Hello, and welcome to Switch!
If you’ve followed Women 2.0 for the past few years, you probably know we usually take March – Women’s History Month – in stride, and don’t make a big hullabaloo. The way we see it, every single day we work on behalf of and celebrate women, as we focus on creating a world where women don’t even need a month to have to be elevated in the public’s eye, where our global status quo is one of equality and equity. Call me idealistic….
But this year, we are going to celebrate a little bit. In the last several months, the team at Women 2.0 has been quietly but thoughtfully reimagining and positioning ourselves with an outlook to the future.
I’m so incredibly excited to bring our new face to the world as we continue to expand our important work, and I wanted to take a minute to tell you about what went behind this.
First things first.
Little is actually changing in our strategy or activities moving forward – we’re moving in pretty much the exact direction we have been – and that’s a good thing. I’ve joked internally and with advisors and mentors that, really, our brand is just catching up with what we’ve already put in place over the last several years, with the added benefit of some structural organization and the opportunity to launch a few new programs.
When I took the helm of Women 2.0 in 2016, it was already a decade old brand and, while one of strength, loyalty and recognition, you still inevitably go through the process of whether there could/should be a Phase II consideration in the future.
Having brought with me my own decade+ of active work and leadership on issues of gender and representation in technology and entrepreneurship – primarily through Girls in Tech, for which I was President for several years – as well as my background as a startup operator and my combined life experiences, I had a few insights and viewpoints on what at least I saw as being important and productive moving forward.
So I leaned on that.
I’m going to be vulnerable for two sentences, and then move on. Writing this letter has been both easy and hard. The hard part is mostly that I don’t talk about myself a lot, you’ll rarely hear me use “me” or “I”, and I’ve never been great at recognizing my “expertise” on an issue. But the fact remains that over 20 years of experience (and, really, my life) go into what we have at Switch and the W Fund, and objectively speaking, that’s strength. Therefore, the easy part is actually frameworking this out. PS: The other hard part is that there’s so flipping much in my head that finding a stopping point for this Letter was not easy!
So I’m going to spend a little time sharing what’s in my head, and where it came from.
With heavy exposure to business and startups, global issues around gender in tech, digital activism and social mobilization, you could imagine I’ve got a lot (a LOT) of thoughts regarding where we’ve been, why we’ve been there, how we’re doing, and where we need to go.
But one thing has remained constant throughout, my North Star so to speak: The thing I hold central to the work we do at Women 2.0/Switch and the W Fund is absolute clarity about the world in which I want to live, and the world I want to see in front of me and us in two decades.
A wonderful friend recently asked me why I do what I do. The obvious response would be that, well, I’m a woman, so I stand up for my/our position. But that’s actually not the full story.
My response, at the end of the day, is humans. I get deeply, emotionally impacted – positively and negatively – by issues of human position, especially justice and fairness.
Allow me to reminisce:
- I remember in high school getting frustrated and upset when our school district would squabble over whether to redo the turf on our already-pristine football field (sorry Hornets…), while many schools in downtown Syracuse hardly had books for their students.
- Learning French, I asked myself more than once who the heck was deciding what things in the world were masculine or feminine, and that it sure did feel like it was skewed. After one digs, what else would you expect but to have most words used for “leadership” default to masculine when you have a centuries-old language where many of these words were chosen in times when women really didn’t leave the house, let alone lead anything. But we don’t live in those times anymore…. (In case you weren’t following).
- A reading of Jon Stewart’s America – as satirical and opinionated as it was (I love Stewart, but take it with a grain of salt!) – painted a grimmer picture of history for me, one where the humans who weren’t central in my school courses growing up were speaking, and loudly.
- I try to remember the conscious moment I chose to focus on African American History as one of my majors in college, but to be honest, all I remember is knowing it was important to spend intentional time on the experiences of people who “didn’t look like me” so I could better understand the way the world works (and glad I did! I got to spend a summer transcribing some of the original writings of Frederick Douglass….).
- Another summer’s research project in grad school meant to dig deeper into whether or not the Bangladeshi madras system had the same potential to graduate terrorists as their Pakistani equivalents turned surprisingly into a deeper look at the importance of women in the societal structure, and their potential as a stabilizing economic and social force.
