Thursday, July 26, 2018

Venture Bearding

The Washington Post recently ran a piece by Ridhi Tariyal, the CEO of NextGen Jane.  Tariyal describes the environment she faced raising capital as a woman in Silicon Valley and the identity performance strategies she used to project a masculine identity to access capital.  The startup now works to develop a "smart" tampon that will test "the endometrial cells shed in menstrual fluid for disease."  At times, her startup faced extra challenges because venture capitalists tend to be overwhelmingly male and "are unaccustomed to talking about menstruation."

She faced pressure to minimize her gender and project masculinity in different ways.  Some suggested she hire more men.  Others pushed her to shift the pitch language to strip and obscure as many references to gender or menstruation by employing odd terms such as "novel female substrate" instead of simply saying menstrual blood.  

Even though she tried these strategies to project an idealized masculinity to masculine sources of capital, the strategies simply did not work for her business model.  She explains how she came to reject them:

Ultimately, I realized I cannot project my male alter ego and simultaneously talk about my period. I had reached the limits of professional theater. The business of pitching something so feminine was a catalyst to drag me out of drag. And it turns out, that is a good thing. What is most disturbing about coding male is the insidious way it positions women into propping up the status quo. There are few seats made available to women at tables of power and influence. We morph, mask and transform so we are perceived as belonging in them. How much of ourselves, of our otherness, is lost to make us seem equal, or at least capable?  By masking ourselves, we simply perpetuate the system we have inherited.

Tariyal's perspective eloquently exemplifies what Ann McGinley and I call "Venture Bearding."  We coined the term to describe the identity-performance techniques now used by female founders to project idealized masculinity and access capital.  In our forthcoming article, we discuss the market conditions that drive founders to use these techniques and map how they relate to identity performance theory.  We also offer some suggestions for options to shift the business environment so that these techniques might not always remain in use.

Although we find many of the identity performance techniques troubling because they suppress the identities of women in technology and business, we cannot condemn founders for using them.  In many instances, a founder may face a horrid choice between taking steps to perform a masculine identity or laying off her employees if she cannot raise the capital the entity needs.

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These stories remain unsurprising. Thirty years ago, one of my wife’s MBA research projects dealt with access to working capital by females. Thirty years ago, the primary resource for female entrepreneurs for short-term working capital was business finance by credit card. My wife, a bank officer at the time, noted that these start-ups were profitable enough that the additional interest burden could be carried.

Surprisingly, the CEO of the bank was female but did not see the opportunity to be the bank for female entrepreneurs and never sought to capitalize on the demand.

I do like the description, “venture bearding.”

Posted by: Tom N. | Jul 27, 2018 11:38:03 AM

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