It seemed to me as I browsed through the usually homogeneous magazine covers at my local newsstand this morning that times were changing. The cover of Forbes had a tall, black Jay-Z standing shoulder to shoulder (ish) with a short, white Warren Buffet, proclaiming the two "had more in common than anyone would have expected between a 40-year-old rapper from the Brooklyn projects and the 80-year-old sage of compounded returns." Having grown up with an image of grey-haired white men as the wealthy business tycoon, I smiled as I picked up the magazine. This compounded by my recent experience at TechCrunch Disrupt where I walked into a bar with a wonderfully mixed crowd who were all dancing to a live performance of Can't Touch This by MC Hammer, I thought to myself, "The stereotypes are finally breaking down. Jay-Z and people like him have broken the mould."
Now, I'm not really so naive as to think that we've finally entered some sort of post-racist, post-sexist period of time where stereotypes have completely broken down and people are people and everything is the way it should be. La di da, flowers and rainbows. That would be not only naive, but incredibly daft of me. And I'd be ignoring my own situation.
Jay-Z and MC Hammer and a whole group of people in the music industry spent a whole lot of years fighting really hard to be heard and respected by the powers that be. And I suspect that they would tell you themselves that even now, it hasn't helped their brethren much. It's not that stereotypes have gone away...it's that money trumps those stereotypes. Where one mould is broken, another one has been cast.
One of my personal heroes, Cindy Gallop - who breaks all sorts of moulds wherever she goes - posted an article from the New York Times on Facebook earlier today. She's been posting a bunch of these and gathering what seems to be pretty decent evidence that there is truly a desired TYPE of entrepreneur to fund.
According to the aforementioned article, this type is:
- Young (20's)
- Male (preferably single definitely without children)
- Manic (obsessed, driven, visions of grandeur, a bit delusional, etc.)
Which is nicely perpetuated in the mythology around silicon valley in movies and books like The Social Network, Startup.com, Founders at Work and Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good - all glorifying a small sliver of stories about a small sliver of success in the startup world, extrapolating that sliver to speak for the overall mould of success. But it's only a small sliver, no matter how you slice it. According to more in-depth research that covers a slightly wider sample, successful companies are run by all sorts of types of people.
The truth is, I personally fit the mould in some ways that actually work against me. I'm not in my 20's, male or without children, but I am a little manic. I have gigantic visions of making the world a better place and I see my ideas and my company driving that. I have a fire in my belly that can't be snuffed no matter what the naysayers, critics or so-called devil's advocates say. I admit that I'm a bit arrogant at times (although I'm self-reflective enough that I can step back and admit it). I DO eat stress for breakfast and love the type of schedule and problem solving that push my brain and body to their limits. I definitely don't flinch. I'm so passionate I've dedicated my life to this rather than to making gobs of money, which I could have given my work ethic, education, background and ability to lead. And, yep, I may or may not be a little delusional.
If I had a penis and was 10-15 years younger, there would probably be a movie about me, too. But I'm not. I'm a woman who has been told since she was a young girl that she needs to be quieter, more humble, more demure, more agreeable, more attractive, less outspoken, less ambitious, less aggressive and more 'woman'-like. I was highly unpopular growing up because I didn't feel the need to fit a mould. I learnt as soon as I did fit a mould, I was rewarded. I got the academic awards and accolades? I was ostracized + called a show-off. Nobody wanted to be my friend. When I slacked off, dressed pretty and laughed at the boys stupid jokes? I was popular! This didn't change in adult life, either (don't even get me started on how dating advice on how a woman 'should act' fits into this whole mess). There have been studies that show I wasn't alone in my experiences. Research has shown that women who negotiate are looked upon negatively:
...men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".
It took me until my late 20's to figure out that the 'fitting the mould' strategy wasn't going to work for me. That it had actually hurt me. By then I was already a single mom and had lost prime time in my journey. But no matter, I've been breaking the mould ever since and benefiting from it.
Of course it is frustrating for women like Cindy and myself to watch the stereotypes perpetuate and young men with half-baked ideas easily get funded [note: when I say 'half-baked', I refer to it not being launched, which is what we are told needs to happen before funding these days, but apparently not] while we struggle. But it doesn't stop us. There are just more barriers. And dammit, when we reach our goals in spite of the barriers, we will use our stories to lift others who break the mould so that the previous stereotypes will give away.