“It was frustrating that the only narrative of women in tech up until that point was how brutal it is to be a woman in tech, and how brutal it is to be a woman CEO. I’m thinking, it’s not that brutal.”
Sukhinder is the founder and CEO of Joyus, a venture-backed e-commerce company that helps shoppers discover goods via short-form videos. She is the founder of the Boardlist, a curated marketplace to help companies find exceptional women to serve on private corporate boards. She is on the boards of Ericsson and TripAdvisor.
What does it take to succeed as a founder in Silicon Valley?
If you’ve already made the decision to be an entrepreneur and committed yourself to the idea, you already have the characteristics to succeed—hard work, tenacity, persistence, the ability to pivot. The most challenging part for founders today is fundraising. I counsel female founders on the importance of the pitch and the art of raising money.
Is it really that hard to be a woman in technology today?
For the longest time I was silent on women’s issues in tech. My perception was, I’m just going to stay out of the noise. I just need to deliver. If I deliver, if I build a unicorn, that will do more for women in tech than anything I could possibly say. Then in January of 2015, after five years at Joyus, I’d been so heads-down, I wanted to lift my head up and started thinking about the places I wanted to start giving back. Keval Desai, who is on my board and is a former colleague from Google, contacted me after reading the Newsweek article, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” (January 28, 2015), and asked, Why is nobody telling the stories of all the women in my portfolio? The positive stories? I don’t get it.
It was frustrating that the only narrative of women in tech up until that point was how brutal it is to be a woman in tech, and how brutal it is to be a woman CEO. I’m thinking, it’s not that brutal. I mean, not to say there aren’t issues, but it’s not that brutal. My contribution was to shift the narrative about women in tech. I wrote a letter, co-signed by several successful female founders (See “Tech Women Choose Possibility”) which led to the formation of a company called Choose Possibility and a project called the BoardList.
In 2015, you surveyed over 100 female founders in Silicon Valley. What did you learn?
I learned that entrepreneurship is seeded in families. Fifty-five percent of the women had a parent, usually a father, who was an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur. He was a doctor, but he loved stocks and bonds. He loved business. More surprising to me was that the most common profession of their mothers was a teacher. I was expecting more small business owners.
Do tech founders need a degree in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering & Math) to start a company?
There is this notion that you need to have a technical degree to start a company in Silicon Valley. I don’t have a STEM degree. Jack Dorsey doesn’t have STEM degree. In my first startup, Yodlee, I had five engineers and we got our funding and our venture capital valuation because of them. If you have consumer product vision and you can articulate it in a sleek and simple to use product, that is the new rock start CEO.
How is the BoardList helping to diversify corporate boards?
When it comes to choosing who’s on your corporate board, you go to what’s familiar. You go to the networks you know, so if the networks you know are all male, chances are you’re going there. If you’re looking for a female board member, you pick who’s in your first order network. The goal with the BoardList is very simple. That woman may not be in your first order network, but she’s certainly in your second or third. The BoardList introduces you to these women.
Why did you almost leave Silicon Valley right after you arrived 20 years ago?
I worked in media and investment banking in New York and London, and even though those were both very male-dominated, I had great mentors who gave me tons of responsibility and welcomed my style as a go-getter. Then I arrived in Silicon Valley and I ended up at a start-up. The second day on the job, my new boss pulled me aside and told me my style scared the secretaries, that I’m too aggressive. I didn’t even know why. I went and started interviewing for another job.
Where do you find “sisterhood” and support in the tech world?
I think about the sisterhood and the benefit of having “grown up” in Silicon Valley with women like Sheryl Sandberg, who is an old and dear friend from our Google days, Theresia Gouw (Aspect Ventures) and Aileen Lee (Cowboy Ventures). We’ve had children together. We’ve seen each other at our worst and best moments. We lived through a pretty phenomenal period in the Internet. What I see happening now is there’s a whole new level of sisterhood—an intergenerational sisterhood. I feel like I sit between two groups of women, which is awesome. All these founders who are much younger than me include me in their sisterhood because I’m an entrepreneur again.
How do you juggle your roles as CEO, mother, and wife?
I don’t believe in balance on a daily basis. You go through cycles where you’re going to sacrifice some other part of your life pretty deeply, whether it’s helping with your kids’ homework or running a company. All you can do is manage expectations and manage your own guilt. My biggest life hack is establishing a support system. It makes a tremendous difference. My other life hack is that I never schedule anything on the weekend.
What do you do in your free time?
I bake with my kids. Baking is something I enjoy and they enjoy doing it with me. I have a sweet tooth, they have a sweet tooth. I know it’s indulgent. I don’t care.