- Several years of focus on digital activism produced projects and pieces on how the internet could both liberate and suppress humans around the world (as we’re seeing in Ukraine) and a book chapter on the digital divide in the US (oh, and the start of my viewpoints on why Facebook/Meta is categorically *the* most dangerous company in the world, because, humanity…but that’s for another time and place).
- Working with amazing women in over 60 cities around the world – each whose circumstances as founders and technologists were at least in some part left to the whims of their local structures – highlighted differences in opportunities and privileges (PS I brought it up here, and I hesitated to put this piece in here for y’all because reading things you wrote over a decade ago is really brutal!… just skip to “Beyond this” and forget the first half exists…and give my ten-year-ago self some grace).
I could go on. At the end of the day, the human position is the reason I’ve gotten up and sat down at my desk each day, to move the gargantuan mountain in front of us, rejoice at the exits of women founders or the rise of women-led funds, or literally cry when we move backwards. Humans are the underpinning of our work, the common thread. While my most immediate “point of entry” was and still is around gender, every person, no matter their backgrounds or experiences, deserves equal and equitable opportunities and access. But the world isn’t giving it to them right now…. so here I am.
“Having humanity central” also means practicing deeply the art of understanding and listening. Part of where we’ve expanded in the past few years is our intent focus on empathy, which is what our Allyship program, launched in 2017, has grown into. REWIRE is being led by (and, really, inspired by) my wonderful colleague Corey Ponder, Founder & CEO of Em|PACT and Head of Strategic Partnerships at Instagram, who, in addition to being one of the warmest humans I know, is deeply committed to using the frameworks of empathy to lead the industry in the direction we feel it needs to go to make the profound changes we’re asking of it. We’ll hope you join us this year as we continue to do this work.
It then follows that if we look at the issue through the lens of humanity and fairness, the system that women and underrepresented founders have to exist in is profoundly unequal and inequitable. It has systematically cut off access to just about every aspect of the growth process in both conscious and unconscious ways.
We all know the drill. In order to truly achieve long-term equality and equity in the human position, justice and fairness are automatically your end goal, with all barriers removed. This requires breaking things, shifting mindsets, and building new systems.
The first several years of my work was truly community-building in nature. We were largely activating outside workplaces or the investment stream and mobilizing almost exclusively women in our ~60 chapters around the world (note: we always encouraged anyone to show up to our programming, and I extend such a huge, heartfelt “thank you” to anyone who may not have identified as a woman for showing up consciously and with intention…. sometimes you were even the “only” in the room!).
But what was quickly learned was that, for all the work we were doing mobilizing, none of it was hitting the system, or affecting the true levers that needed to change. The people in power were not in the room with us. Now, this is the natural progression of social movements, but the move from mobilization to action is an important one. Access doesn’t come when you’re in a silo. Marketing and CSR dollars from large brands (sponsorships of our community events) are meaningless when those very same large brands report stagnant or even backwards progress on diversity or inclusion inside their walls (I could talk to you for a whole day about this, but what we like to call “diversity theater” is actually not just eye-rolling, but quite damaging to the system. Part of my own growth, which I brought with me to Women 2.0, was to stop engaging in with brands who fall into this bucket, as hard as it is….we’ve been known to say “no” to sometimes substantial cheques for that reason).
K, back to the issue of access. Access can only be fundamentally achieved if the systems and structures change. Temporary, superficial access doesn’t count, and only gives us “blips” (hey, did you notice that funding to all-women founding teams is down again this year? Ugh people!). Sometimes when I talk about Women 2.0 (now Switch), I say something along the lines of “we can give women all the tools and education we want, but if the structure that’s supposed to be supporting them doesn’t change, we aren’t going to get where we need to go.”
This is the reason we spend a lot of time working on the capital, funding and investor side of the equation, as well as our targeted DEI work inside workplaces of any size and the general startup space. This is an area we’re really excited to expand upon this year.
At the end of the day, we’re in a specific space – high-growth startups – where much of a founding team’s success comes down to the capital it has available. That’s why we’ve placed capital access as a central convening goal of our programs.
