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After Ellen Pao, Now What?

Thank you, Ellen, for your courage in beginning this dialogue.

Anyone who has followed the Ellen Pao trial knows the data: The decline of women investors in venture from 10 percent to 6 percent; the 77 percent of venture firms that have never had a woman partner; the 11 percent of tech board seats held by women, while that number hovers at 20 percent for Fortune 500 companies.

And yet, despite the trial’s outcome, most agree that Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has put a spotlight on the industry and opened a dialogue that many believe will lead to more diversity across the Valley. The question is, will it?

As a senior woman in the venture industry for almost two decades, I’m sure it would not be surprising to hear that many of Ellen’s stories rang true. While I was blessed with a mentor like VC pioneer Tim Draper and the Kauffman Fellowship, once I moved past those early years into the power dynamics and hierarchy of the industry, the stories came fast and furious — the entrepreneur who presented to me and two junior (male) professionals and spoke only to the men (and how often this happened); the senior partner at a prestigious firm who was pressing me on terms by telling me how lucky I was to have a man of his stature interested in my deal; the feedback that I could be “intimidating.”

And yet, despite that, I managed to make good investments and rise to the senior ranks in my industry. I was lucky, and I had good people around me. But it is not the easiest nor likeliest outcome. In a relatively small partnership, power dynamics are hard, and success has many fathers (mothers?) when it comes to deal attribution. And when a woman or minority is left to feel isolated and embattled in that dynamic, it generates a difficult culture that makes success harder.

Is my opinion valued? Should I speak up, or is it better not to engage? Through all of the courtroom testimony over the past few weeks, it became clear how important a role culture plays in bringing out the best in people, and in driving to better outcomes.

Now we leave the courtroom behind and are left to ourselves again. Beyond the dusting off of employee handbooks and the rewriting of gender bias and discrimination clauses, what else will come of it? The day after the trial’s verdict was announced, the New York Times gave prominent feature space to the rise of auto racing among the techno elite (despite Danica Patrick, for the technorati, it is a male-dominated bro bonding opportunity) — is it just business as usual?

I challenge the men and the women in our industry to not dismiss these issues too quickly, and to consider their own unconscious biases. It’s clear that we expect diversity of experience in our companies, and we find diversity in the markets for the products where we sell; how can we challenge ourselves to bring diversity into our own organizations and better reflect the world in which we live and the markets where our companies compete? How do we uncover our own biases and shut them down? Where do we go from here?

Last week, I listened intently to Nitin Nohria, dean of the Harvard Business School, as he explained over dinner how he has uncovered and fought bias in the halls of one of the most elite business schools in the country. He described how often comments in the classroom were misattributed during case study reviews, and were almost always attributed to the men in the class, even when a woman made the comment. By putting a scribe in every session, the school accurately began to capture and recognize the different perspectives being brought into the classroom; and the rise of women in honors and as Baker Scholars (the school’s term for the top 5 percent) rose commensurately.

While not always such a simple fix, what can each firm do in their Monday partner meetings to bring in and celebrate that different perspective or different voice?

As the data has shown, greater diversity of all sorts — age, gender, education, ethnicity — increases the likelihood of finding that unicorn, or driving better decisions in our investments and on our company boards. Working side by side with smart, qualified, motivated people who are different from the all-male network will broaden the firm’s reach, increase compassion, empathy and an appreciation for a cause or opportunity that when invested in, just might change the world.

And while I may enjoy auto racing myself, it may take more out-of-the-box networking events to engage that broader group. Try something different; where’s the harm? The upside just might be economically awesome.

Thank you, Ellen, for your courage in beginning this dialogue.

Jennifer Fonstad co-founded Aspect Ventures in 2014. Previously, she was a partner and managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Reach her @AspectVC.

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