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There’s no ‘female Mark Zuckerberg,’ and that’s a problem for women in tech

Canaan Partners investor Maha Ibrahim says the lack of obvious female founder role models is setting women back.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles and points from a podium where he is giving a speech. Paul Marotta / Getty Images

Getting rid of sexual harassers in tech is challenging enough. But getting the men who are left to take away the right lessons about women is a whole different ballgame.

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Swisher spoke with Maha Ibrahim, one of three female general partners at the venture capital firm Canaan Partners, where there are eight total GPs.

“I had a VC tell me a couple weeks ago, after this Justin Caldbeck stuff — he said, ‘I wonder if I’ve ever done anything,’” Ibrahim said. “It’s reflection, but it’s also that turtle thing. The defensive mechanism will be to meet with fewer female entrepreneurs.”

She said that makes it even more important that she and other female GPs hire women to work at VC firms and invest in female-led companies. The historical lack of diversity in tech is a vicious circle, Ibrahim explained, and not just at the founder level: The lack of obvious female role models makes investors less likely to put money in.

“In the entrepreneurial pool — this is specific to women — there’s no icon,” Ibrahim said. “There’s no Steve Jobs, there’s no Mark Zuckerberg, there’s no one we can point to right now and use them, highlight them as an example of building a truly world-class company from the ground up. I believe that’s one of the reasons, not the only, but that’s one of the reasons you don’t see females getting founded, in the numbers that we see men.”

“I’ve been on panels where male investors have said, ‘We feel like women shoot for the moon, not the stars. We feel like women are not as ambitious as men,’” she added. “And they’re using that as an example, ‘Gosh, there is no female Mark Zuckerberg.’ There doesn’t have to be.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Ibrahim also praised former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Ellen Pao for “putting a nuclear bomb on her career” in 2015. However, she stressed, many men in the venture capital world had an “unfortunate” reaction to Pao’s unsuccessful gender discrimination lawsuit.

“I was on a plane a year and a half ago to the East Coast, sitting next to a VC that I’ve known for years,” Ibrahim said. “And he said to me that he and other managing directors at firms don’t want to hire women at senior ranks because they don’t want an ‘Ellen Pao-like situation.’ I was horrified. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

“We had a number of hours on the plane to talk about it, and I wanted to hear his story, because it’s very rare that somebody actually comes out and says something like that,” she added. “I had to think about it, like, ‘Wow. Maybe he’s giving me a gift. Maybe he is opening up the door so that I can hear, really hear, [what they think].’ While I was horrified, I was appreciative that he was saying it out loud.”

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