Silicon Valley Cracks the Glass Ceiling

Ada Lovelace may finally have reason to smile.

Groundbreaking accelerator 500 Startups recently announced the 500 Women Fund, an AngelList syndicate dedicated to funding startups led by women in entrepreneurship. 500 founder Dave McClure commented to PandoDaily, “Smart women entrepreneurs are not getting the access to capital they could.”

An estimated 25 to 30 percent of teams currently funded by 500 Startups include at least one female founder, double the US average of 13%. (500 also invests substantially in international teams, bolstered by its Geeks on a Plane initiative.)

The 500 Women syndicate is a new program designed to further encourage women to become founders, and to support them with a deep network of investors, mentors, and peers.

Meanwhile, fellow incubator YCombinator prepares its first conference focused exclusively on female founders. The incubator turned an about-face in December 2013, after comments from an interview with YCom founder Paul Graham went viral. During the interview, Graham remarked:

I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. You could argue that we should do more, that we should encourage women to start startups.

Even for an industry structurally dominated by male-biased investment patterns, YCombinator stands out from the crowd: over its eight-year history, 96% of YCombinator founders have been men. It appears, however, that the tides of patriarchy may be waning. Commented PG (as he’s often known) in a subsequent essay:

More thoughtful people were willing to concede YC wasn’t biased against women, but thought we should be actively working to increase the number of female founders. As one put it, instead of being a gatekeeper, we should be a gateway…

We fund more female founders than VCs do, and we help them to overcome the bias they’ll encounter among other investors. In the current YC batch, 16 out of 68 companies, or 24%, have female founders.

I realize though that with female founders, efforts at our stage are not enough.

Pivoting from a previously laissez-faires attitude towards the gender gap, YCombinator appears ready to assume a proactive role in catalyzing social change. Complimenting his two provocative essays on the subject, Paul Graham’s wife and partner, Jessica Livingston, will soon co-host the Female Founders Conference.

Taking place March 1 at the Computer History Museum, the conference will feature an impressive series of talks from accomplished women in technology, including industry leaders Diane Green (Founder, VMWare), Julia Hartz (Co-Founder, EventBrite) and Jessica Mah (Co-Founder, InDinero).

But is it enough?

All these efforts, while commendable, overlook the growing gender gap afflicting the tech field as a whole. In 1984, for instance, 37.1% of US computer science degrees went to women; today, the same figure is 12%, less than a third of the rate three decades ago.

Women face similar discrimination at all levels of organizational leadership — only 19% of American CEOs are women, for instance — leading to the widespread, if controversial, notion of a “pink ghetto.

Reasons for such a participatory decline may vary, but the scarcity of role models — women in technology with name recognition approaching Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or, more contemporarily, Mark Zuckerberg — may likely play an inhibiting role in encouraging more women to enter the field.

Efforts by YCombinator and 500Startups may play only a minor role in reversing a long-standing sociotechnical trend, but even the longest journey begins with a single step — and in this case, it’s a step in the right direction.

Can Silicon Valley Save Journalism?

Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

In August, 2013, the Washington Post made waves when it announced its sale to Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon. The purchase, coming at a time of historically low print circulation, led Daily Show personality John Oliver to quip, “There are now more people buying newspapers than there are people buying newspapers.”

Bezos sees things differently, foretelling a “golden era” at the WaPo, where he intends to introduce a new, startup-inspired culture of risk-taking and experimentation.

In 2012, another old media property fell into the arms of a Valley darling. This time, Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who led President Obama’s online organizing efforts in 2008, purchased The New Republic, an influential magazine reaching progressive audiences in politics and culture.

Hughes, who now serves as Editor-in-Chief, seeks to expand the publication’s digital footprint — particularly on next-generation tablets and e-readers — while preserving the high-quality journalism for which they’re known. In the eighteen months since the acquisition, New Republic print circulation is up by 20% and web traffic has tripled, following a doubling of staff and an expansion into a New York Office, branching out from the company’s traditional Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Now, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is jumping into the journalism ring, too. Omidyar’s new media venture, First Look Media, “seeks to reimagine journalism for the digital age, combining the promise of technological innovation with the power of fearless reporting.”

Since launching less than a week ago, the venture’s first in-house publication, The Intercept, stars former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose series of articles about the NSA, based on documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, ignited a fierce and ongoing debate about the limits of government surveillance.

With founders now donning the mantle of Editor-in-Chief (as Hughes has done), it’s no wonder that a reverse migration is happening, too. Consider Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the magnetic duo formerly behind AllThingsD, the flagship digital publication of the Wall Street Journal. Their new venture, Re/code, places them in competition with other tech-focused news upstarts, including PandoDaily and TheVerge.

Even Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, is joining a new venture after a 30-year career at the so-called paper of record. His new role will make him Editor in Chief of The Marshall Project, a newly-formed nonprofit that raises critical awareness about the American criminal justice system, which, in Keller’s words, “is bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated.

Despite fears of an eroding press, journalism bustles with activity and innovation. New outlets are springing up regularly, while those in the old establishment await a new, experimental culture inspired by a surge of founder-driven acquisitions. The future of the media may be brighter than we once imagined.

Will Startups Embrace Management?

The future face of Silicon Valley?

A recent Medium post by Dustin Moskowitz, co-founder of Asana, argues that startups should transition away from distributed, individuated, hierarchy-free management culture — or, better put, anti-management culture – that defines the structure (or lack thereof) of many emerging organizations.

Moskowitz offers counterpoint by way of gaming startup Valve, who in a move of considerable transparency, published a self-critique of their laissez-faire, DIY-ish philosophy:

valve

Asana, and other companies, organize themselves around a culture of “distributed responsibility,” whose details they share generously on their blog. In this culture, domains of expertise fall into the hands of single individuals, where one person is responsible, say, for onboarding, another for CSS, and so on. The approach suggests a peer-to-peer culture of decision-making, rather than that of a traditional, top-down hierarchy.

Dustin’s notion of a good manager, perhaps reflecting a broader perspective shared by many in Silicon Valley, is as follows:

At the end of the day, good management qualities (empathy, attentiveness, honesty, wisdom, among others) trump philosophy, but some thought and planning can go a long way towards creating a culture that best supports your people and the goals of your company.

Interestingly, however, such qualities — while certainly admirable, and indeed desirable — may have little to do with effective leadership, or so suggests empirical research. “In Praise of Dullness,” a widely touted column penned by David Brooks in 2009, suggests that many of these soft-core qualities have little to do with effective leadership:

Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called “Which C.E.O. Characteristics and Abilities Matter?”

They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades.

Granted, Brooks focuses on CEOs, rather than managers, but I think that a similar principle applies in both cases: good leaders are individuals who are organized, consistent, critical, and hard-working, irrespective of their personalities.

The conclusions, while perhaps counter-intuitive, seem to be consistent across a wide body of research. Should this change the way startups organize themselves?

Maybe. I think that both Brooks and Moskowitz have valid points. The research cited by Brooks focuses on leaders of large, traditional, hierarchical organizations, where the qualities that constitute effectiveness may be defined, or at least shaped, by the broader culture of the companies.

Startups like Asana, meanwhile, are smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more collaborative than those highlighted in the cited studies. Given a company where the team evolves quickly, where each member wears numerous hats, where personal growth matters as much as dogged persistence, and where mentorship factors crucially into leadership, is a new kind of manager emerging? Moskowitz writes:

At Asana, we value transparency, balance, working together as peers, and investing in each other, and we try to apply these values to our management culture. We think that good management requires balance. We try to give people the freedom they need to contribute at their full potential, while also providing the support that helps them grow to become even more capable.

Our approach is “distributed responsibility,” exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Instead of having all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we go out of our way to distribute them as evenly as possible across all employees. At the same time, our approach emphasizes personal growth, especially through mentorship. I believe the most important contribution of a manager is to serve their reports by unblocking them, mentoring them, and pointing them in a direction that best serves their needs and the priorities of the organization.

Without suggesting too deterministic an outcome, the management culture at Asana certainly seems to be steering the company towards success.

The Revolution Will Be Wearable

In anticipation of the largest wearable computing conference since Google I/O, we invited Kyle Ellicot, co-founder of Stained Glass Labs and Producer of the Glazed conference, to join us for an @sfbeta On Air panel with Kyle Samani, Founder of Pristine.io, and Peter Berger, founder of PeoplePlus.

Is it time for Facebook to #reader Notes?

On July 9, Bloomberg tech writer Mark Milian coined my favorite new tech verb: to reader – as in, to kill a product. Perhaps it’s time for Facebook to borrow a page from its Mountain View neighbors and reader a product of its own: Notes.

Facebook for many years restricted the length of status updates to a glib 420 characters, encouraging (or rather mandating) a short-but-not-quite-so-short-as-a-tweet conversational style amongst its userbase. To augment the publication of long-form content — including syndication from blogs — Facebook introduced the Notes app.

Notes lives on obscurely, lingering like a dusty record collection in the bottom-left graveyard of a user’s Timeline. And while these notes contain a rich trove of content, they’re largely redundant, and have been for almost two years.

On September 21, 2011, Facebook increased the maximum length of status updates to 5,000 characters, the equivalent of a seven-page essay. The change has made Facebook a far richer conversational platform than it was in the past, allowing users to expound (whether via comments or original posts) to their heart’s content.

What that means, in effect, is that Notes serves little if any purpose beyond what can be achieved by a standard status update. It could be argued that minor differences persist — they have titles along with bodies, they degrade less slowly than timeline posts, and such — but such distinctions are minor and, in my opinion, do not merit the persistence of an app for its own sake.