Silicon Valley has long been dominated by men, and the venture capital scene is no exception. A new book, Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, sheds light on the unsung contributions of four female VCs in shaping some of the world’s largest companies such as Google, Facebook, McAfee and Salesforce. Author and journalist Julian Guthrie joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to share their stories. The book is being adapted for TV. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You start the book by highlighting Sand Hill Road. Can you describe the importance of that area to this entire story?
Julian Guthrie: I love that opening scene very much. It is very cinematic. But the importance of Sand Hill Road is that it is a seemingly very tranquil area that is everything but tranquil. It has given rise to some of the most important, impactful, game-changing companies that really galvanized industries for decades, and it continues to do so today.
It goes back to the Hewlett-Packard days, to [the growth of] semiconductors, to the earliest computers, to gaming, to social media, to [innovative changes in] transportation, medical devices, and so on. It is also the epicenter of venture capital, which I zeroed in on for this particular story.
Knowledge at Wharton: Magdalena Yesil, Mary Jane Elmore, Theresia Gouw and Sonja Hoel are the four women that you focus on in this book. Why did you choose these four women?
Guthrie: It came from my last book, which was called How To Make a Spaceship. That may sound odd, but I was out touring and giving talks with this brilliant main figure of the book, Peter Diamandis, who launched the X Prize. We were doing talks and there would be huge groups of engineers and entrepreneurs and aerospace folks. I was looking around and it really struck me, where are all of the women in these super exciting, dynamic, future-shaping industries?
That was when I started to think about this paucity of women and what that meant for some of the most transformative, impactful industries [around]. From that, I cast a wide net and started to look at tech, and then I started to zero in more on venture.
“If venture doesn’t diversify, tech won’t diversify.”
Venture capital is this place that is less understood but more impactful than most people know. It’s not just for people who live in urban areas or in metropolises, but it really affects how we all live and who gets funded, who is doing the funding, what are those startups that get the money. It is almost the start of this food chain. If venture doesn’t diversify, tech won’t diversify. I wanted to find women who had helped finance and mentor or build companies, potentially industries where those successes were irrefutably theirs, where they had these wins, where they had key, irrefutable roles that they could call their own.
Knowledge at Wharton: These women come from different backgrounds, but is there some commonality in their stories and the issues they faced?
Guthrie: In my prior books I had portrayed these titans of industries — [Oracle co-founder] Larry Ellison and [Tesla founder] Elon Musk and [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson and others — and how they succeeded, which is very much standing on the outside and refusing to compromise, refusing to back down. This story taught me a very different way that people can succeed, and I think it is much more relatable to most of us who are not titans of industry and who have to work within a system to effect change one step at a time.
To get to your question, these women were very strategic, very savvy in the decisions that they made. They knew when to take offense, say, to something particularly obnoxious that was maybe biased, gender-based. At the same time, they knew when to let something go, to not take issue with it. They used humor at key moments, which is a great tool for women or for people who are the minority in an industry. They used humor to level this power imbalance.
They also had this team-player mentality. They were … the first women investing partners at these major venture capital firms. They had to get in the door, they had to become team players. These venture firms are very small, very close-knit with eight, 10, 12 people. [And while] this may sound controversial today, from some of their male partners’ standpoint, they became one of the guys.
That doesn’t mean that they really did, but they were seen as a part of the team. And that became a win, not just for themselves but for women because then more women could come into the firm. They navigated and figured out the barriers, the biases and the challenges both at home and at work that women faced.
But then they continued at it and emerged on the other side, going from navigating to many years later, pioneering, which is where they are now. But they had to take it step by step. They had to really have these incremental victories that added up to something significant. That was really interesting for me in my reporting on this book.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would think that some of challenges for women in venture capital are the same as what we’ve heard coming out of the big Silicon Valley companies about the lack of opportunity.
Guthrie: That is true. When I started the reporting for my book, 94% of all investing partners at VC firms were men, and less than 2% of all venture capital dollars went to firms founded by women. Here’s a stunning figure: Last year, $130 billion was deployed by venture capitalists, and about $2 billion of that went to startups founded by women. There is this glaring disparity in terms of those numbers alone. You have guys who are writing checks to guys who often look like themselves, then those startups are maybe being acquired by a bigger company that is absorbing this all-male workforce, so you have this perpetuating itself.
Women make up nearly 50% of our population. Women make up something like 80% of consumer spending. The women of my book, not just the four primary characters, but many, many others who have cameo appearances or are referenced or woven into the tapestry of it, have been dynamic. They love the industry, they love tech.
“These women have had to be unflappable and tough and Teflon-suited.”
Yes, it was hard. Yes, they made mistakes. Those things were actually the hardest for me to get the women to talk about. But they are still in the industry, they are still in the game, and they are trying now to make it more hospitable to women and to show that this is a really cool, dynamic industry. Venture is something where you get to play a role in shaping the companies coming down the pipeline.
Knowledge at Wharton: Magdalena Yesil immigrated from Turkey and didn’t have much when she came to the United States, yet she went to Stanford University and built this incredible career. Tell us about her.
Guthrie: I love her story. I love the stories of all of these women, and I try to write in a very novelistic way so you are pulled along by the details and the time and the personality. But Magdalena came from Turkey and had $43 and nine gold bracelets to her name. If she needed to sell the bracelets, she had them. But she went to Stanford and got an electrical engineering degree. She worked nights in the computer center there. She then went on to become an entrepreneur. She had successes, but she also had missteps, which she talks about in the book. She describes her own career as a bumper car, which I thought was amusing. She really persists.
She became an entrepreneur, kind of this guru of e-commerce, and was talking about e-commerce at the same time [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos was talking about it. They were on shows together. Nobody quite believed that shopping was going to go online, and she was an evangelist for it early on with very few followers until she was proven correct.
