Office Hours: I am a Harvard Kennedy School researcher focused on advancing gender equality in venture capital and entrepreneurship.Featured

Hi Elphas! I'm a gender and organizations researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, and I recently published an academic study on advancing gender equality in venture capital and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I am a Research Fellow studying gender equality in organizations at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. My life’s work is to advance gender equality in the workplace through research and research translation. That means that I work at the intersection of academia and practice: I both conduct research on how organizations can become more inclusive, and I bring those research insights to practitioners through speaking, training and workshops (and cool formats like these Office Hours!). My past academic work has included studying culture and leadership at the senior levels of the world’s largest tech companies; identifying evidence-based ways to promote gender diversity in various sectors including consumer products and the media; and designing a paid parental leave policy for a city government. You may be particularly interested in my recent study on advancing gender equality in venture capital and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, available here.As a speaker and expert advisor, I often collaborate with organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies to close gender gaps. I also frequently present at conferences around the world, and my work has appeared in media outlets including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, BBC, Fast Company, Bloomberg News, and Forbes. I have an MBA from Harvard Business School, a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a BA in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard College.Ask me anything about bias in VC and entrepreneurship, and more importantly, what the research says about leveling the playing field in those domains!
Thanks so much for joining us @sirichilazi!Elphas – please ask @sirichilazi all your questions before this Thursday. She may not have time to answer them all, so please emoji upvote the ones you're most interested in.
Thanks for all the work you’re doing to advance women in entrepreneurship. In your opinion, which women-centric funds, accelerators or incubators are doing it best?
Thank you so much for your question! To be honest, this is a difficult one to answer because there is very little publicly available data out there on the gender-related data for different funds, accelerators and incubators (on things like the gender composition of their workforce/cohorts, the gender composition of their investment portfolio etc.). And the few funds that do release their data often provide select, curated metrics that cannot be independently verified. So my number one wish would be for investors and incubators to start making these types of data public - and better yet, to start setting goals for how to improve the numbers. Research from other domains shows that data, transparency and public accountability are key to behavior change. So if we want more women in the venture ecosystem, we need to be able to compare funds/accelerators/incubators against each other and hold their feet to the fire to see improvements over time.
Thank you! Do you think that orgs like All Raise are doing this type of work?
My pleasure! Yes, All Raise is definitely collecting a whole host of amazing data on gender across the VC ecosystem, although I haven't seen them address your specific question (yet). Other major data providers for the VC industry that we used for our study, in case that's helpful, are Crunchbase, Pitchbook, and the NVCA/Deloitte Human Capital study.
@sirichilaziThank you for engaging and committing yourself and your work to the advancement of women.What do you suggest women can do today to navigate bias by VC's and as Entreprenuers?
Thank you for this great question. The first thing I'd like to emphasize is that I don't fundamentally believe that it's women's responsibility to fix a broken system. The evidence (e.g. our study: is clear that women are currently being unfairly disadvantaged in the venture funding process due to systemic bias. And I would argue that it is the job of the "managers" of that system - i.e. the (mostly) white male VCs currently in power - to fix it. But that said, I totally appreciate that until the system gets fixed, lots and lots of women entrepreneurs need to navigate the current landscape. So here is my evidence-based advice:1. Answer investors’ questions using promotion framing, emphasizing gains and opportunities. Dana Kanze and colleagues have done fascinating research ( showing that female founders tend to get asked prevention-oriented questions about threats, downside and the potential for losses in their venture (66% of the time; questions like “How long will it take you to break even?” or “How predictable are your cash flows?”) whereas male founders tend to get asked promotion-oriented questions about opportunities, upside and the potential for gains (67% of the time; questions like “How do you plan to monetize this?” or “What major milestones are you targeting for this year?”). In their study of the TechCrunch Disrupt New York funding competition from 2010 to 2016, Kanze and colleagues showed that this difference in the line of questioning drove the enormous gender gap in funding they observed, whereby male-led ventures raised 5x more funding overall than female-led ones. So my advice is no matter what question you get asked by VCs, formally or informally, emphasize upside and growth potential in your answers using a promotion frame.2. Signal fit with traditionally "entrepreneurial" traits. This does NOT mean being inauthentic or behaving “like a man” just to fit in (I would never suggest that to anyone!). Rather, it means being purposeful about framing your past experiences, traits and abilities in a way that fits with what investors are looking for when you are speaking with them or pitching to them. Knowing that most investors are looking for evidence of traits like creativity, passion, adaptability, technical ability and work ethic, try to highlight those as you’re seeking funding and/or advice.3. Use your connections strategically. As we all know, the networks in VC and investing tend to be very male-dominated and difficult to break into for “outsiders”, i.e., women and people of color who have traditionally been excluded from or minimally represented in these networks. However, even as an "outsider”, you can leverage your connections to signal legitimacy and competence. As an example, if you know one well-respected VC (or have a well-respected entrepreneur as your mentor/advisor/Board member), use that person’s connections and presence to open doors for you and to get taken seriously.4. Lastly, maybe seek funding from female investors. The evidence is actually mixed on whether female VCs fund female entrepreneurs more than their male colleagues; but there is evidence to suggest that female founders with at least one female investor do better than female founders with an all-male investor team.
