"Alpha Girls" by Julian Guthrie (Silicon Valley Reads 2020)
Updated: Aug 18
“Women – Making It Happen. Celebrating 100 years of women’s achievements.” This was the 2020 theme for Silicon Valley Reads, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in the US.
The featured book was Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley's Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime by Julian Guthrie, formerly a Pulitzer-nominated journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
The kick-off event for this terrific theme was held at the Visual and Performing arts Center at De Anza College, Cupertino on January 23 at 7:30 PM.
Ordinarily, SVR holds about 150 book events around their chosen theme - readings and discussions, at a range of venues from large auditoriums to local libraries. But this is no ordinary year. Events have been cancelled one after the other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was to moderate a book event for Indian Business and Professional Women in March at the India Community Center, but that too was cancelled. We are now holding an event via Zoom -- attend if you can!
The book tells the story of four women – Mary Jane Elmore, Theresia Gouw, Sonja Hoel Perkins and Magdalena Yesil, who rose to prominence in “the cutthroat, high-stakes, male dominated world of venture capital in Silicon Valley, and helped build some of the foremost companies of our time. These women, juggling work and family, shaped the tech landscape we know today while overcoming unequal pay, actual punches, betrayals, and the sexist attitudes prevalent in Silicon Valley and in male-dominated industries everywhere.”
They rose through it all, and having stood up to patriarchy, now stand as examples to the women on a similar journey. This is the description of the four women, from the dust jacket:
Magdalena Yesil, who arrived in America from Turkey with $43 to her name, would go on to receive her electrical engineering degree from Stanford, found some of the first companies to commercialize internet access, and help Marc Benioff build Salesforce.
Mary Jane Elmore went from the corn fields of Indiana to Stanford and on to the storied venture capital firm IVP - where she was one of the first women in the U.S. to make partner - only to be pulled back from the glass ceiling by expectations at home.
Theresia Gouw, an overachieving first-generation Asian American from a working-class town, dominated the foosball tables at Brown (she would later reluctantly let Sergey Brin win to help Accel Partners court Google), before she helped land and build companies including Facebook, Trulia, Imperva, and ForeScout.
Sonja Hoel, a Southerner who became the first woman investing partner at white-glove Menlo Ventures, invested in McAfee, Hotmail, Acme Packet, and F5 Networks. As her star was still rising at Menlo, a personal crisis would turn her into an activist overnight, inspiring her to found an all-women's investment group and a national nonprofit for girls.
Structure of the book.
This book reminded me of a great telling of a Silicon Valley legend: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. The lure of the Valley is quite seductive. It’s quite thrilling to read stories about the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley, most of whom live and work within 50 miles of me.
Isaacson’s book was about one man. Guthrie’s, in contrast, is about four women. The structuring of such a book is more complicated than a narrative about one individual. Guthrie structures her book chronologically, with sections demarcating significant periods in Silicon Valley’s history. The years of the dot-com bubble from 1995-2000, also known as the Tech bubble, driven by Internet companies. The collapse in the year 2000 -- the Tech Wreck, when the bubble burst and the economy crashed. The stock market crash in 2008, caused by the nefarious lending practices by financial institutions, resulting in the collapse of the housing market. The 2000s, in which the creation of Facebook and Twitter cemented the information age.
Within each period, Guthrie relates the stories of each of the four women. The narrative jumps from one individual to the next and can seem a little disrupted. But this break in continuity is unavoidable in the telling of four separate stories set in very significant periods.
The book is quite a page turner. There are gripping stories of their childhood, the families they were raised in, how they found their professional footing. Accounts of startling encounters in the male-dominated Silicon Valley appear alongside their romances, formation and disintegration of marriages, their tireless efforts to ensure a balanced family life with their demanding professional lives, and of course their health. I was always eager to pick up the book again, after putting it down to sleep, work etc.
Mover and Shakers.
As in the book about Steve Jobs, many Silicon Valley glitterati make an appearance. On the down-to-earth, grounded and decent end of the spectrum is Marc Benioff of salesforce.com. Towards the other end is Mark Zuckerberg, who lives up to the impressions of frat boy from established accounts such as the movie The Social Network. Here’s an account of an early meeting with Theresia’s VC firm, Accel.
“I’m CEO, Bitch.” Yep. I’m no fan of Zuckerberg, in case you haven’t guessed. I do think well of Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Option B I reviewed here. Nevertheless, I am not, and never plan to be on Facebook.
