In “Who Will Be the Next Steve Jobs?” in the Wall Street Journal, Vinod Khosla, entrepreneur and venture capitalist extraordinaire, lists two key characteristics of “would-be revolutionaries” — unbridled confidence and arrogance.
A recent tweet by Silicon Valley scholar Vivek Wadhwa says: “More than 50% of Silicon Valley is foreign born. Less than 5% women… A lot needs to be fixed.”
To me, these things are the two sides of the same coin.
If boundless confidence and arrogance are the prerequisites for bringing about technological change, then it’s no wonder that there are very, very few women in that hallowed circle.
Why are there so few women in tech or starting VC-backed companies? Are fewer women in math and science a thoroughly comprehensive reason? Yes, there are fewer women going into the math and sciences. But that number is far from zero. So why aren’t even a fraction of these women doing startups? And there’s the fact that there are non-technical founders who go on to do great things. So why aren’t more women thinking about starting high-growth (and thus mostly venture-backed) companies? I believe it has something to do with most important trait of entrepreneurship — self-confidence bordering on arrogance.
Entrepreneurship does require almost reckless self-confidence. When pitching my last startup, Present Bee, I was told every single day that it wouldn’t work with a thousand varying reasons every time. So to go on and not completely give up, I had to absorb the useful feedback, shrug off everything else and move on like there wasn’t a dent in my universe. In the end my startup didn’t work but it was in large part (like Paul Graham wisely points out) because my co-founders and I didn’t believe enough in Present Bee and (implicitly) in our belief to make it work to give up our other options.
If my startup is a microcosm of the larger entrepreneurship universe, that tells me that I need to wholly believe in my venture for it to go anywhere. And to do that I need to have “unbridled confidence & arrogance”. For what is a bet in an early stage company than a bet on the founders? It’s true for investors and even more intensely true for the founders themselves. Starting a company and pushing forward against the monumental odds stacked against you is basically a bet on yourself — do you truly believe that you can do the crazy things needed to make a startup work? And here’s where it gets murky for men and women entrepreneurs.
Sheryl Sandberg in her amazing TED talk on “Why we have too few women leaders” pointed out data that showed men and women have polar opposite answers for why they are successful — men attribute their success to themselves and women attribute their success to external factors. And therein, ladies and gentlemen, lies the heart of the issue.
If women believe in external success factors, then they depend on those factors to present themselves (market opportunities, mentors, peers, etc.) to start a company. But if men believe that it’s all them, they charge ahead regardless of their situation to create new startups.
The Wall Street Journal article also goes on to cite Joel Peterson, JetBlue chairman and Stanford professor, whose mentions that tech titans have to be “productive narcissists”. I don’t know a single woman of my acquaintance who I can comfortably describe as being arrogant or a “narcissist” -– productive or otherwise -– on some level. On the other hand I can think of male peers who fit that description to a T. While this personal anecdote is far from being statistically accurate, it is rather telling. So it’s not that all men sail through life having no doubts about themselves but rather that there are so few women who fit the “arrogant” description. This is in part because, as Sheryl Sandberg points out, success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Add in the fact that women systematically underestimate their own abilities and this has HUGE ramifications on the numbers of women entrepreneurs.
There are now a plethora of articles, meetups and conferences aimed at getting more women comfortable with the idea of starting a company. While they are really important, I’m not talking about any of them here. For me, quoting Sheryl Sandberg again, it’s about “what we can do as individuals and what messages we need to tell ourselves and the women who work with and for us”. We need to be more confident, brasher and yes I’ll say it, much more arrogant about ourselves and our accomplishments.
I’m not saying that starting a company is the only noble thing you can do with your life. But the message of “unbridled confidence” is critical for someone who even has a passing interest in entrepreneurship and more importantly for the legions of young women who are smart and capable of starting companies but don’t necessarily think of this as an option in their universe of possibilities.
For the next Steve Jobs to be a woman, she needs to (in Jobs’ own words) implicitly “trust that the dots will somehow connect in [the] future” and channel that into having “the courage to follow [her] heart and intuition.”
Stay hungry, stay foolish but also go for broke!
This post originally appeared on Women 2.0 on October 11, 2011.