Sexism and Startups

The demigods. The gurus. The guys with funds and foresight? Yeah, the guys. That’s who they are. India’s investment community, like pretty much the rest of the world, is an inward ecosystem that thrives on being clannish, close knit and predominantly male. They are often averse to new models of business, follow formulas and foster bro-culture. Their set ideas unfortunately aren’t restricted to business alone. A lot of venture capitalists come with biases against women and can go at lengths to justify sexism.

Founders of hip platforms are facing charges of sexual harassment. Arunabh Kumar of TVF has been asked to go. Angel investors, seed funders are in the news too often for making sexual advances. One such case has been widely covered where the investor took advance of a young girl seeking funding and later sent her inappropriate whatsApp messages. Turns out she wasn’t alone.

Is India’s Dave McCLure moment round the corner? Our Uber-Fowler story to explode? In case you missed it, Dave McClure, co-founder of early-stage venture capital fund 500 Startups, resigned after several women said he harassed them. He admitted to this with an apology in a post titled “I’m a creep. I’m sorry.”

A few months ago I was invited to speak at an angel investing panel discussion. A seasoned investor, who now runs his own startup, insinuated on the dais that the women on the panel (2 out of 5 panelists) found investments thanks to their ‘contacts’ (as oppose to a business idea).

First The Bias, Then The Harassment

This entrepreneur was asked several times to bring her chief product officer along. Investors just wouldn’t accept that she was both founder and chief product officer. In another case, Radhika Aggarwal of Shopclues, who had an independent record in investment banking and retail was constantly bypassed by a bunch of investors who insisted on only talking to the male co-founder.

Even when she made a point, she was over looked. These biases sow the first seeds of harassment. And they proliferate the rot in the system. Kanika Tekriwal of JetSetGo was asked too often what she was doing in the aviation business, a man’s world. At Uber, the management made a conscious effort to keep the women out of rising ranks. Women in Silicon Valley have spoken about the routine sexual harassment they faced and the sexual favours they were expected to offer in exchange for funding.

It’s The Conversation We Need To Be Having

Are investors having this conversation with startup owners? Venture capitalists play a big role in shaping the culture of startups. The last few months we have had founders of many hip startups being accused of harassment. Arunabh Kumar of TVF was forced to step down after a police complaint and other email exchanges nailed his story. Many others are under investigations. Did investors have the relevant discussions on the sexual harassment laws, provisions at the company? Did investors take a peek at the character of the founders? Should it not matter to funders that conduct of the startup owners should be observed, assessed? My hunch is nearly no one is doing this talking. For too long VCs have claimed it’s the business of VCs to focus on the business. Who wants to rock a rocket ship? And talking about character…who does that?