I am on, and quite fascinated by, Twitter. I smiled on reading the pitch made by “a microblogging startup called Twitter.” One of the VCs at MJ’s VC firm IVP summarized the purpose of Twitter: “It’s the pulse of the universe, in real time, in 140 characters.” Amen to that! Now of course, it is 280 characters.
Marriage and Motherhood.
In my years of work, I have seen countless women being asked, usually by other women, can you tell us about work-life balance? I have never, not once, seen a man being asked that question.
A common theme in the book is that of the women taking primary care of the house and family, and also doing their high-pressure jobs. Note that of course it fell to them, not to their male partners. MJ going to bed an hour after her husband Bill, after tidying up and putting things away. Magdalena devoted as much energy to school volunteer events and $15 donations for a coach, as to a multimillion dollar deal.
As Gloria Steinmen said at a Watermark Conference for Women that I wrote about here, "Until men are equal in the home, women aren't going to be equal outside the home."
Theresia made choices on the time she spent with her child, and a woman CEO advised her on managing her working hours while being a mom:
Their professional success often resulted in friction in their marriage. When Theresia ended up on the cover of Fortune magazine, she was showered with accolades by friends, colleagues and family. The only person who said very little, was her husband.
When Theresia decided to leave her firm to deal with matters around her divorce and childcare, her partners insisted that she call each top investor to inform them of this. Colleagues and junior partners whom she had coached subjected her to this humiliation. A man would never have to do this, she recognized.
Sonja, having met and married a man who loved her dearly, was about to adopt a baby when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. The choices available to her, the counsel she took from friends and the decisions she made are deeply moving.
MJ prioritized time with her dying mother, and that was not the only loss she faced during that time. At the end of a gruelling set of circumstances, she finally asked herself, “What on earth do I want for myself?”
SVR kick-off event
San Jose Mercury News columnist Sal Pizarro moderated a dynamic and inspiring panel discussion with author Guthrie and two of the four “Alpha Girls” –Mary Jane Elmore and Sonja Hoel Perkins. Pizarro had moderated the 2019 Silicon Valley Reads kick-off event themed on Family History, which I wrote about here.
Guthrie described her mother as an Alpha Girl: her best friend and role model. The two-page Acknowledgments section at the end of her book is a warm tribute to her mother, Connie Guthrie. Regarding the title of the book, she laughingly spoke of many bad titles that had been proposed including one called “Wired Women.” Asked if she found things that were eye-opening in Slicon Valley, Guthrie replied that her previous three books were very male-dominated: on industry captains Larry Ellison, Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis. Her research into this book was eye-opening: she learned that 94% of all check writing receipts were men. And only a small percent of checks go to women. She set out to learn why these barriers exist. Pizarro introduced the four main characters, as well as the risks they took at the beginning of their careers. In a memorable account, MJ drove to California from Wisconsin in a Ford Pinto with worn-out dashboards. She could see the iconic Sand Hill Road going by under her as she took the exit off highway 280 to head to Menlo Park.
Guthrie said that the women had to be brave to make themselves vulnerable, and the dialogue with them was not always easy. Perkins spoke of the personal details that she and other others had shared with Guthrie. On reading the published book, she realized that there were some parts that she didn’t really want to share. But the fact that they did share them make the book really authentic and very powerful.
Then vs. Now. Pizarro asked the panel what it was like for women now in the VC world compared to when they started. Not that much better, MJ said, tellingly. Perkins responded that women are a lot more visible. She started in 1989 as a VC. The types of companies they invested in then were mostly companies that made processes better. Now they are touching every aspect of industry, and companies all over the world. On bias, sexism.
As I write this, only a few days have passed since the selection of Kamala Harris as vice president for Joe Biden’s presidential ticket. Already, the attacks and insults have begun. Few professional, successful women are spared such assaults, strangely nonexistent for most male candidates. We got a solid dose of this imbalance during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential run, and we will continue to see it with Kamala Harris. The #MeToo movement has brought to light many of the egregious acts against women in the workplace. The four women in this book were not exempt – they faced astounding treatment from extremely entitled men.
Perkins said we need to get beyond the terms sexism and bias, and learn what mindsets work. She recounted a story about a gruelling challenge on the ski slopes by a fellow VC, which she took on and managed to meet. A deal depended on it. Her philosophy is “You can’t win unless you play.”