She became a partner at U.S. Venture Partners, a great firm in Silicon Valley. Then she has this fateful conversation with a young star at Oracle Corp., Marc Benioff, and he runs this idea by her and wants her opinion. They had worked together on one of her startups that she sold to Oracle. But Marc floats this idea of what would become Salesforce.com, and Magdalena immediately got it.
She said, “I will help you. I will find financing for you, and I will write a check myself.” She became the first outside investor and the first board member of Salesforce and really helped Marc build it from idea to IPO. Again, so many of these stories of women and the role they played were untold, which is confounding really. But at least they are being told now.
Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned that it was hard to get the women to talk about their missteps. Do you think it’s part of the business culture not to share your vulnerabilities?
Guthrie: I spent a year plus interviewing Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, and a number of these very successful titans of industry who are men. I don’t know if this is counterintuitive or not, but for them, talking about their vulnerabilities, they were fine with it. It kind of rounds out these hard-charging guys, whereas I wanted to get from these women the regrets, the missteps, the broadsides, the injuries, the insults that make up all of our lives. That was painstakingly difficult because these women have had to be unflappable and tough and Teflon-suited. Perfectionism is a woman’s enemy, but they all were striving for that.
They are still working in the industry as well. It’s not like the [African-American] women [portrayed in the movie] Hidden Figures who got John Glenn to space, 40, 50 years ago. These women are working today and want to continue working — and networking is a huge part of it. This is not just a book for women, with women and by women, this has to be a dialogue with men. They need to keep working with men, so they were very, very reluctant to let their guard down. But I am very proud that the story is textured and is honest and shows the missteps along with the successes.
“We women can be pulled back from the glass ceiling by those closest to us.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Mary Jane Elmore is originally from the Midwest and also went to Stanford. You wrote about the decisions she made in her personal life about family and children, which is a common dilemma faced by working women. Tell us about that.
Guthrie: It’s a really powerful story and not an easy one. I think MJ’s story shows that we women can be pulled back from the glass ceiling by those closest to us — by our partners, by our spouses — and even by our own expectations of our gender roles.
MJ had three kids and a husband who was a full-time venture capitalist as well. She was a partner at this venture firm, IVP. As her marriage was challenged, she was the one who said, “I am going to step back. I am going to put more into this. I am going to put more into the kids.” She was always the go-to parent.
But as she said, she doesn’t blame her ex-husband. She says now that overachieving as a woman can enable underachievement if you don’t delegate, if you don’t ask for help. Set the responsibilities at home early on. There are all of these lessons learned. It is an interesting story.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you also take us into the story of Sonja Hoel? She had been in the industry for a while but then had a personal crisis, which turned her more toward building a nonprofit and an investment group run by women.
Guthrie: It was an interesting turning point for her. She faced a health crisis at the same time that she and her husband were adopting a baby. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and was faced with the issue of mortality and time. How do we spend our time? It is a tough thing for men or women, and here she was faced with these two issues that are predominantly women’s issues. She was becoming a mom and had breast cancer at the same time.
It was this wake-up call for her. She is a really fantastic venture capitalist, but she decided that she wanted a network of women around her. She wanted a sisterhood that she hadn’t had in venture capital. She co-founded Broadway Angels, which is this fantastic women’s investing platform. You just have to look on their website and see all of these astounding accomplished women. I have been to their meetings, and you walk in and it’s this whole long table of women in venture. It’s like, “Wow, this is amazing.”
“There is this saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Now you can see these women who did it.”
When entrepreneurs come in to pitch, they’re flabbergasted if they haven’t done their homework because normally they would see one woman at a table of 10, and here they see like 30 women. Hoel also founded a national nonprofit called Project Glimmer, which brings gifts to at-risk girls and women.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about Theresia Gouw, who is the fourth woman you highlight in this book. One of the fun facts you share is that she was a very good foosball player when she was at Brown University.
Guthrie: It’s hysterical, isn’t it? She is super competitive. She is the overachieving daughter of Chinese immigrants and grew up in this redneck town. Her father told her early on that cheerleading is out and sports are in. She made it to Brown and got an engineering degree, graduating magna cum laude. Being fiercely competitive, she and her [best friend] at Brown would take on the guys at foosball, and they were always underestimated.
The foosball thing comes back in a funny way. Theresia went to Brown, worked at Bain, gone to Stanford and gotten her MBA, worked at a failed startup, then she’s at Accel Partners as a partner-track associate. One of the very first things she was told before a partners meeting was that she needed to entertain and develop a rapport with these guys who are coming in with this new search engine.
These two come in — it turns out to be [Google founders] Sergey Brin and Larry Page — to talk about Google and to get funding for their new company. There was a foosball table at Accel, and Theresia was like, ‘You want to play a game of foosball?’ It was a great scene. Her competitive instincts kicked in and she really wanted to beat Sergey, then she realized this was not a good idea. I think I wrote, “Sometimes playing to win means making sure you lose.”
Knowledge at Wharton: As these women looked back, how do they view their role in changing the image of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley?
Guthrie: I think they were very worried about this book because of how personal it is. They are not public figures. Maybe they will be, which would be very healthy. But I think now, with their own individual activism, they are a voice for change. There is this saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Now you can see these women who did it, who succeeded. It is not all negative stuff that has to come out of Silicon Valley or tech. It can work.
Knowledge at Wharton: I should note that your book is going to be turned into a TV show, correct?
Guthrie: It’s being adapted for a TV series by a really fantastic woman, Cathy Schulman, who is one of only three women in history to have won an Academy Award as a producer. She has kind of lived parts of this story in Hollywood. I am very excited about it.