Changing Silicon Valley Entrepreneurship Culture from the Inside Out

On redefining what we see as a Silicon Valley CEO.

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A few months ago, I was at a conference, chatting with a guy friend of mine who runs a tech startup. After catching up about our companies, we somehow got onto the topic of his running a marathon, and I shared my obsession with high intensity interval training, or HIIT, workouts. This shocked him. Maybe because I'm on the small side, or maybe because my voice is a little quiet, he had pegged me for a yogi — he hadn't expected to learn that I prefer to jump around to loud hip-hop and raise 25-pound sandbags over my head.

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He told me that he didn't realize it before but that perhaps I was a ruthless competitor after all. "Maybe you really will take over the world someday," he offered. Just because he now knew that I love short bursts of high intensity exercise.

I'm pretty sure he meant this as a compliment, but I didn't take it that way. I was disappointed and mildly insulted to think that my workout regimen — more than our company's groundbreaking technology and vision — would be seen as a harbinger of future success. But I shouldn't have been all that surprised.

Those of us who are trying to build tech companies know that Silicon Valley favors a certain kind of entrepreneur, usually a white man with an outsize, bloodthirsty personality. We've all read the book/seen the movie/watched the news story about the CEO who works his teams into the ground, wears pajamas to pitch his company, adopts obsessive personal habits like eating nothing but fruit, and still manages to inspire confidence and trust from the industry. Before too long, we're led to believe that success in Silicon Valley is predicated on this kind of persona, and we start to use it to decide which people — and which companies — get to be successful.

Those of us who are trying to build tech companies know that Silicon Valley favors a certain kind of entrepreneur, usually a white man with an outsize, bloodthirsty personality.

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The problem with this definition is that it excludes all the many, diverse forms that ambition can take and makes it harder for those of us on the outside to work our way in. We outsiders are just as wildly obsessive about changing the world as our white male counterparts, just as dogged in pursuit of our goals, and just as brashly creative. But because we don't conform to the typical entrepreneur mold, and because our companies often serve underserved populations (including other women!), we face a lot of bias. I've thought a lot about how to best position our company for growth and success. I've started joking that I should take meetings at the gym. But the reality of what we're up against, as women and minority tech leaders, is a lot more complicated and even contradictory.

Here's what I mean. Our company works in East Africa and Southeast Asia building credit scores out of mobile data so that people outside the financial mainstream can get access to credit and other critical financial services. This focus on low-income populations outside the United States, combined with my ethnicity and gender, places our company easily in the "outsider" bucket. Most of my industry peers have no reason to use — and certainly don't need — our product. We can't be described as "Tinder for dog sitters" or "Uber for artisanal soap" or ... you get the idea.

It also means that, most of the time when I'm pitching investors or speaking at conferences or even just at a cocktail party in San Francisco, I have a lot more explaining to do up front. I have to explain, often to an audience of mostly white men, that my interest in emerging markets isn't a charity project; that, yes, a good portion of people in these markets have smartphones and purchasing power and business acumen; that, no, they don't have access to traditional banking, let alone credit cards. I have to undo the perception that Africa and Southeast Asia are places that depend on aid and replace it with the fact that they are now, increasingly, places to do business. I have a lot more work to do just to prove that I — and my company — deserve to be in the room.

I have a lot more work to do just to prove that I — and my company — deserve to be in the room.

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The irony is that if I borrowed from the boys and rolled up to meetings or conferences in a hoodie, I'm not sure I would be taken seriously. If I were loud and combative, if I had dropped out of school instead of studying econometrics and working in banking and emerging markets, would anyone believe that I was capable of building a company that can take on the global financial sector?

I've met women who are worried that they're too pretty to get coveted engineering jobs, or worried that they're not pretty enough to get attention as CEOs. I've talked with women who downplay their compassionate company culture in meetings with investors, and women who've been told they're too rough around the edges to ever be good leaders. And then there are the women who design technologies and products for women, and who are driven mad trying to explain their innovation to a room full of men. We outsiders bond over these biases and double standards in the dark corners of cocktail parties and events and conferences, and we mostly all agree on one thing: the industry, and the kind of culture it fuels, isn't changing anytime soon. But the more we can stop worrying over what the industry does or doesn't expect of us, the more we can start paying attention to the type of leaders we want to be and the companies we want to build — and start proving the value of our unique approaches.

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There's a recent wealth of data and studies and reports showing that women-led companies tend to outperform those led by men, and that diverse companies outperformtheir less-diverse peers. And there's a small but growing list of male investors who are proudly, publicly bragging about the success of the female-led companies in their portfolios — and acknowledging the barriers and biases they face. I was heartened earlier this year to read Mark Suster's passionate defense of uBeam founder Meredith Perry after a particularly ugly media storm. And I continue to be inspired by a growing cohort of female peers who are all daring to do things their own way, from Google alum Kim Scott's showing us how radical candor can make us better leaders to Anu Duggal's leading a fund for women founders to Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani's urging young women to be brave and not perfect.

There's a recent wealth of data and studies and reports showing that women-led companies tend to outperform those led by men, and that diverse companies outperform their less-diverse peers.

Sure, I like HIIT workouts, but I think I'm a good leader because I listen to and learn from the people around me, and I worked like a dog to get to know our market and our customers. Before I started our company, now called Tala, I did thousands of interviews in India and Africa with small-business owners, to learn about their needs and barriers and goals. I also learned their unique, often courageous stories — and I built our company around the idea that the stories of their daily lives could prove their value to a financial system that didn't believe in them.

I'm proud that we're a company driven urgently and tirelessly by our mission to provide billions of individuals with choice and control over their financial lives. I'm proud that we value people — both those served by our product and each other — and that our focus on teamwork helps us meet goals faster and more effectively than anywhere I've ever worked. And I'm particularly proud, by the way, that 48 percent of our company's employees are women and 73 percent are nonwhite. We hire the best people for the jobs we need them to do, which includes living up to our company values of individuality and inclusivity. In the end, we may look unfamiliar to — and even at odds with — a lot of our industry, but we're proving that our way of doing things can be a viable, and maybe even a better, path to success.

In an industry and a culture that value a more ruthless machismo, daring to follow a different path can be a revolutionary act — one that certainly has all the hallmarks of courage and irreverence that define the most successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. So, like the men who came before us, I think women entrepreneurs should find the courage to pursue our goals in the best way we know how. It's the start of a new kind of success story, one that can open up our sector to a more diverse set of leaders. And it may help lead to the creation of more inclusive technology that transforms people's lives across the world.

Shivani Siroya is the founder and CEO of Tala.

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