@sirichilazi Wow this is mind blowing and game changing at the same time. I appreciate your insight and your position. My homework definitely includes reading the research links you provided above. Thank you again. I was not expecting to be transformed by your answer. Thanks @elpha for creating this space. You realize people treat you differently, you even know why they do it. When you know how they do it, you level the playing field.
Thank you so much, Khanesia! I'm really glad to hear you found the information helpful. I wish you all the very best!
Thanks @sirichilazi, for your work and open forum for questions!I'm curious if there is greater effectiveness for gender equality through the change of existing institutional structures and systems (i.e. funding for entrepreneurs and VC roles), or if there is greater effectiveness through the creation of new funds and organizations with focus on gender equality in teams and investment practices. I don't necessarily see the solution as an either/or, or even just these two paths. As an individual who wants to contribute to progress in these fields, wondering what might be most successful.
Terrific question, Rachel - thank you! I think you are spot on in that the solution is not either/or. I would say that female-focused and/or BIPOC-focused investment funds are invaluable to the entrepreneurs that have raised capital through them, and they are certainly a beneficial addition to the venture ecosystem. But that said, it's important to recognize that by themselves they are not the solution to venture capital’s gender equality problem. As of 2018, there are less than 100 VC funds with a stated mandate to invest in female founders, and collectively they are estimated to have no more than one billion dollars to deploy. The overall U.S. venture capital industry, by comparison, comprises more than 1,400 firms and invested a total of $130+ billion in venture capital in 2019. So it is clear that female-focused VC funds and investors remain marginal players in the industry due to their small size – at least for now. And given women’s low representation as VCs, the female-focused investment model will struggle to scale since there simply aren’t enough female VCs today to make the volume of investments that would yield system-wide impact on the gender funding gap. For truly transformative change, we will need "mainstream" VC firms to also embrace equity and diverse in their investment and hiring strategies.
Thanks so much for your insights! This is eye opening and helped me understand the scope of these two paths, as well as the reasoning for both to have impact.
My pleasure, Rachel! Thank you again for the terrific question. :)
Hi Siri & thx for the AMA. My question/comment is there's a gap for women Founders who don't feel as comfortable going to F&F and need to code and test an MVP. But also more women (than men) aren't coders so can't do so w/o a Tech Co-Founder. I went to a women's pitch night and 80% of the women said they were look'g for a tech co-founder. Is anyone out there matching up tech resources to create / test MVP with micro-funding to get legal org, structure and shares properly issued and get past that critical first step? This is greatly needed for women Founders to get past the bottleneck of getting great people & concepts out of the gate. Thx!
That's an excellent question, Jo! I unfortunately don't know the answer, but I'm hoping that someone else in the Elpha community might. Please reply here if you have ideas or suggestions for Jo!
Tysm ✌🏼
I have a belief that VCs owe their investors a fiduciary duty to maximize returns and that looking at a limited span of deal flow inhibits the ability to fulfill this fiduciary duty. Is there data to support that the limited network of deals most VCs invest in don’t reflect the full opportunity available to them? Or are the VCs kingmakers whose investments decide winners and losers?
