List and other forms of score-keeping.
It’s a good thing, suggests Guthrie, who has been promoting her book to women in numerous industries, including in homebuilding and law and in medicine. “You see the same barriers across them all,” Guthrie said. “But you’re also seeing these women’s groups and networks becoming more powerful across all these industries, where women are speaking out and creating these sisterhoods.”
They’re agreeing to more hard-earned self-promotion, too. They see it as an increasingly competitive tool, and, as Guthrie puts it, “It’s not boasting when it’s based on fact.”
Pictured above, left to right: Theresia Gouw, Sonja Perkins, MJ Elmore, Magdalena Yesil, and Julian Guthrie.
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