Where Are The Women in Tech?

I’m a tax/transactional attorney, and I represent a fair number of young Austin companies and entrepreneurs, with several in the tech industry.  All of my clients are men, and while they are all fantastic clients, entrepreneurs, and just people in general, I totally bothered by the fact that they’re all men. At any Austin technology entrepreneurship event that I attend, the room is filled with men.  I am usually one of a handful of women, if even that.  I know it is like this in other tech hubs as well—I was at a technology investment conference in LA a few months ago, and the scenario was the same: me, and a room full of dudes. While this makes business development fabulously easy for me, I don’t like it and I want to figure out how to encourage girls not only to pursue careers in technology, but also to be leaders in that industry.

I think this is so important because people with skills in programming and other high-tech, computer science- and engineering-related fields are the ones who are shaping our world.  I heard an interview on NPR the other day with Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, and she made the same point. Her big concern is that women are not really part of that process right now because they’re not engaged in pursuing programming, engineering, etc. as a career, and she points to our education system as one of the factors in that (there are obviously others as well).  She is taking actions at Harvey Mudd to address the education component that I thought were very interesting, like changing the structure of their introductory computer science classes to accommodate people who might not have had the pre-college exposure to programming that some of the students (mostly boys) came to college with.

There’s another problem that I see with the Austin tech community that I think is even bigger than the education one, and that is the lack of female mentors. This addresses the other issue that young women in the tech sector still (unbelievably) face, and that is hearing others tell them, although perhaps not directly, that this is a man’s field. Plus, there’s just the intimidation factor of being one of the few women in such a male-dominated space. This is apparent not only in the work space, but also at industry events like the conference I attended. In fact, I was just looking at a picture that someone tweeted from Capital Factory, an Austin-based tech start-up incubator, ahead of Obama’s visit there this afternoon, and I spotted maybe one woman in a SEA of men. This just drove the point home.  I think that establishing a good mentorship program that connects women tech entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs, including (and perhaps most importantly) college and high school women, with female mentors who have already started cutting a path through the tech communities could be encouraging to women in not only pursuing goals of getting a degree in a high-tech field like CS, but also taking the leap and leading a company in that industry if they’re so inclined, so that women are part of the momentum that’s happening in the tech industry.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the issue of who makes up the partners and investment committees of the venture capital firms and other funding sources to which tech entrepreneurs turn when trying to raise a funding round.  I did a search of about 10 Austin venture firms a while back, and only ONE had any female partners (2 of the 4 partners were women).  The other 9 firms I searched had only male partners and investment committee members.  In the opinion of some, that leads to discrimination against female entrepreneurs (read this article by Vivek Wadhwa: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/03/silicon-valley-discriminates-against-women-even-if-theyre-better.html). I can’t speak to that first hand, since all of my clients are men, but it doesn’t seem farfetched.  Even at the angel investor level, most of the players are men.  I’m not sure what to do about this prong of the problem short of lobbying VC firms to hire more women, but I’m still thinking about this.

So you may be able to see where I’m going with this now. It’s almost a supply-chain issue. We don’t have enough girls pursuing education in high-tech fields, and those that do are up against an extremely male-dominated field where they’re getting messages that it’s not a field for women. Assuming they get the education, then they find themselves in an industry that is entirely dominated by men from the employee level up through the guys who are funding these companies. It’s hard enough to just stay afloat in that environment, much less be a leader in it (i.e., found a company).

I want to put something together at the entrepreneur/investor/mentor level (i.e., women who are already out of school and are working), starting in Austin, that will give these women founders the tools to make their companies work, and then work down from there to university students in high-tech programs (starting with UT), and then hopefully bringing in elementary and secondary education. I would love for my alma mater, Hockaday, to be a part of that process when the time comes, and also the Girls School of Austin and the Ann Richards School.  There are a few female entrepreneur/female mentor programs out there (Women 2.0 comes to mind), but they only try to fix the problem at the entrepreneur/company level.  That is obviously important, but I think coming up with something that is more vertically integrated with education all the way down to the beginning—somewhere in elementary school perhaps— and certainly something that’s more local, could have a potent impact on the issue.

I just think it’s so important that women be part of this technology process that’s shaping our lives, but I see the barriers. I want to figure out a way to move them. If you have thoughts, ideas, want to help, please drop a line.

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“Unless this works, I’m against it.”