Such a fantastic question! I completely share your view that VCs are in the business of maximizing returns. And I would also agree with you that VCs are currently looking at a limited span of deal flow, as evidenced by the numbers. Only approximately 9% of venture-backed entrepreneurs are women, and 80% are White. As for the potential pool, according to the NVCA, the proportion of female-(co-)founded startups jumped from 9.5% in 2009 to 18% in 2014; however, in 2019, all-female founding teams (or solo female founders) received only 2.7% of VC funding in the U.S., and mixed-gender founding teams received another 11.8% (and in case you're curious, the 30-year average of that number is 2.4% - in other words, in 30 years, we've essentially not increased the share of venture funding going to all-female founding teams at all). So there is a gap, and female entrepreneurs are not funded proportionally to their representation in the pool of founders, i.e., potential investments. This supports your hypothesis that VCs are investing in a way that doesn't reflect the opportunity available to them. I would also add that outside of the pure venture world, the number of women entrepreneurs is much closer to 50-50, and women of color represent America’s fastest-growing entrepreneurial segment: the number of Latina-owned firms grew by 172% and the number of Black women-owned firms grew by 164% in the last decade, both at a rate that is over 14 times the national average. Finally, there is also excellent research by Paul Gompers and colleagues that shows that VCs tend to have networks that are demographically similar to themselves. So since most VCs are white men, most of the entrepreneurs they naturally cross paths with (and ultimately fund) are white men as well, which tilts the playing field in their favor.
Thank you so much for this! This has been a continuing conversation in several circles I’m in. I’ve been hearing excuses that women don’t found as many companies or the companies they found aren’t as good. It’s interesting that 80% of funding goes to companies with white founders. That’s a great data point to show that the field is tilted against other underrepresented groups as well.
Appreciate you and your work! I’m a fellow researcher & founder - living in the space of research and praxis. I am ABD in my doctorate. Working on my dissertation as we speak so I can defend and be done by end of 2020. I study sustainable trauma healing in mental health and how transformative this work is in organizations & the lived experience. My dissertation research is specifically on pathways to sustainable trauma healing for survivors of sexual violence. I just wanted to say thank you for reminding me I CAN be a researcher and an entrepreneur. Sometimes I forgot and feel very lonely. 🙋🏻‍♀️ Question: how did you become a fellow with Harvard & with all the changes currently going on in Education, is Harvard looking at offering more virtual fellowships?
Dear Melissa, Thank you so much for your lovely message and for the amazing work that you do! I would love to read your thesis when ready. Combining research with practice is POWERFUL!I have been passionate about gender equality all my life but it didn't really hit me that it could be my full-time career until graduate school. And funnily enough, I was initially exploring practitioner roles (i.e., D&I roles in organizations) until an opportunity came up to do a yearlong academic research project embedded in a large tech company with some colleagues at Harvard Business School. That project got me hooked on the intersection of academic and practice, where I still am today. I love generating knowledge through research, but I think it's equally important that that knowledge gets communicated to the people on the front lines in organizations who can make a difference with it. And fortunately, that is what I get to do in my work!I wish you all the very best. Harvard is looking into anything and everything virtual at the moment, given the broader changes in our world, so I wouldn't be surprised if virtual fellowships became a thing. I would encourage you to follow the Harvard Kennedy School because we have several different types of fellowships there.Warmly,Siri
Thank you, Siri! I would love to share my thesis with you once it is done. And thank you so much for your thoughtful response and sharing and work in this world!!
Hello Siri! Thank you for sharing your work and making this office hours happening. I'm Masa, a solo founder/full-stack developer at my company Sokett. I wanted to learn about LGBTQ+ friendly VC folks based on their portfolio you may know. Thank you, I appreciate your insights.
Thank you so much for your question, Masa! I am very sorry to say that I unfortunately don't know much about the LGBTQ+-friendly VC space, but I hope that other members of the Elpha community will. Please respond here if you have suggestions for Masa!
Have you looked into Backstage Capital?
Thank you for sharing your research! I currently work at VC firm that invests with a gender-lens so this is very near and dear to me. (Happy to connect separately if helpful) I'm curious to know whether on the investor side, you see change being be driven by exiting firms or by new firms. On the existing firm side it's been argued that most capital is being driven there so diverse hiring is the best solution to advancing women.On the new firm side it's been argued that partnerships are difficult to break into, thus women starting their own firms will drive the change.
