What Vivek Wadhwa taught us

Background
Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen two people I know become involved in an intense situation. They are Mary Trigiani, a board director of one of my companies, StartupHouse, and Vivek Wadhwa, the writer and speaker who I met several years ago and for some time was on his private mailing list.

Separate to the above, as a guy who doesn’t like how someone, on the face of it, was promoting women and was trashed quite explicitly — I’ve been talking to Trigiani to reconcile my own thoughts on what is happening.

I had no desire to enter the public conversation because there are enough people jumping on that bandwagon. But after being referred to a Facebook thread of tech personalities discussing the issue, seeing how Francisco Dao misses the point, and reading “What kind of a message does this give to other men who want to champion women?” I feel it’s no longer a question.  We are missing some perspective here.

Been under a rock? There’s a lot of background to this, like the Newsweek article that kicked it off, Amelia Greenhall’s blog post, the podcast that was taken down, the replacement podcast and the Verge interview. But if you only have time for one, here is The New York Times about the whole episode.

Why Vivek Wadhwa Failed
What Wadhwa did in the wake of Amelia Greenhall’s blog post and NPR chat is a lesson for anyone, male or female, in how not to react to criticism.

The issue is grounded in the fact that Wadhwa decided himself to become the champion for women, using what he calls his research as a platform.  He wasn’t elected, but he has been deposed, I think, because of the lack of leadership — openness, understanding, listening, managing — he exhibited when criticised for his behavior (like for example, how he used his research to claim authority on behalf of women in areas the research didn’t cover).  He caused outrage because he silenced female critics and challengers (what fueled the fight), using bad Twitter and social media etiquette (where the discussions occurred), and what they believe was just his hogging of the limelight (the basis, for some, of their initial frustration).

To put a specific example of showing my point: Wadhwa called women “ token floozies” and Trigiani expressed concerns. Wadhwa then claimed it was due to his non-English speaking background and claimed she has personal issues. That’s not what a leader does.

Wadhwa damaged his own credibility by doing things like this.  As sorry as some of us may feel for seeing what some considered to be a good name trashed (including myself), he did this to himself — and it disappoints me he won’t take responsibility.  As a leader, you need to listen and adapt. You need to own your mistakes and move forward. You need to be aware what you say and do has an impact — but also realise that not responding is a statement in itself. Wadhwa, despite the impression of doing good in the big picture sense, has failed in the details as a champion and has actually done harm to the conversation he claims he was trying to lead by letting his ego get in the way.  As another case in point: after promising quite dramatically that he was exiting the conversation, he continues to return each time someone mentions his name in good favour on the topic.

Let’s stop denying the truth
It’s obvious to say, but I’m going to say it anyway: men and women really are different.  As in every endeavor when people of different cultures, wiring, and experience come together, there is scope for misunderstanding and potential conflict.  So for now, there is at best discovery and at worst tension between the sexes and we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Today’s leaders need to celebrate the differences and make it work for whatever endeavor is on the table.  I’m not using that as a line to make this post cliche-perfect but because I’ve actually seen it with my own eyes. I’ve worked on Sand Hill as a VC, in SoMa at a startup, travelled around the US, Europe and Australia to speak at events and mentor startups. But more relevantly, as a founder who runs two very different businesses (but have in common that they are community-centric businesses) — the global events-based “StartupBus” and the Silicon Valley real-estate based “StartupHouse” — I’ve always felt the need to understand these issues because it concerns my customers, employees and board of directors.

I have seen first-hand how a gender-balanced team leads to a stronger business both strategically and in operations. For example, we’ve attracted and retained a lot more customers because some women feel more comfortable when they see women in staff and management positions.  We’ve also become aware of issues that didn’t even cross the minds of the males on the team — including the board of directors that Trigiani sits on — that we’ve now acted on as a priority, making both male and female customers happier. Female employees bring a different perspective and have brought insights to me before anyone else in the team that affected team dynamics and even insights into approaching the market.  I could list many more but I cannot without giving specific examples that affect the business’s competitiveness.  The point is, it’s good business to have a gender-balanced team. The advocacy of stories like this is what Wadhwa should be remembered for his contributions, despite his failed leadership.

What we can do about it, together
To make the differences work in the female-male realm, both men and women in positions of leadership need to acknowledge the frustrations some women experience (such as unwanted advances and idea thievery). We need to stop denying these are ingrained habits, stop ignoring them, and stop them when we are in a position to do so.  Perhaps most important in this particular situation at this particular moment, all men — not just those in leadership positions — have to honour women’s outrage and support their expression of it.  We have to listen and suppress the “buts” as this anger is based on personal experience.  It is real and we have to welcome the expression of it.

As an executive and as a guy, I have made gigantic mistakes and wound up on the firing line.  What I’ve done differently from Wadhwa is that I took it.  Every shot with no reaction.  I asked what I did wrong and went to great effort to understand what I did to cause my offense.  My lesson from this is when you are criticised, you need to display humility. You need to stop feeding the anger by denying another person’s experience or criticising how they express it.  You need to issue one public statement saying you acknowledge what you did without pretending you didn’t say it or making excuses; simply acknowledge you now understand how you may have been wrong.  Do yourself the favour and make a genuine effort to understand it.

What I learned in this time of reflection is that men need to be conscious of how anything we say or do can be interpreted as patriarchal, intimidating, or sexual.  It may be we are none of those, but by ignoring our tone, we give people ammunition to further pull us down — but this is key, as language matters. Instead, give people what they want:  that we listened and heard them.

You may feel women should not share their personal experiences or express outrage regarding this particular situation with Wadhwa.  That may be debatable, but the presence of and need for women in the workplace are facts of life.  So whatever your position on how people express themselves, make sure you realise that women deserve to be heard.  By defending Wadhwa’s reaction to his challengers and criticising women (who he claimed to represent) for sharing their personal experiences with him and their subsequent outrage, you are denying those experiences and ignoring their voices.  That’s not helpful.

Dudes — let me just make my point super clear. When it comes to women’s issues in technology and society, before you open your mouth, let the women have the mic first. Get comfortable with amplifying their messages and supporting them — rather than putting the message out there yourself. We’ve had our shot at being the messengers, and from my vantage point, not only are women more qualified on the topic, but we’ve messed up enough that it’s time to stand back. There is enough debate between women themselves on how they approach this issue: our role is to listen and support the viewpoints that makes sense for men and women.

Which means the next time something like this happens (and you know it will), do us all a favor and be quiet.  Which is what Wadhwa should have done in the first place.

So to follow my own advice, here are the words of Jamie Roth, a woman on the StartupBus Global Council (what I’m developing to be the community elected aspect of the board of directors for StartupBus, my other company) which is this: “I’m glad you’re posting this — it’s important for men’s voices to be a part of the conversation. I don’t think the answer should be ‘keep quiet,’ though. It should be ‘don’t be a dick’.”

Many thanks to Jennifer Shaw, Jamie Roth, Falon Fatemi, Rose Jeantet and Mary Trigiani for their feedback on the draft of this post

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