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.
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.
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.
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?