Thank you for the excellent question, Madeline! See my response to @rachellord above. I think, absolutely, new partnerships will be an important avenue to bring more diverse people and voices into the ecosystem. But at the same time, if 88-90% of the existing VC industry continues to be dominated by men as investment decision-makers - the way it is today - there is only so much change we'll be able to accomplish. It will be incredibly important for "traditional" VC firms to drive the change toward more D&I through their own hiring and investing practices. These established firms also play an important role model function in the whole industry. Older firms with established reputations and track records influence what other firms do and what they value, so if they signal a seriousness about D&I, it is likely to spread faster throughout other firms.
Thank you for your amazing and impactful work!My cofounder and I (both female BIPOC) are building a startup in the AI + healthcare space and are looking to raise capital in the near future! Our startup is building an AI-enhanced app to help patients and caregivers manage their health conditions (e.g. cancer) and health information easily.Do you have any tips on:1) How we can best position ourselves to push back against VC biases? (e.g. should we put more emphasis on our expertise? be more aggressive about negotiating?)2) Are there similar biases when trying to hire talent (e.g. will people not want to work for us because they don't think we are qualified to lead?) and how can we best position ourselves to push back against those biases?Relatedly, do you have any tips for how women can navigate biases if they want to become VCs themselves?Thank you so much for your time! :)
Thank you for your excellent question! In addition to everything I said in my response to @khanesiahw above:1) Your intuition is correct that many of the traits VCs are looking for are traditionally male-stereotyped in our culture: aggressiveness, confidence, drive, ambition, charisma and so on. So to the extent that you can tap into some of these characteristics and show that you can display them when necessary, you probably have a better chance of gaining funding. At the same time, paradoxically, there is one study showing that female founders have more success in fundraising when they highlight the social impact of their ventures ( This is hypothesized to be because when talking about social benefit (which fits perfectly with your venture, by the way!), women are actually conforming to the social stereotypes that expect them to be caring and communal. If this sounds like somewhat conflicting advice, it is; at the end of the day, I would also say be true to yourself first and foremost.2) There is actually not much research that I'm aware of to suggest that potential employees discriminate against women/BIPOC employers (although, to be fair, I don't believe this has been studied in the start-up setting, so such bias could very well exist). My recommendation here would be to focus on building a diverse and excellent team from the beginning - after all, the data show that diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams. Besides, you probably wouldn't want to hire people who don't believe you're qualified to lead anyway, right? As for trying to become a VC, based on what I understand about the industry as an outsider (I've only studied it but never worked in it), I would suggest networking as widely as possible, and trying to find people who can teach you the ropes and make introductions. In our study, we consistently heard VCs describe their industry as "apprenticeship-based", meaning that in place of formal structures and processes, people learn and advance by having advisors/mentors/sponsors/sage elders teach them how things work and support them along (this is, in fact, one of venture's biggest problems from a bias standpoint: these types of informal, network-based environments tend to be breeding grounds for unconscious bias). Congratulations on your venture and very best of luck in the funding journey. :)
Thank you for all the meaningful work you do! What strategies can organizations implement to promote a culture that encourages women to advanced to leadership(especially BIPOC women) ? Specifically interested in how this can be done for early stage start ups (<100 employees) where there aren’t very clearly defined career ladders yet
This is a terrific question, Janine! Thank you. Here are a few evidence-based ideas that companies can hopefully put into practice right away:1. Make sure that diverse groups, including BIPOC women, are represented in your workforce from the beginning. There is really no substitute for the presence of diverse people in organizations, because seeing is believing. Having, for example, BIPOC women on a team makes it easier to attract more of them because they can see that the environment is conducive to their success. The earlier you start with a diverse team, the easier it is to maintain a diverse team going forward. And in small, early-stage startups, you can get creative with this. Even if you're not planning on officially hiring more people for a while, could you bring more diverse individuals onto the team as advisors, Board members, mentors or other affiliates?2. Focus on building and reinforcing inclusive social norms, i.e., the shared but often unspoken understandings of what behaviors are expected and accepted on the team. For example, is it OK to be on our devices in meetings? What happens when someone makes an offensive comment - is it overlooked, or do other people step in and challenge it? When someone gets interrupted in a meeting, do we react and interrupt the interrupter, or do we let it go? Behavioral science tells us that we humans are remarkably receptive to norms and remarkably attuned to other people's behaviors. We want to fit in, and we are adept at reading subtle cues about what behaviors are acceptable in a given environment. Having these types of norm conversations in the open and being purposeful about the culture we are creating can help to make sure that we foster an environment where everyone feels valued, heard and respected. It can also help to prevent or nip in the bud toxic behaviors like harassment.3. Ensure that opportunities to shine (a.k.a. stretch assignments, high-visibility work) are equally distributed. We have a term in the academic literature - performance support bias - that refers to the phenomenon whereby resources and support for career advancement are not evenly distributed in organizations. I have witnessed it in every organization I have ever studied or worked with. In practice, performance support bias means that some people end up getting more face time with the senior leadership (inside or outside the office); more opportunities to represent the company externally at conferences; more high-profile assignments; or more invitations to investor/client meetings. But the good news is it can be measured, tracked, and thereby eradicated. Even on a small team, you can measure things like how often someone presents in front of the senior leadership team, or how many mentors/sponsors someone has inside and outside the firm. And then, if you discover gaps between groups of workers (like women and men, or white employees and employees of color), you can intentionally close them.