We address this from three angles:
- Bottom Up: Something that excites me greatly is the amount of “new money” coming into this space being commanded by woman and allocators from other traditionally underestimated backgrounds. Every time a first cheque gets written from a woman angel investor, LP, or fund manager, that has a ripple affect that impacts founders, funders, families and the structure. The more we can equip this new class of investors, the faster we’ll go.
- Diversification: Breaking the traditional structure of getting capital is crucial for our founders, and creating new models for high-growth startups to succeed from day one is going to be a disruptive factor moving forward. And it’s already happening. Tiffany Kelly, Founder of Curastory, winner of our 2020 Pitch Competition and now a W Fund portfolio company, makes me really darn proud and happy in how she structured her Seed round of funding. She broke things, and she exceeded expectations. We need so much more of this.
- Top Down: By far the biggest mountain we need to push is the traditional structure. This is what’s going to take the longest, and it’s going to require massively shifting mindsets. Part of the reason funding to all-women founding teams has gone down for two years straight is because people fall back to their old ways of decision-making in times of high risk, whether they realize it or not. They fall back on old data that supports that decision-making, but also upholds that traditional structure. This must be broken in order to be where we want to be. It simply must.
Breaking the traditional structure of getting capital is crucial for our founders, and creating new models for high-growth startups to succeed from day one is going to be a disruptive factor moving forward.
In addition to continuing working on this through Switch, I have the utmost distinct pleasure of also being able to run our sister fund – The W Fund – with my partner, longer-time colleague, and friend Allyson Kapin. For as long as I’ve been working on this issue, Allyson has been via her organization Women Who Tech. She and her team have put real dollars into the hands of hundreds of women-led tech founders over the course of a decade and a half. She is one of a smaller handful of people that have understood for a while that putting capital in the hands of founders who haven’t had access to funding via the traditional system is the most powerful thing we can all do – and that we’ll see returns as a result. We joke a lot about how we should’ve started a VC fund many years ago (oooo the equity we’d have in some of the great companies that’ve gone through our programs!), but I guess we were both too busy just hammering on the system….
These three pillars were each referenced to either directly or indirectly in our Women 2.0 Driving Values from 2016. I’ll leave this here for it’s own showcase.
What’s in a name
I’ve given you my backgrounder. Let’s talk about Women 2.0, which some of you have been with for far longer than I’ve been here (ah, thank you! One of my greatest joys has been connecting with some of the women who’ve been around for years and years. I just got a quick note the other day from a fantastic woman who’d been in the Women 2.0 community since 2009. Amazing!)
Women 2.0 was aptly named when it started in 2006 in San Francisco, by the always-wonderful Shaherose Charania, Angie Chang and several other great women. The “2.0” was inspired by, as you might guess, the start of the Web 2.0 movement in Silicon Valley.
Amidst a huge absence of conversation – let alone action – around issues of gender equality in the quickly-growing tech startup scene, and a startup community where every gathering, small and big, discussing the future of the web and Web 2.0 lacked women, our original founders got to work:
“Before equality and diversity were a part of any tech conversation…before Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, long before Lyft and Airbnb, back in the days of the Blackberry Pearl and pen-and-paper driving directions, Women 2.0 took its first steps. We didn’t even have a garage to start in. We took shape in whatever apartment my co-founders and I could meet in.” – Shaherose Charania, Women 2.0 Founder & Former CEO
Over the course of the following decade, Women 2.0 grew into a global network, with programming across the US, Canada, Latin American, Europe and Asia, helping 100s of startups through its PITCH Competitions, Founder Labs and other targeted programs (FYI, by 2016 when I took over, the top 40% had already gone on to command over $90M in funding).
There are days when heart gets me out of bed. So much of what’s driven that is the amazing, heart-forward, selfless women I’ve had the pleasure of working with around the world in various capacities (I can’t even begin to do shoutouts, there are too many of you, and you all know who you are…come play!), and the countless people who, likewise, come at the world with heart in the equation.
As I reflected on my own past work addressing issues of gender and representation, and Women 2.0’s then decade of experience, we refocused our outlook on what must be accomplished in order to make long-term change in the space. As we’ve done that, it’s become clear that our name needed to come with us, for three key reasons:
Intersectionality and completeness
The word “women” worked in 2006. It was a newer movement inside Silicon Valley and the tech startup scene, and it felt comprehensive in terms of focus. I was also in that movement at the same time, in parallel, and the name was appropriate.
But as we’ve progressed as an industry, it’s become clear that the word “Women” wasn’t as complete as it needed to be. It didn’t truly address the nuance of how the humans in our community identified or showed up as founders or members of the workforce, the nuances of intersectionality, nor did it allow for participation folks with parallel paths, who’s “otherness” was based on a different breakdown other than gender.
We needed to think about that, a lot. We were no longer addressing our core audience in their full scope.
From my early days in addressing gender representation – and any type of representation – I’ve held firmly the belief that the only way we’re going to accomplish the immense amount of change we need to actually make an impact, we need to involve all players. This is why we started an allyship program early on in 2017, because the involvement of our male colleagues is crucial. Not only are men roughly 50% of the population, and in significant majority in the startup ecosystem, but they did and still do hold the levers of power.
Our work needs to include them.
We also needed to think about this one a lot. We were not including or welcoming crucial demographics necessary for our success via the word “women”.
Lastly, we’re playing in a space that’s serious, quirky and creative – characteristics that can be seen clearly in branding. Applying that same mentality to ourselves seemed a propos! Additionally, we were consistently getting bucketed into a non-profit space, and that’s not where we see ourselves as a for-profit, for-good (A topic for another day is a discussion around the non-profit model….but not now).
Well, our current tagline should say enough.
Words used for efforts similar to ours are often gentle, gradual ones that don’t encompass the magnitude of the issue, focus too much on empowerment of individuals as opposed to fundamental changing in the system, and are not suggestive of the type of true, aggressive action that really needs to take place.
Switch says several things:
- Now or immediate
- Opposite, or high level of change
- New perspectives
- Different processes
- Turn off, turn on
There is an urgency around the word “Switch” that leaves less room for people to be complacent, and forces us to resist gradual shifts and be more immediate in restructuring and building our future anew.
It’s fitting for an organization that IS asking us all to change drastically and quickly. And so Switch it is.
A few neat things
Some of the finer details of this project worth noting:
- All-women rebrand and dev team: I can’t say enough about working with Hanna Boone as our Design Director. She was patient while holding us (usually me) accountable, understood my vision immediately, and was fantastic to work with. Also our designer Sarah Olsen, and the all-women dev team at Freshy Sites. We’re all super pleased!
- Zero stock photos: Because we’ve been doing this work for 15+ years, we have a deep vault of amazing photos from all of our past events, and we aren’t going to let them go to waste! On the main site (minus our media content on the Conversation), all of the photos are taken from our past programming, and if you hover over each of them, you’ll find info on each. This is something that continues to make me smile every time I’m on the site, and we hope it makes you smile too. We’re also hoping to use more of them as we move forward (it was really fun to resurface them, and remember all of the important issues we were addressing and people we were showcasing right from the beginning!).
- Social: Super pleased that we were actually able to get all the same usernames for social! (patience on FB, still changing it out) If you aren’t already, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.
Go ahead and explore!
We’ll be starting back up most of our programming in Q2 of this year, so stay tuned, get on our newsletter list if you aren’t already, and we can’t wait to bring you along as we switch our collective futures!
- If you’re a founder, you’ll see several familiar things and few new things here, including our new coaching program.
- I mentioned it above, but we’re expanding our REWIRE workplace programming around empathy and allyship.
- We quietly launched an angel investing group (and course) for women last year, please come join us (PS we have deal flow).
- If you’re hiring or job seeking, we’ve got stuff for you, all led up by the wonderful Hilliary Turnipseed, our Director of Talent Initiatives and Employer Branding and overall talent expert.
- We’ve put a lot of work into our media property – now called the Conversation – over the past five years, making sure everyone in our community gets true value from us. We plan to put even more work into it moving forward (be on the lookout for podcasts)! Oh, and if you’d like to write for us, submit a book for review, or have additional content ideas, let us know.
- I’d be remiss to leave out that we have plenty of sponsorship opportunities for brands wanting to align with our mission. Drop us a note if you’d like to learn more.
We can’t even wait to look ahead to the future and do powerful things with you all. Here’s to shifting, breaking, building and switching!