4 Ways Women Can Lead Fearlessly in Silicon Valley


Falon Fatemi

September 2, 2016

My days at Google, YouTube, and now Node have been fruitful, but they’ve also been difficult. You’d hope, in such well-educated workplaces, that gender wouldn’t matter — it does.

Women occupy just 15 percent of technical roles in the nation’s tech industry. At the directorial level, it’s even more lopsided. Women occupy a ridiculous 6.2 percent of board seats at “unicorn” companies.

Most everyone agrees that’s a problem. But what they don’t agree on is how women leaders can buck the unequal status quo.

The Lonely Valley Girl

Years ago, when I was still getting my startup shoes wet, I presented a plan to my team. Knowing it was a great idea, I was puzzled by their lukewarm response — until, a day later, a male colleague presented the same idea to rapturous applause.

When I realized my presentation had become wedged in the gender divide, I seized the opportunity to show my colleagues what’d gone wrong. “Hey, I actually said that yesterday,” I joked wryly. “Maybe I should get Pete to share all of my ideas.”

But quashing sexism is rarely that simple. There’s still an expectation on women to be subordinate. When I say I’m a tech CEO, I’m often met with surprised looks. I presented at a recent Mulesoft conference, for instance, on a panel as the only women with three other men. Afterward, multiple women approached me, asking how I’d become a female leader in such a male-dominated industry. I was flattered, and in the minutes we had left at Mulesoft, I shared with these women my four commandments for female leadership:

  • Commandment 1: Be better than everyone else. Women don’t get equal credit for equal work. Like it or not, we have to work harder than the competition. Command respect by showing you know your stuff better than anyone else in the room.
  • Commandment 2: Steer your own career. When I worked at Google, I assumed the company would watch out for my career. It didn’t. I had to seek out a mentor who helped me chart my own path. Know your worth, and don’t let others’ expectations dictate your future.
  • Commandment 3: Find internal validation. Staying motivated in an industry full of rejection is tough. If you did a great job on a project, be proud of your achievement. Don’t wait for validation from your boss or co-workers: External validation is short-lived, and it doesn’t fuel your next move like internally derived self-worth does.
  • Commandment 4: Ask for what you want. If you’re kicking ass at your job and demonstrating your value, pay raises should follow. If you’re not getting what you deserve, ask for it. It’s your future; take charge of it.

Etch these rules in your mind, and you will be a great leader — even in a man’s world like Silicon Valley. Above all else, those commandments require an enduring confidence, which isn’t always easy. For anyone who struggles with confidence, these tips are for you:

Keep your allies close. A support network is like a mirror. Look your friends in the face, and they’ll tell you what they see. If you need a break, they’ll let you know. When things get tough and you need to stand tall, you’ll hear that, too.

Polish your mirror by seeking advisers, especially female ones. Try an executive coach. Because I’ve been seeing an executive coach three times per week, I’ve learned to face obstacles that once would’ve beaten me.

View challenges as opportunities.

All challenges are opportunities. Easy to say, right?

Seeing challenges as opportunities is a skill that takes practice, like leadership, software development, or writing. Look to female leaders who inspire you. Read about how Megan Smith, United States chief technology officer, came to lead her country in tech; or how Kim Jabal, CFO of Weebly, became the first finance chief of an organization with more than 300 employees and 250 million unique monthly visitors.

Keep a journal or a vision board to track progress. You’ll stop seeing challenges as obstacles and start seeing them as milestones along your journey. Growing a company is difficult, and at the end of tough days, you’ll want to remember the progress you’ve made.

Practice how you present yourself.

Nobody’s born with style and grace; leaders become their confident selves by nurturing that confidence. I’ve learned that practicing how I present myself has a major affect on how I appear to others.

I use meditation to feel more secure and optimistic, which shows in every board meeting or conference. My work in sales has taught me how to present my ideas in a way that makes my audience want to learn more. Establish a routine, practice your style, and get some sales experience under your belt.

Learn that seeking help doesn’t signal dependence.

Every woman wants to be seen as strong and independent, so it’s tempting to run from helping hands. But unless you ask for assistance when you need it, you’re not going to be the best at what you do.

Many of my most cherished advisers have been men in Silicon Valley. Put yourself on an equal playing field by consulting experts for explanations, then giving back in return. Only be developing a mutual culture of respect and mentorship can we make the tech world a more inclusive place.

After the Mulesoft conference was over, a co-panelist told me he was a father of four young daughters. “I’d like my girls to see examples like you all over the place,” he said, “to let them know that anything is theirs if they want it badly enough.”

I want those girls to grow up in a world of equal opportunity. But equality isn’t an accident. It’s on us to create it. Repeat after me, ladies: Anything is ours if we want it badly enough.

Falon Fatemi is founder and CEO of Node, a stealth startup of ex-Googlers backed by NEA, Felicis Ventures, Mark Cuban, Dave McClure, and more. Fatemi has spent the past four years as a business development executive doing strategy consulting for startups and VCs and advising a variety of companies on everything from infrastructure to drones.


This article was written by Falon Fatemi from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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