Siri, thanks for being here! A few questions: -What steps can women in roles in VC take to mitigate the effects of bias on their advancement? Is the bias bad enough that women should consider not going into VC? How much difference is there between bias in big tech, and bias in VC? (I'm interviewing for roles in both so am especially curious!)-What advice do you have for women who have primarily male peers in their workplace? -Do you have any data on women working in VC Operations roles, or thoughts on how women VCs can be most effective when working with their portfolio companies to try to improve portfolio company diversity and inclusion?
Thank you for these terrific questions, Kate!I am sad to say that the evidence shows that women do face significant bias as venture capitalists - but then again, there is no organization in the world where women don't face some amount of bias. So I truly hope that this doesn't discourage you from going into VC, because the industry desperately needs more women in all types of roles! The biggest take-away from our research study ( for women in VC is to seek out professional support (mentors/sponsors) both inside AND outside their own VC firms (here is a great research paper on this: Since VC is a highly networked industry, and individual VCs often syndicate/collaborate on deals with VCs from other firms, it seems to be particularly important to have people in your firm and in other firms who can funnel you investment opportunities, bring you onto deals, and provide advice.As for the differences between big tech and VC - both of which I've studied, incidentally - I would say the biggest one is the structure and formality in processes that stems from organizational size. Larger tech firms tend to have more structured (and, research suggests, therefore more objective and less biased) processes for things like hiring, performance evaluation, and promotions. In small VC firms, by contrast, many of these types of decisions tend to be made very informally and ad hoc, which exacerbates biases. The other difference, of course, is numbers. While women and people of color are severely underrepresented in both tech and VC, VC is pretty much one of the most gender-skewed industries in the whole U.S. economy.My advice for women who have primarily male peers in their workplace would not be that different from my advice to other women regarding managing their own career. Undoubtedly, being in a very gender-skewed workplace presents more challenges (and forces women to contend with many more biases) than working in a more gender-equal workplace; but sadly, there are no "silver bullet" strategies that women can deploy to overcome this. So I would say seek feedback actively; network up and down in the organization; seek out people who can serve as mentors/sponsors/advisors/supporters; ask, ask, ask for opportunities, new projects, and chances to shine (instead of waiting to be given them); and, of course, do your best work (which I have no doubt you're already doing given that you're asking this question!).And finally, as part of our study, we unfortunately didn't look into women in VC operations roles, although the NVCA/Deloitte human capital surveys ( do have some data on this.Best of luck in your job search!
Siri is amazing! Her work is super impactful. Thanks for sharing your learnings and advice with us, Siri!
Thank you so much, Shivani! I really appreciate your kind words and support. :)
I APPRECIATE YOU AND YOUR WORK. That's all I want to say for this post.
Thank you so very much, Laurie! I really appreciate your wonderful sentiments. :)
Happy to read your research. Are you looking into board seats as a metric at all? Whether or not partners sit on boards, how they are distributed across funds/portfolios, or as a tool to address access and network gaps?
Thank you so much for the question, Laura! Our study did not look into Board representation, unfortunately - in part because the data is often very difficult to find - but you may find this recent article interesting: