This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, March 27, Future Tense and New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program will host From Nowhere to Nobels: Pathways to Success for Women in STEM in Washington, D.C. For more information and to watch online, visit the New America website.
As a founding partner at Y Combinator, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected seed stage venture firms, Jessica Livingston has had a hand in many of tech’s biggest hits, including Reddit, Airbnb, and Rap Genius. But she’s also come to recognize the lack of women in startups as one of tech’s most pressing problems. I talked to Jessica about what Y Combinator is doing to address the issue—and whether women really want to run startups.
To begin with, how many startups has Y Combinator funded with at least one female founder?
We’ve funded 633 startups in total, since starting Y Combinator in 2005. And we’ve funded 84 women. In the mid-2000s, we were lucky to get one female per batch. The number applying to us has definitely gone up.
Who are some of Y Combinator’s most successful female founders?
Our most successful female founder thus far is Adora Cheung of Homejoy [a platform that connects house cleaners to people with dirty houses]. Others include Kathryn Minshew’s the Muse, a career website; Elli Sharef of HireArt, which helps companies recruit for nontechnical positions; and Elizabeth Iorns of Science Exchange. Elizabeth was a doctor studying cancer research when she realized that the process for getting a research project done was broken. Her startup helps you outsource some elements of the research.
Honestly, many of the female founders we funded early on have not succeeded. But it takes about three years to really burst out from the pack. We have a peloton going right now.
Y Combinator just held its first ever Female Founders Conference. What was your goal going into that event?
My goal was simple—to inspire more women to start startups and so they could see women who were currently in the throes of doing it themselves. I didn’t allow any men to come, not even male Y Combinator partners.
Why no men? Shouldn’t we be getting women’s ideas in front of them, too?
Our goal was to inspire women to start startups. I wanted to save every seat in the audience for them. But I’m sure men could have benefited from some of the talks!
In your keynote at the Female Founders Conference you said that you thought 2014 would be a tipping point for women in tech. Why do you think that?
Traditionally, the people who have applied to Y Combinator have been young, male programmers. But things are changing. We’re seeing a more diverse group of applicants: older people, nonprogrammers, women, minorities. It’s definitely expanding. Applications are dribbling in now for our Summer batch at Y Combinator. We don’t ask for people’s gender on the application, but based on my gut instinct, there’s been an increasing amount of women applying. Women just did not apply in 2005 and 2006.
The women in technology issue has always been around, but it’s never felt quite as fervent to me as now.
Although I’m sure they’d be loath to admit it, are woman at a disadvantage because investors subconsciously look for founders that resemble Mark Zuckerberg or Uber’s Travis Kalanick?
Most venture capitalists are probably trying to replicate past successes, so it’s possible. But the most important thing to VCs is getting the biggest hits, and I don’t think they’re so dumb as to exclude people based on gender.
Y Combinator has only three female partners out of 12—do you think women considering applying to Y Combinator might find this intimating?
Well, it’s interesting you brought that up. Sam Altman [the new president of Y Combinator] sent out a tweet earlier in March asking what Y Combinator could do better for women. One comment that came back surprised me: A number of people said they wished there had been more women in the interview room. There are three tracks during the Y Combinator interview process, and sometimes the panels are all men. We’re going to be more conscious about that in the future. There will be a female partner in each room going forward.
How can you recruit a greater diversity of founders?
We have never been deliberate in any way about encouraging people to apply to Y Combinator. Yes, occasionally we speak at conferences, but we’re just too busy. To this end, we just hired someone whose role is to spend all of her time sharing what’s going on at Y Combinator—publishing interviews with female Y Combinator alumni on their advice to women applying, for example.
We’re trying to do more to share what’s going on with female alumni. We also have a special female-only mailing list and we meet up for dinner two to three times a year. These dinners are really important. In the early years, there were maybe only three female founders in each batch of about eight or nine startups. (There were 71 start-ups in our last batch.) By cross-pollinating the females from each batch, they get to make important connections, and get advice on fundraising or on scaling their business that they might not have gotten otherwise.
Whenever we mix up any alumni, good things happen.
What does a female-friendly start-up environment looks like?
It’s one that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable, supports them, and allows them to tap their full potential.
I would also say that companies need to be flexible. But it’s in the nature of startups that they’re a little more flexible that your average corporate job—you don’t have to work 9-5. There’s more flexibility about time spent in the office or telecommuting.
My goal is to get women to start more startups or to join a startup. When I graduated, I didn’t even know what a startup was or that it was an option for me. I was told that you needed the stability of a big business job with a salary and medical insurance. I had no idea that perhaps by working for less pay now, you could get equity that might really pay off in the end!
A few years ago, Michael Arrington wrote a now infamous piece about the lack of women in tech, suggesting that women just didn’t want to be tech entrepreneurs. Do you feel there was truth in that?
From our perspective, there are a lot of women who want to be startup founders. Women definitely have the drive to do it. Being a startup founder is not for everyone, though, men or women. You are all consumed by this company, you have to deal with tons of rejection, it’s unstable, you may not have a salary. You have to decide: Is this the right career for me? You have to make the leap.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.