by Lisa Suennen
First posted on Venture Valkyrie on 5/28/2012
“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” –Paul Cezanne
A couple of years ago my sister told me a story about how she came home from work to find her husband and then 5-year-old daughter playing “house” with her dolls and dollhouse. They were deep into the imaginary play and her daughter was visibly annoyed to be interrupted by my sister’s arrival on the scene. My sister asked if she could play with them and the daughter looked at her skeptically.
“I could be the mommy,” offered my sister.
“No, I’m the mommy,” said the kid.
“How about if I am the baby then?” says my sister, wanting in on the action.
“No,” says the kid, “I’m also the baby. And Daddy is the daddy.”
Kid pauses, thinks for a minute, then says, “OK mommy, you can be a carrot growing in the garden.”
I love that story. First of all, it’s damn funny (although my sister wasn’t amused at the time). Second of all, it so reminds me of how I feel sometimes when I walk into the Board room at companies, particularly the first meeting I attend after we invest anew and when the board members who have already been there for a while see me coming for the first time. “Oh lord,” I’m sure some of them think, “can we just make her a carrot in the garden and not one of the key players in our game of house?” A carrot is a perfect metaphor for these situations because it’s not just any old garden vegetable, but one that’s way underground where it can’t be seen or heard.
Last week I gave a presentation at Rock Health’s XX Retreat, (more info below) about what it’s like to be the only woman on a Board of Directors and what experiences I have had in that position. I have been on many boards now in my 14 years as a VC and am currently on four of them. On two of them I am chairperson, or as I like to call myself, chairchick. It is a really hard job because you are always pissing somebody off, but on the other hand it can also be very rewarding. I remember well the very first time I was appointed to a Board seat; I was excited and nervous about being able to contribute. All of the existing Board members were highly accomplished VCs and CEO types (all men, average age around 50) and I was in my early 30′s and it was my first time. There are definitely times when men want to be there for your first time, but when it comes to Board membership that rule doesn’t apply.
As women we are taught that men are tougher than we are, but I say it’s not true. It is often true that men have more actual experience running companies. We women do far less of that then we should. However, I do not think that necessarily means that we have less experience taking charge and doing the right thing for companies, and toughness comes in many forms.
Being an excellent board member means being strategic, objective, fair, expeditious, clear-headed about money matters and willing to make tough decisions and critical trade-offs under pressure. Sounds a heck of a lot more like being a mom and not so much like being a carrot, if you ask me.
In fact, on the boards of directors of which I have been a member, it has frequently been the case that hard decisions, and particularly those that relate to people, are left to the woman in the room. But I find that women are sometimes more open than men to openly communicating about difficult issues and are frequently more expeditious about wanting to get the right thing done. Perhaps this occurs because women are not always as socially connected to the men with whom we share a table. Perhaps it is because women have a lower tolerance for B.S.–we’re just too damn tired to put up with it, and that is an asset on a board.
During the XX Retreat, one speaker pointed out a study done by University of Pennsylvania scientist Ruben Gur who, using functional MRI, discovered that when a man’s brain is in a resting state, at least 70% of its electrical activity is shut down. Scans of women’s brains in the same state however, showed 90% of their full activity, confirming that women are constantly receiving and analyzing information from their environment. No wonder we are so tired and eager to get things out on the table and checked off our list.
I used the following quote in an older post I wrote about how women can better succeed by effectively marketing themselves, but it feels very appropriate here. A female VC friend of mine once said, “Why would it make any sense for women NOT to be significantly represented in leadership and board positions where key decisions are made about the delivery of care and investment in innovation, when women represent half the population, control the healthcare dollar, and provide the majority of healthcare services?” Damn good question. In fact, if I had my way, all women would find inspiration in this quote,
“Be the kind of women who, when your feet hit the ground getting out of bed in the morning, causes Satan to say, “Shit, she’s awake!”
To backtrack, the XX Retreat at which I gave my talk was a fantastic event organized by the smart and spunky women who run healthcare IT incubator Rock Health (Halle Tecco, Leslie Ziegler, Clare Wylie, et al). There were numerous excellent presenters, many whom addressed the audience of about 120 accomplished women from diverse healthcare backgrounds by telling stories of an incredibly personal nature. My story was more “business-y” in content, but appeared welcome and relevant to most in the room, nonetheless. It was a pleasure for me to have an opportunity to exhort my fellow attendees to capitalize on their strengths and, particularly in the case of the younger attendees, to remind them that they are just as worthy as their male counterparts to hold positions of power and influence at the organizations with which we engage. Bottom line: never let anyone make you a carrot!
These women’s professional conferences are always quite different from the usual gender-nonspecific professional conferences. For one thing, there is a line for the ladies’ room, never a problem at HIMSS or JP Morgan’s Healthcare Conference. For another thing, there is always a mix of very professional business issues and references to empathy, empowerment, work/life balance, personal passion, collaboration and cooperation, themes that just don’t come up elsewhere, although there is no good reason for that. These themes apply equally well to men and women and should be more integrated into our business discourse in my opinion.
An interesting mention at the XX Retreat was a 2011 study done by the World Economic Forum that showed quite conclusively that the success of national economies worldwide is highly correlated with how women are educated and integrated into the workforce. The research shows that greater the equality among men and women, the better a country’s economic output, as measured by per capita GDP and a variety of other measures. The study is well worth perusing, which you can do by clicking HERE.
The report’s bottom line is that the economic and national security of a country is entirely correlated with the empowerment of women in education and the workforce. The report concludes that, “This Report highlights the message to policy-makers that, in order to maximize competitiveness and development potential, each country should strive for gender equality—that is, give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.” If you are one of those people who believe that men’s decisions are more “fact-oriented,” the comprehensive data from this report should drive men to the indisputable conclusion that equality of opportunity for both sexes is better for all. Unfortunately, since not all men have quite come to that conclusion, we still have women’s conferences. And carrots.
Among the very cool things they did at the XX Retreat was to highlight women’s critical role in advancing the healthcare field by naming each of the 12 tables after women who had made significant contributions throughout history. I was delighted to hear that when they polled the attendees to nominate names for the tables, they received far more names of incredibly accomplished female figures than there were tables. Because women like these have been such an inspiration to those that have come after them, I thought I’d close this post by providing you with the list of names chosen to grace the tables:
- Virginia Apgar (1909–1974) was an American pediatric anesthesiologist. She is best known as the developer of the Apgar score, a method of assessing the health of newborn babies that has drastically reduced infant mortality over the world.
- Clarissa Harlowe Barton (1821 – 1912) was a pioneer and humanitarian. She risked her life when she was nearly 40 to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War. Then, at age 60, she founded the American Red Cross, which she led for the next 23 years.
- Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910) was the first woman to graduate from medical school. A pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, she was a global social reformer.
- Rachel Louise Carson (1907 – 1964) was an American marine biologist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.
- Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 – 1958) was a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA and RNA.
- Bernadine Patricia Healy (1944 – 2011) was a physician, cardiologist, academic and the former head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951) was an African-American woman who was the unwitting source of cells (from her cancerous tumor), which were used to create an immortal cellular line for medical research.
- Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) was a celebrated English nurse, writer and statistician. Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing.
- Dr. Antonia Novello (1944 – present) is a physician & public health administrator. She was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as Surgeon General.
- Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879 – 1966) was a sex educator, nurse, and birth control activist. Sanger coined the term birth control, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established Planned Parenthood.
- Maxine Frank Singer (1931 – present) is known for her contributions to solving the genetic code, her role in the ethical and regulatory debates on recombinant DNA techniques, and her leadership of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
- Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921 – 2011) was a medical physicist, and the co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique.