Silicon Valley has been engulfed by stories of sexual harassment and discrimination over the past five years. Yet anyone who knows the US tech sector knows the headlines and lawsuits represent only a small number of cases that have bubbled to the surface of a much bigger pool of discontent about the maleness of the industry.
It is this discontent that forms the basis of journalist and author Julian Guthrie’s latest book. Through a series of meticulously detailed portraits, Alpha Girls charts the lives of four impressive female businesspeople and investors who made it, against the odds, in Silicon Valley: Magdalena Yeşil, Mary Jane Elmore, Theresia Gouw and Sonja Hoel. They are not household names, but between them these women helped build businesses including Salesforce and Facebook and made it to partner at elite venture capital firms such as IVP and Accel. By painting a picture of their hopes, challenges, frustrations and victories, Guthrie writes a revisionist history of America’s second Gold Rush — one in which women are the protagonists and moneymakers.
The purpose of this project is to share the untold stories of women who hustled their way past the glass ceiling, with a young Elmore even following recruiters to the bathroom to ask for interviews. The women each took different routes to success, but they emphasise the importance of good humour, a thick skin and hard work — arguing women should not bow to gender roles even in the face of pressure.
Diversity is often discussed in numbers but can also be understood in its complexity through narrative. The numbers are an important justification, as Guthrie reminds us with startling statistics: “94 per cent of investing partners at venture capital firms are men . . . less than 2 per cent of venture dollars go to start-ups founded by women (less than 1 per cent to women of colour) and roughly 85 per cent of the tech employees at top companies are men”.
But the stories are what inspire, reveal and surprise. And so Guthrie documents the everyday tales of four extraordinary careers, asking readers to reach their own conclusions about how these women navigated very male-dominated worlds. Some of the anecdotes are truly extraordinary, such as one in which Robin Richards Donohoe — the “Richards” who gives her name to private equity firm Draper Richards — recalls the “mischievous” reaction of legendary American venture capitalist Bill Draper when entrepreneurs pitch a new type of condom. “‘My partner Bill [Draper] played right into it,’ Robin said. ‘He urged me to pursue the deal and to enlist my husband for product testing and product recap.’” The two worked together for many years.
Guthrie brings her storytelling skills as a seasoned reporter in San Francisco. Alpha Girls is crammed with details that bring events and situations alive, from a description of the floor-length gowns worn by Yeşil in the 1980s to the conversations and phone calls ahead of meetings and deals. Underpinning it all is a tone of relentless optimism, as the protagonists find community and camaraderie against all odds, and win respect from male colleagues.
Where Alpha Girls falls short is where it ought most to have succeeded in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It does not show how a woman might today reject a culture that still patronises and pigeonholes women, while expecting them to do it all. The four protagonists come from diverse backgrounds, but are often described in similar ways — for their attractive appearances and superhuman ability to juggle children and work (one painful simile describes them “like the bold pink dahlias flourishing in one corner of Sand Hill Road [the Wall Street of venture capital].”).
This brand of “lean-in” feminism suggests — sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly — that women hold themselves back from success. Alpha Girls quotes a credo from Sandra Kurtzig, the first woman to take a tech company, ASK Group, public, which summarises the view: “You can’t play the game if you’re not in it”. It is a perspective widely espoused at the top of the tech industry, notably by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer.
“Lean in” feminism is not popular with everyone. It has been clouded by controversy over Sandberg’s work at Facebook and revelations of sexual harassment and discrimination at some of the Valley’s most prominent firms. A younger generation of women in tech are no longer convinced that joining the game will allow them to play.
Guthrie knows this. Her “Alpha girls,” she writes, “made their careers by being strong and unflappable, by wearing their Teflon suits and playing by rules established by men”. Perhaps it’s time those rules changed.
Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, by Julian Guthrie, Little, Brown, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
Aliya Ram is the FT’s technology correspondent
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