WANTED: A Few Good Men (in tech)
by Jonathan Sposato, Author of “Better Together: 8 Ways Working with Women Leads to Extraordinary Products and Profits“.
Examine my labels. Teen computer game designer. Microsoft. Xbox. Google. Startup CEO. Tech investor. In a blink of an eye, it’s easy to conclude accurately that I am a “tech geek.” In playing the popular identity politics game, Jonathan Sposato is a standard issue Seattle “tech bro.” The go to narrative built by scandalous headline after headline this fall, is that I’m part of the tech bro fraternity who ”gets chicks” by funding their companies. You know, the socially inept guy who secretly fist bumps fellow misfit survivors, sport $300 Egyptian cotton hoodies, drive Teslas and thinks of women as a commodity or an adornment.
Now, let’s actually rewind the tape. It’s 2 am. I am eight and alone. Although my grandfather sleeps close enough that I can hear his measured breathing mixed with the din of nighttime Hong Kong, I am very alone. I stare at the zigzag crack in the ceiling disciplining myself to remember what my mother’s face looks like. It has been six years since she placed me into a yellow cab in Brooklyn and into the arms of a Chinese grandmother I had never met. At three, I was whisked away to a country where everyone speaks a language I do not understand. What I do know is that I am “different,” an outsider and the object of whispers and taunts of my classmates in the international school I attend. Or, as Anson Wong so eloquently announced to the jeers of 80 third graders: “Jonathan has no mother or father. He does not belong.”
Little did I know at the time that snot-nosed Anson was a veritable diplomat compared to the welcome wagon of Edmonds WA. At age nine after being adopted by an Italian American and rebranded a SPOSATO, I was practically delivered like a lamb to slaughter as the only Asian into a sea of white teen testosterone in the 70’s.
My nightly ritual for the next six years involved lying in bed wondering who would knock me off my bike on the way to school and which inaccurate racial epithet will greet me in the morning? Hiding my bloody shirts from my mother became routine. Overcoming racia
l bias and being viewed as “less than,” has been the seminal challenge and blessing of my life. These early experiences galvanized me as I learned how to win folks over on the playground, classroom, and the sports field. The ability to see the world through the lens of the underdog and to feel the sting of bias became my “superpower.”
So let’s start over and accurately deconstruct what I am and what I am not. I AM a successful tech CEO who has sold two companies to Google. I am NOT a vanilla tech bro who believes that women are “less than.” The primary reason I’ve had success is because two brilliant women at Microsoft cared enough to mentor me to be a mindful manager in their image. I AM a proud tech geek but I think Google engineer James Damore and his screed that women are biologically inferior is an aberration. I also know that I am not alone. The men (and women) I fist bump who lead the Seattle tech community: Zillow, TUNE, RealSelf, Convoy, Redfin, and now even Uber all believe in equal pay for women and are rabid about the need to get companies and management to male/female 50/50 and include underrepresented groups.
Lost behind the daily headlines of the offensive and predatory behavior of tech CEOs and venture capitalists is the fact that tech is populated with many many GOOD MEN. I believe that most of the leaders of technology and industry are passionate about the best interest of their employees. As titillating as it might be to talk about the notion that there is a growing male “backlash” or a serious male segregation movement, I think we’re overly focused on the margins.
Most tech leaders male and female understand that sexual harassment while serious is just one of the many problems that women in the workforce face. Being harassed is horrific but in aggregate it pales in comparison to issues of grave economic and power consequence: equal pay, lack of opportunity for promotion, lack of family-friendly policies and of empowered female leaders and colleagues.
There is a crisis but this is not an issue of WOMEN vs MEN. That’s the wrong and most unproductive narrative. Men need to step up and champion change on behalf of women. The fact that it is 2017 and there are only 24 female CEOS who lead America’s top Fortune 500 should be completely unacceptable to everyone. Most of the men I know (and it’s not just because they have wives and daughters or sisters) think those facts and others warrant a movement to change because having women as colleagues makes a company stronger and more interesting. The research on this is unequivocal.
Employees of both genders need to get behind a movement toward INCLUSION vs exclusion where employees focus shared values instead of external narrative differences is the path to equity and prosperity. There needs to be intentional leadership that acknowledges and announces that companies are BETTER TOGETHER for all people men, women, black, white, straight gay trans or polka dot. Why? Not only because it is the right thing but it is the SMART move as we move into our interconnected global future.
“Committing to gender equity is critical to building the most efficient, most productive workforce we can have. Diversity feeds innovation by creating an environment that fosters a range of opinions, ideas, voices, and emotions. By building a culture with the unmistakable feeling of inclusion, you will weather more storms and absolutely increase your chances of success,” says Pete Hamilton, CEO of TUNE which funds TUNE House, a residential community for female engineers. The question is how? How do we even the playing field? Two years ago Salesforce conducted an internal study and paid three million dollars to raise the salaries of their female workers. It wasn’t a front-page headline but it happened and CEO Marc Benioff deserves props. Other companies like Intuit have quietly followed suit and started their own internal studies. It’s a policy that every employee as a stakeholder should demand of their company.
What about the notoriously uneven landscape of tech startups? How does a relatively new company do the right thing by women and minorities? Co-founder, Grant Goodale, of CONVOY shares, “ We no longer source non-diverse candidates. The number of candidates that come in the door without being sourced is enough from a standard straight white male perspective. The best thing we can do to spend our sourcing time and dollars on is diverse candidates.”
It takes a village and in Seattle, more than a few good men have agreed to stand up and take the BETTER TOGETHER pledge to work intentionally to advance gender equality and to actively develop and promote women into positions of leadership. The male leaders of REALSELF, TUNE, PEACHED, & CONVOY have committed to advocating for women and agree that there is no place for bias or sexual harassment.
Many men who support gender equity have been reluctant to speak up because for many it can be an emotional and volatile issue. In 2015, I announced that I was ONLY investing in companies with female founders. I now fund and mentor dozens of female-led startups. But the questions still remains: as a man am I allowed to advocate for gender equity even though identity politics defines me as the “enemy?”
“Whether we like it or not the power dynamic that exists today in terms of leadership in terms of fundraising tilts heavily towards men and to change that we need men to be a part of it,” says Amy Nelson CEO and founder of Riveter a female-focused working space for entrepreneurs that includes male members.
“We made a very conscious decision and we would welcome women and ALL allies. our goal is to change the world and the workplace with women entrepreneurs and we can’t do that without men and everyone else on the board. On the meta level, I always look back to the suffragettes and there’s no way women would have won the right to vote without getting men on board and getting men to take action “
The explosion of outrage over the mounting evidence of pervasive harassment that women still face in the workforce should be a call to action and opportunity for all good men to raise their hand and voice to pledge to be BETTER TOGETHER.
As a business leader, CEO, board member, VC, manager, business owner or employee of either gender, I pledge to work intentionally to advance gender equality in my placeof work, to actively develop and promote women into positions of leadership, to speak out against bias, and to not tolerate sexual harassment, so that women and men can thrive better together.
Jonathan Sposato is Chairman and co-founder of Geekwire, PicMonkey, and WeCount.org. He is the author of BETTER TOGETHER: 8 Ways Working with Women Leads to Extraordinary Products and Profits and recipient of University of Washington’s 2017 “Man of Integrity” Award and the Honorary Ambassador of VITAL VOICES Seattle Chapter.