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A Startup Accelerator Executive on the Challenges for Women in Tech

Courtesy Techstars

Nicole Glaros, managing director, Techstars

Nicole Glaros is managing director at TechStars, a startup accelerator based in Boulder, Colo. Before joining TechStars in 2008, she founded three successful companies and suffered a couple of failures. I asked her about the challenges of working in the male-dominated world of tech investing and what traits she brings to the approach that may be different from her male counterparts. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Is it still rare for women to be investors?
It’s pretty rare. I can think of three or four other women investors in tech, while I can name probably 70 men off the top of my head.

Why are so few women in the investor community?
My hunch is that when men are growing up, they actively see themselves being investors and they think they are smart and good enough to make good decisions that will lead to success.

Women really don’t think that way. I got pulled into investing, but a few years ago I would have told you, ‘No way, I could never do that, I’m not smart enough to do that.’ It seems to be common that women investors didn’t target this career, they got pulled in or fell into it.

How does it feel to be one of so few women?
I was a very athletic child and my sister and I were the only two girls on a street full of boys, so I’ve always been surrounded by men and it never felt weird to me.

And TechStars has been unbelievably supportive. I’ve never felt uncomfortable, threatened, or like my gender was even an issue. But that’s not to say I haven’t had instances at other places where I realize I’m the only female in the room.

What happened?
Guys will sometimes make inappropriate remarks about women in front of me. I was at an investor round table at a conference one time and all of a sudden these 20 guys start talking about their penises.

How does the lack of female investors affect female entrepreneurs looking for funding?
I’m like a sounding board for those women, and some have told me that male investors have made sexual advances. It happens a lot. These women are afraid because if they turn them down, it’s an ego blow to the man. And sometimes there’s a nasty dynamic that happens, where [the investor] will run around saying bad things about [the female entrepreneur] and poisoning others about her company.

What advice do you give them?
There are a lot of things you can say or do to minimize sexual harassment. But the women tell me, ‘Don’t you dare open your mouth’ and talk about it with the men. My question is, how do we correct this behavior if we can’t even address it when it happens?

I’m thinking we need to come up with guidelines on when it is OK or not OK to make an advance. I would like to believe in most cases it is innocent enough, but sometimes I don’t think men understand the dynamic that’s created when they do that.

What distinguishes you as a female investor?
I work really hard to create a safe environment for my founders. When people don’t think they’re going to be judged, they tend to be riskier, and in riskier environments they tend to be more successful. I always encourage my teams to talk openly about what is going wrong and what’s going right.

Sometimes they cry in my office. I share a lot of very personal experiences with them. I tell them what I was going through when I had my two failed startups, what mistakes I made, and what I learned.

What is the advantage of that kind of relationship?
It really builds trust, so they can come to me when something’s going badly and we can address the problem quickly, before it gets out of control.

Why would you like to see more women become investors?
The investor community now is an echo chamber. If we can get more people with radically different backgrounds and viewpoints about the world, that will make the investments stronger.