In Sunday’s Mad Men episode, Ted’s partner quips, in response to Don and Ted’s seemingly-crazy plan to combine their agencies in order to win the Chevy account, “Unless this works, I’m against it.”

That phrase, and the context in which it was uttered, is a perfect microcosmic view into the relationship many attorneys have with their clients. Our job is to be the skeptic, to be risk-averse, to spot trouble coming from 10,000 miles away and lay the groundwork today to keep the client out of it down the road.  For most lawyers, this comes naturally. For those to whom it doesn’t, they either left law early on or this tendency was beat out of them in law school or in their first few years of practice.  Of course, you don’t want a lawyer who is too far in the other direction, either. You don’t want to be stuck with the lawyer who is so “creative” that he can’t even spot the risks in order to point them out to the client.

I had an experience with a client yesterday that caused me to reflect on the delicate balance that must be struck in order to be effective but not stifling. This particular client is in the finance industry. To say he is intelligent is an understatement. One of the reasons I was brought into the representation was that he wanted to do some tax structuring around an investment he is making into a fund, and the situation has some hair on it from a tax perspective.  When he came to us with what he wanted to do, I was skeptical that we could it to the full extent he wanted it done. It seemed like we’d have to work some serious tax magic, and I had my doubts.  We worked through several iterations of ideas before landing on one that we thought could work.  When we presented the structure to him, he had a series of questions and hypotheticals that really pushed the bounds of what we could do for him while still keeping him kosher from a tax perspective, but we addressed each one and explained why we needed to push back a bit on what he was requesting.

At the end of the day, we did not achieve what he set out for initially (looking to completely avoid tax on the investment income), but we ended up with a creative plan that I think will achieve the best result possible for him.  The thinking was definitely creative, and it involved a collaborative process between us and the client, rather than just us hearing an aggressive goal from the client and telling him it can’t be done, or coming to him with a solution so conservative that he ends up leaving a lot on the table.

A good lawyer is one who keeps a client out of trouble. A great lawyer is one who thinks creatively and collaboratively about solutions, and stays open to ideas that they think at first might not work. I felt like we were great lawyers here, and that felt good.

Why I love what I do

I love what I do.

I don’t love practicing law. I really don’t love parsing through a 100-page document to find every instance of a particular phrase that needs to be changed because the client has changed their mind on something, and that change ripples through the entire document (and the other four documents that are related to that one).  So let me rephrase: I really, really don’t love parsing through 250+ pages of several documents to find each instance of a phrase–that is slightly different in each document–that needs to be changed to reflect someone’s change of heart. Things like that are by far the most difficult and unnatural aspect of my job.

I don’t love business development for the sake of business development. Yeah, it’s really fun to put some effort into developing a new client and then watch that effort bear fruit in the form of large or steady fees coming in the door. It makes me feel good to know someone has met me, and is impressed enough to send business my way. But for every hit, there are also misses, and that can be frustrating. Someone once told me, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs…”

I don’t love that moment where I solve a complex issue that I’ve been gnawing on.  Ok, I lied. Yeah, I do love that part. But those moments are few and far between. Most of what I do from a technical perspective is fairly repetitive and draws on the same basic knowledge that I’ve gathered over the years and use day in and day out.

So what keeps me coming back? I love my clients and I love helping them, whether that help comes in legal or non-legal form. I love to connect with people, to listen to their story of what they’re doing or trying to do, and then to do whatever is in my power to move them forward. Part of this process involves meeting many other people who will never become clients of mine, but who may have something else of value to offer.

I am fortunate to have cultivated a collection of clients in whom I truly believe, whether I believe in their business or in them individually, or both. The vast majority of my clients have built or are in the process of building a business.  They have phenomenal vision. I love seeing that vision, and then turning my focus on what I can do to support them and it. Usually it’s something legal–they have some hurdle they need to overcome that I can help with, or they need help dealing with another person in the course of running or forming their business. But many times it’s just putting them in touch with someone else who has the specific knowledge, skill set, connection, or whatever other thing it is that they need to fill a gap or move them forward. And I get such satisfaction out of making that connection for them. Satisfaction is actually a vast understatement–I find it irresistible. When it turns out well, I feel like I’m the one who just made the gain. Sometimes it’s a bust, and one party doesn’t have what the other one needs.  But sometimes it works out in the most amazing ways for everyone.  I live for that moment.  And that’s why I love what I do–I get the opportunity to lift people up in whatever small way that I can.  And that may not involve practicing law at all.