We hear a lot about gender issues from women in technology, but we almost never hear directly from a woman who sits on the board of a technology company, let alone a woman who has sat on more than a dozen boards of technology companies over the years. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could change that?
Turns out we can. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Carol Snell, a Silicon Valley boardroom veteran who last month joined the board of Push Technology, a UK-based applications development services provider. It was an interesting appointment, because Push had not had a woman on its board in its eight-year history, and still has never had a woman in its C-suite.
So I opened the conversation by asking Snell in what ways she thinks Push may have been handicapped by not having a woman in any of those positions up to this point. Her response was as forthright as prudence and good judgment would probably allow:
I do believe, and I have experienced, that at least one woman on a board just adds a dynamic that calms people down. In my case, I come at it from a place with a lot of operating background, watching these companies get funded, how they build their teams, how they get into these markets, and how they grow through each stage of that. So I think I bring that set of experiences that they didn’t have before. Hopefully, I can also bring some balance to the dynamics on the board that had been all men. I find that frequently, and I find that it helps.
At the same time, Snell said this was a unique case:
Push is a great company in a very disruptive market, so their growth rate is going to accelerate pretty crazily, which is a wonderful thing. So I think there was a dual opportunity here, and one of those is that we’re opening up a Bay Area office for Push, because a lot of our major partners are there. One of the senior executives on the Push team worked in a company I founded back in the 80s [Aspect Telecommunications, now Aspect Software]. He worked there in the 90s, and remembered me, and knew I had done a lot of board work in the last 10 years or so, so he called me. So it was a dual purpose: One was that I have a lot of experience doing startups, sitting on boards, and working with investors. Not only that, I knew what’s happening on the ground in the [Silicon] Valley. I frankly don’t know if Push was specifically going after a woman. I think they were going after me because of my background and experience.
Snell went on to speak about what’s changed—and what hasn’t—for women in technology over the years:
I started in this business a long time ago, and I’ve been in the technology business my whole career. In the late 70s, I was in a company of 8,000 employees, and I was one of two female director-level employees—no female executives anywhere else in the whole company. That company was called Datapoint—it was a very fast-paced, growing company at the time, and I ran a huge organization of 450 people. I always felt like I had to work twice as hard to get half the credit, and I really mean that. I was respected, and I knew what I was doing, and I had to really stand up for what I thought was right. But I still felt like I was outnumbered, in a big way.
Just a few weeks ago, I went to an event in Silicon Valley—an annual event of one of the venture capital firms. I guess there were two hundred or more people in the room, and I looked around and said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t see but half a dozen women here.” So I started talking to them and I asked, “Are we always going to be outnumbered? What is with this?”
Snell said “huge progress” has been made in some respects. But there’s a long way to go:
There are many more women CEOs now—I’m talking, in this case, specifically around earlier-stage technology startups, because that’s where I focus. If I saw one [female CEO] three or four years ago, I might see 10 today. I think it’s because more and more women are visible, and are being given that opportunity. The issue is, when you get to the boardroom, you still don’t find them there—it’s rare that I see women on boards. I’ve probably sat on 15 boards, and the only time I wasn’t the only woman was once when I had two women VCs on a board with me. So we still have a long way to go with that gender issue.
Snell also had some sage advice for young women who are pursuing careers in technology. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.