Ben Franklin Technology Partners has reached out to local leaders in the tech community to discuss national trending topics before. And today we’ve tackled a tough one: sexual harassment and gender discrimination in tech. The response may surprise you.
We’ve asked Ben Franklin Marketing Director Jason Bannon, FactSumo cofounder and CEO Kim Ramirez, LIA Diagnostics cofounder and CEO Bethany Edwards and Archna Sahay, former Director of Entrepreneurial Investment for the City of Philadelphia and current consultant at J Nowak Associates.
This discussion among in-the-know local tech leaders should not be regarded as a complete analysis of this important topic; however, it does represent the perspective of those contributing.
Jason Bannon: Sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley has been in the news a lot lately. Susan Fowler wrote a letter detailing her experience as a female engineer at Uber, while a recent survey reported 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed.
With Philly being a hub for tech activity, I’m wondering is this something we’ve experienced in the Philly startup scene and is sexual harassment and gender discrimination a problem in Philadelphia?
Kim Ramirez: I haven’t had any issues where I’ve worked, and haven’t heard of it happening. That being said, in the Philly tech scene, a lot of our early stage investors come from rule-based professions like accounting and law. Those professions tend to attract people who follow the rules. And, the rules around sexual harassment and gender discrimination are explicitly stated at accounting and law firms.
JB: It’s a good point, yet I’m hearing that investors say that women founders are a sure bet from a risk mitigation perspective, and…?
Archna Sahay: I think you’re hearing that from research reports. But I’m not sure that is translating into real life. Data points do absolutely suggest that, Jason. You are correct, but when it comes to tracking the flow of those dollars and/or the percentage of women in investment decision making roles at venture firms, I don’t see that research reflected.
KR: I agree with Archna. In Philly, our goal is to bring more women into the early stage investment community. In short, increase the flow and diversity of capital, that way we have more ideas being funded.
AS: Yes, that is definitely a goal in our ecosystem and quite honestly in ecosystems across the country. Everyone is focused on this issue. I believe we are in a unique position in Philly to set the standard for how this is accomplished.
Kim, in addition to being a cofounder, you’ve contributed to the conversation through Ellevate, a community of professional women, and you’ve also convened the OG entrepreneurs/hustlers in our city — the restaurateurs!
JB: Kim, I would love that input from the Ellevate perspective. I have a better understanding of the Golden Seeds reporting, which is focused on women-led businesses, in terms of global progress, but I am curious to know who’s taking the lead here in Philadelphia?
KR: I can speak for Ellevate’s Philadelphia chapter. Philly has an emerging tech scene. Hardly anyone’s cashed out. We’re at the beginning of our city’s startup journey. If you’re in the startup community, you know about the startup community. If not, you don’t realize we have one. Ellevate’s Philadelphia chapter is taking the lead on engaging the corporate community in the Philly startup ecosystem. We work to engage our members as buyers and/or angel investors, and we hold events to that end.
AS: I agree with Kim, if you aren’t a part of the scene, you don’t know that there is one. I will say that like all economic cycles, we are in an uptrend. The thing is, the tech community in Philadelphia has been around for a long time. It just wasn’t nationally trendy until recently. I say that, just to set the benchmark, we should give credit to those that were building software companies in our region back in the ’90s, 2000s etc. They’ve laid the groundwork for much of what is happening right now. Ok preaching done! 🙂
Bethany Edwards: I was just going to comment on not forgetting the life sciences folks. 😉 And I would like to include that I will be one of the panelists at Ellevate Philly’s Sept. 27 Future of Women’s Health event.
JB: Bethany, you hit on a question that I wanted to ask: there’s more than just technology-based entrepreneurship. Philly is an old city, not to be confused with Old City, mind you, but is the culture of Philly business structured soundly enough to be supportive of a diverse startup culture?
KR: Yes! Our two main sectors are healthcare and education. Philly is well positioned to innovate those sectors. There are many buyers for startups to work with.
BE: I think so. However, having subset connecting groups could be helpful. That’s naturally happening to some point, like us sharing office space with Biomeme. Having access to other entrepreneurs who are going through similar challenges and the ability to share advice and resources is a major asset. The Philly community is small enough to make that possible.
KR: To Bethany’s point, that’s why it’s so important for our city’s two main sectors to engage as buyers. When deciding where to locate, every founder asks the question, “Where are my customers?” To entrepreneurs, revenues are far more important than funding. Local companies serve as early customers and a bridge to larger markets and investors. Without early customers, startups cannot scale and generate the traction required for funding.
JB: So trying to draw conclusions from our dialogue: Philadelphia’s problem with gender diversity is not the same as other markets — certainly not the same as the West Coast; at different points of trajectory, so it is not a fair comparison — but maybe our culture, talent, knowledge base and discipline within our core sectors puts us in a very strong position to stand out better than any other market as a model for how to do it right.
BE: I agree with that statement, Jason. I’d add to Kim’s point that before customers it’s also manufacturing and talent resources (R&D expertise, etc.).
If there’s a disadvantage here it’s two things: risk tolerance (older money) and external lack of recognition for the area’s achievements. I would also add manufacturing, but that tends to be an issue elsewhere, too.
KR: I agree with Jason’s conclusion. I think Bethany and I are saying the same thing. Investors in Philly will want to give you money to scale your business, not fund product iterations, or to figure out if your idea is viable — that’s the point about risk tolerance (older money), which is also why it’s important for our local education and healthcare leaders to engage as buyers.
AS: I agree with Jason’s conclusion and definitely agree/support what Bethany and Kim have said. Philadelphia is very well positioned to be a model for how to grow a tech ecosystem equitably. We have all of the right ingredients. Also, I’d like to add that we have women here talking about business/growth/tech. No gender lens. I think that alone speaks strongly to how Philly sits in the conversation around gender diversity in technology. We’re doing it. Gender diversity in venture/funding is another matter unfortunately.
BE: Agreed. I’m less worried about gender issues here.
KR: Me too!
BE: There’s enough strong ladies in the ecosystem that are helping. 😉 …Ok could always use more.-30-