Coaching entrepreneurs. Pizzaro asked how long the process of coaching entrepreneurs took. MJ replied that it was a long process, lasting the lifetime of the company’s path. Perkins said that the lifetime of the company is about 10 years. They sign 1 to 2 deals per year, so they are on 10 to 11 Board of Directors at any time.
Advice for Men What advice do you have for men, Pizarro asked. After recounting instances where she was assumed to be a secretary, and asked to bring coffee, MJ exhorted men to try to be an ally to women colleagues. Give that person the first job, she said. Lift the Alpha Girl spirit up, said Guthrie.
Perkins reflected that she was lucky that a lot of men took a chance on her. You have to change the criteria – it’s not lowering a standard. She told men not to walk on egg shells around women, we are tough. She spoke of a mentor, Tom Bredt of Menlo Ventures, who took her to Board of Director meetings. This experience gave her judgment and wisdom, taught her how to act in board meetings.
Pizarro asked about the reception to the book. Guthrie responded that it has been great. It is being made into a TV series by TriStar TV, and as being produced by Oscar-winning Cathy Schulman, directed by Margaret Nagle.
Feminist. Pizarro then asked the women if they consider themselves feminists. Perkins replied unhesitatingly, “Totally. It is not a bad word. It is wanting women to be successful. All women and men need to be feminists to make society function better.” Absolutely, 100%!
Audience Q&A The first question was from a recently retired tech executive who wanted to know how to contribute. Perkins commented that mentorship was a very significant way to contribute. There are so few women in tech, and it is good for every woman to know that she is not alone. She suggested a book called Power Up by Magdalena Yesil, saying every young woman in tech should read it. Pizarro asked about an all-women Hawaii trip written about in the book. Perkins related the story of a Silicon Valley Bank sponsored event which several women leaders attended. They were on a boat with a male captain. As the women kept speaking about deals and financing on corporate boards, the male captain turned to them and asked, puzzled, “Who are you?!” Philanthropy Pizarro asked if the money was going to good causes. MJ spoke of Broadway Angels, and mentioned Marc Benioff who has done a lot of philanthropy. Perkins commented that she lives in San Francisco, and sees it as a tale of two cities: The homeless on the street versus big glittering buildings. She hopes there will be more attention on this, and believes it is a solvable problem. She spoke of Project Glimmer, which has helped many women. Advice for a 10-year-old girl?
MJ responded that most people don’t like conflict. Her advice is to embrace conflict. Intel had a concept called constructive confrontation. Perkins replied believe in yourself and then you can do anything. Guthrie said, teach your girls that it’s OK to make a lot of money. Girls and boys are taught differently.
Obstacles are my allies. Talk about obstacles, another questioner said. Perkins said look at the problem as your friend: what can I learn from this? Guthrie commented on when Perkins was diagnosed with breast cancer. She worked with men, who didn’t even call to ask how she was, during the grueling months of her treatment. Perkins commented on how she had to go to very low places to come back to a place of relative normalcy. After her recovery, she found the non-profit organizations Broadway Angels which "invests in the best entrepreneurs and companies while showcasing the top women investors in venture capital and technology" and Project Glimmer, which brings "resources, inspiration and empowerment to a community of young women in whom we believe passionately - teen girls and young women who have experienced poverty, homelessness, child abuse and neglect." She lived by the principle “Obstacles are my allies.”
Women putting down other women. Another questioner said that she was 45, and observed how much women attacked other women in the workplace. Perkins responded, I think it’s a myth. Things have changed tremendously – this is a stereotype that doesn’t need to be perpetuated. MJ quoted RBG’s mom who said “Sometimes it’s good to be a little deaf.” Invest in women founders! Pizarro jokingly asked if they had any tips for the next investment we should make. Perkins responded invest in more women founders. What’s coming next for all of you? Guthrie replied that she has founded a nonprofit, the Alpha Girls Institute, which will have programming in schools, and scholarships. She recently incorporated her first start up, which is in stealth mode. Pizarro jokingly asked if she knew any investors. MJ replied that what was next for her was investing and philanthropy. She was interested in teen mental health, and homelessness. She also spent more time doing oil painting and Guthrie commented that she was very good. Perkin spoke of Project Glimmer, and its "days of empowerment" for foster girls, and the social supply chain. Jewelry products are 80 to 90% gross margin products. They acquire the last season's products and give them to young girls. Last year, they served 180,000 girls.
What an event! These women really made it happen that evening.