Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya’s book, Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, is not an ordinary book. I started reading it with the expectation that it would follow the usual format of a typical nonfiction book: an intro that announced what the book would be about (why there aren’t more women in the tech world), a series of chapters that dispassionately analyzed the issue, and a clinical list of recommendations summed up in a conclusion chapter.
In fact, this book isn’t even really written by Wadhwa and Chideya. Instead, as Wadhwa explains in the intro, this book is a crowdcreated book co-written by numerous women in tech. The book is partly composed of chapters on why there aren’t more women in the field and is partly an anthology of women’s personal essays about the challenges and obstacles they faced as they built careers in tech and strived to launch tech companies. By reading their personal stories, you get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes as women in tech and experience what they have had to go through.
For example, in an essay titled “It’s Different for Girls,” Heidi Roizen, now the operating partner with venture-capital firm DFJ, writes about her experiences with sexual harassment and double standards when it comes to parenthood. During one meeting with a venture capitalist (VC), she sat in an all-glass office where the VC had a window behind his head. In the reflection in the window, Roizen could see what was happening behind her in the hallway. As she pitched her funding request, out in the hallway a partner of the VC would form the fingers of one hand into a circle and poke the fingers of his other hand through the circle — and then thrust his hips in a sexual manner. Surprise, surprise, no term sheet for Roizen.
A few years later, while five months pregnant and making a pitch for funding at a different firm, a VC leading the deal asked, “My partners are concerned that when you have this baby, you are going to lose interest in the company and not be a good CEO. How can you assure us that won’t happen?” No term sheet from that firm either.
These women’s essays are raw and authentic, told in their own words and in their own voices. Many of the essays are effusive. Lynn Tilton, founder and CEO of holding company Patriarch Partners, calls out to women: These women’s essays are raw and authentic, told in their own words and in their own voices.“Let us be each other’s cheerleader, friend, and the invisible web of energetic elegance that transcends dream to reality and drives our reach for the stars.” Many essays are inspiring. Deborah Jackson, founder and CEO of Plum Alley, a website for women to raise money, writes: “If [venture capitalists] don’t get it, just move on and prove them wrong. You will survive because you have to. Close your eyes and say, ‘What do I want my life to be like? How will I get there?” Occasionally, there are bits that probably only those in Silicon Valley can relate to, as when Whitney Johnson, co-founder of investment firm Rose Park Advisors, writes: “If, in the deepest part of your nature, you know that you must disrupt and you don’t, you’ll die just a little inside.”
The women quoted in this book also pack in a lot of advice. For example, many women in general have had the experience of sitting at a meeting table and voicing an idea that quickly gets dismissed. Then, a short time later, a male colleague voices the same idea and it gets a favorable response. In a chapter subsection titled “Overcoming Discrimination with Guts, Grit, and Goodwill,” Liddy Karter, a managing director at investment firm Enhanced Capital, offers this pro tip: “[T]he next time your six foot four, square-jawed, broad-shouldered colleague restates what you just said and everyone nods approvingly after looking bored when you spoke, just thank him for agreeing with you. These patterns are so ingrained they probably don’t realize they’re overlooking you.”
Another bit of advice comes from Ellen Pearlman, president at Pearlman Consulting: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than ask for permission. … That piece of advice can be helpful if you’ve been raised to stick to the rules. I learned in business (from men) that breaking rules can be very useful.”
This book touches on a broad range of topics about how to get more women into tech — everything from exposing more girls to coding, creating mom-friendly workplace policies, networking, mentoring, and changing how employees are recruited. It even discusses how to respond to harassment and provides tips to conference organizers on how to reduce the potential for harassment at conferences (an unfortunately all-too-common problem).
The book concludes with many recommendations from Wadhwa, a man who entered the women-in-tech debate in 2010 with a provocative blog post titled “Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem.” In one section of the book called “Following the Indian Trail,” he describes the challenges that Indian-immigrant entrepreneurs like him used to face in Silicon Valley. He explains that Indian immigrants overcame many of the challenges they faced by helping one another. Wadhwa writes, “When the first generation of Indians in Silicon Valley succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling, they decided to help others follow their path. They realized that they had all surmounted the same obstacles. And they could reduce the barriers to entry for others behind them by sharing their experiences and opening some doors.” He says that, similarly, women must help one another.
Innovating Women is part of an important conversation on the challenges and obstacles women face when pursuing careers in tech and trying to get venture capital for tech companies that they are striving to launch. It’s also part of a larger conversation about women trying to fit in and succeed in a work world that was originally created by men, for men, and of men. There is so much potential to be reached when barriers are removed and everyone, women and men, can use their talents to the maximum.
Preeti Aroon, a writer based in Washington, D.C., is copy chief at Foreign Policy magazine and tweets at @pjaroonFP.
Read excerpts from Innovating Women by S. Mitra Kalita, Shaherose Charania and Lakshmi Pratury on The Aerogram.
Today Vivek Wadhwa will discuss Innovating Women in Washington, DC, with New America Foundation‘s Liza Mundy. Watch livestream video of the event online, 9:30-11 a.m. ET. On Tuesday October 7, Wadhwa will moderate a panel discussion at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California, on what’s needed to close the gender gap in the tech sector.